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3Qs: A new model of religious and spiritual life on campus, and beyond

Alexander Levering Kern is the executive director of Northeastern’s new Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service — which builds upon and expands the work of the former Spiritual Life Center. The Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service is charged with designing innovative programs that explore spirituality, religious diversity, intercultural competence, and civic engagement at the local and global levels. Kern arrives at Northeastern from Brandeis University, where he served as the Protestant Christian Chaplain and directed the Brandeis University Interfaith Leadership Development Fellows program. Kern was also the executive director of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, Greater Boston’s oldest interfaith social action network. We asked him to discuss the center’s mission and its plans to engage the Northeastern community.

How does the center’s model align with Northeastern’s teaching mission?

Northeastern’s mission is to educate students for a life of fulfillment and accomplishment, to create and translate knowledge to meet global and societal needs, and the center is integral to this mission. To be an educated global citizen, one must have some basic understanding of religion and culture. Whether our students go on to work in business, engineering, professional sports, the arts or international diplomacy, they will be working alongside people who will not think, speak, pray or respond to conflict in the same ways as they do. I believe we all need to develop basic interfaith and intercultural competencies to address our shared global and societal challenges.

Since I arrived, I’ve seen the “I am Northeastern” motto a great deal, and I’ve been thinking about that from a spiritual perspective. On this campus, we can say with pride, “I am Jewish, I am Christian, I am Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or humanist, I am spiritual but not formally religious, and yes, and I am Northeastern. And even more than that, we can say I am a citizen of the global village. We are part of something much greater than ourselves — our family, our community, our university, our nation, our planet. At Northeastern, we have many opportunities to live out our true identities, and to become the community that the world needs us to be.

It has been amazing to see our international students stream onto campus for their orientation this week. The first international student family I met was from Thailand, from the Sikh community, the faith that was targeted in the recent hate crime in Wisconsin. To watch this mother and father deliver their son here only weeks after that awful tragedy was a powerful experience for me, and to engage them in dialogue from my own location – as a Quaker, a Christian, and a U.S. citizen – was a moment of real learning. This is the kind of encounter that Northeastern makes possible. To welcome this family to the Northeastern family, and to have them welcome me into their world for a brief moment, was a powerful reminder: we need one another, for at the deepest level, we are one.

How have your previous experiences prepared you for this new role at Northeastern?

I’ve spent the last 18 years of my professional life at the intersection of higher education, interfaith leadership and civic engagement in the U.S. and abroad. I am truly grateful for this new adventure, and I understand the enormous opportunity that exists at Northeastern to pioneer and innovate a new model of religious life on campus and a new model of global leadership development, supporting our students as they tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

I’ve worked extensively in major U.S. cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and my hometown of Washington D.C., as well places of extreme need and conflict abroad. My work has involved interfaith and intercultural dialogue, bridge-building work, and direct service, including working with Haitian earthquake survivors in 2010 and traveling to Nigeria as part of the State Department-funded delegation for Christian-Muslim peace building in 2009. Using what I have learned from these experiences, I am eager to help foster an ethos of shared service and global citizenship and to equip our students with the skills and competencies our world so desperately needs.

How will the center engage students, and the entire Northeastern community, on campus?

We are in the midst of strategic planning for the center, but the contours of our work are clear. We’ll continue and expand the wonderful pastoral work at the Sacred Space in Ell Hall, offering ample opportunities for spiritual practice, meditation, worship and prayer in the midst of our busy lives. We will draw on rich resources across the university and in greater Boston, developing strategic partnerships and supporting new and returning religious leaders to serve our students. We’ll design dialogue programs that will develop student leadership skills in ethical and moral reflection. We will set a tone for a new kind of conversation on campus and in the public square about issues that matter, seeking common ground and reverencing the sacred seed that dwells in each one of us. We’ll mentor student organizations of all cultures and faiths to help students better understand their own religious and cultural traditions. By understanding themselves and where they have come from, our students will be better prepared to navigate where we will move as a society.

We will work closely with the African American, Latino/a, Asian American and Social Justice Resource Centers, among others. Already we are envisioning exciting new collaborative programs, such as a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Interfaith Service for greater Boston. The Center is inherently interdisciplinary and designed to connect classroom learning with the wider community. I’ve already begun connecting with many departments and student groups such as Hillel, the Islamic Society of Northeastern, the Hindu student group, the Catholic Center, and others. I can envision developing new Alternative Spring Break opportunities, new study abroad experiences, national conferences and symposia, and new opportunities to explore the unique religious and social justice history of Boston.

At Northeastern, the globe is our classroom, and when we look at the serious problems that our students will face, interreligious and intercultural conflict ranks high among them. Structures of peace and interfaith/intercultural cooperation need to be created, from the local to the global level. Never has there been a more important time for work such as this, and Northeastern is perfectly positioned to help lead the way.

Looking ahead to the fall semester, the center will be present at Monday’s Xplosaic cultural festival on Centennial Common (from 2 to 4 p.m.), and our open house is scheduled for Sept. 20. Our Religious and Spiritual Advisors and student groups are already planning worship services and a range of amazing activities. We will remember Sept. 11 in front of Ell Hall, and join with our faith communities as they observe their holidays this fall. Great things await, and leaders are needed from the entire Northeastern community to make this vision real.

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