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On March 24, 1980, then Archbishop Oscar Romero, a hero of the El Salvadorian people and a champion for Liberation Theology (Christian) was shot and killed after nearly three years of vocal dissent against the El Salvadorian army and government’s oppression of its people. Soldiers had been ordered to fire upon innocent civilians if needed and what became known as “death squads” roamed throughout much of the country. A day after speaking to a soldier about his need to come back to his core identity, thus walking away from these death squads and returning to a life of peace and justice, an organized assassination took place in a small parish while Romero was serving communion.
With the 35th anniversary of his death and assassination taking place this week, Romero’s impact remains heavy on the hearts of Catholics but also speaks volumes of what religious and spiritual identity can be on the college campus.
While much of religious practice has become an evangelism of conversion, Romero’s call for justice and compassion for those he surrounded himself with is exactly the kind of religion that benefits the college campus. In the bubble that is every higher education institution in the country, those religious groups and persons who emphasize a mutual concern for one another speak to the inherent possibilities when universities incorporate religious and spiritual identity into their diversity. Students learn from one another, they become engaged with each other, and see each other eye to eye. And there are more of these groups than one might think hanging around on campus.
But there’s more. With social justice and compassion comes civic engagement. And as many universities are seeking a greater way for students and others to build connections with the needs of their communities, students of religious and spiritual identity who are fostered in a religious experience of justice are highly likely to be a part of the university’s civic engagement efforts. Consider who on your campus just came back from a spring break trip that had anything to do with helping others.
Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen, in their book No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education, speak to this civic engagement as one of six “sites of engagement” that religious groups may have a better grasp at than higher education institutions. The potential for partnership is tremendous amongst these groups and the university. And Romero’s theology does not just represent Catholics or Christians, but speaks to the broader call to care for one another across religions. Rabbi Hillel, once asked to recite the whole of the Torah while standing on one foot, obliged with the following. “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. All the rest is commentary.”
Today’s higher education can learn much from realizing that Oscar Romero is not an isolated figure for Catholic theology, but is a great influence on many Christians across the world. His values speak beyond Christianity though, into the compassion that other traditions embody and that higher education seeks as we train and prepare global citizens. Persons like Romero can be a catalyst for our religious and spiritual members of campus looking for an example and can for us be a way to foster curious about spirituality on our campuses.
A week ago, New York City Mayer Bill De Blasio fulfilled a campaign promise to integrate the New York City public school’s system to include the Muslim Holidays of Eid- al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. The move is historic, both because it complements the inclusion of the Jewish High Holy Days which had previously been incorporated into the calendar some years back and because it overcomes former Mayer Michael’s Bloomberg’s resistance to doing it. But more importantly, it now sets a bar by which every school of higher education in the country could (and should) adhere to.
On the campus of the University of Minnesota, where I work, the lack of support of religious diversity is extremely evident. The University does not recognize holidays for Muslim students, does not have in place adequate dining options to accommodate for the beliefs and practices on campus, and remains woefully ignorant of the need to have appropriate prayer space for a group that has outgrown their space for Friday afternoon prayer. In general, the University is behind the times and generally where many public universities and some private universities remain today.
The move from the Big Apple though gives schools a chance to utilize the precedent in changing the entire structure of the campus calendar. By giving these days off school, the University avoids the challenges of meeting the needs of a certain group of students while having other students continue to attend class. This of course may be too difficult though with the number of hours required in class to meet credit requirements. An alternative method was proposed by Andrew Delblanco in his 2012 book College: What it Was, is, and Should Be. In it, Delbranco argues that universities should simply create “blackout days” where in the university would be restricting itself from holding any form of test or assignment due date on these dates. This means that a student could miss class (a choice that many students make frequently regardless of religious holidays) but that student would not be penalized or pressured to be present. In this way, the college calendar would continue as it seems to have always done, but students could practice their traditions in the ways they feel most comfortable. It also would meet the requests of those non-faith members of campus who do not believe their learning should be affected by these religious holidays.
Either way, the new reality is that higher education can not longer overlook this vital part of human identity and the growing pressure that should come from the largest public school system’s move for inclusion. With almost 20 million college students attending U.S. universities, it is time for those who are in leadership to step forth and make the bold steps that are needed to move from the de facto Christian calendar to one that further encompasses the diversity that exists on campuses and that we hope continues to thrive in our country.