IMG_3487 (4) - CopyThis summer, two days after nine African-American men and women were slaughtered by a white supremacist in Charleston, Furman-Lake-autumn600thousands of people gathered all over the state to hold hands, process outrage, and acknowledge communal sins. As I watched 350+ people from all races, creeds, and religious traditions pour into the Chapel that afternoon, I was hopeful about what a collective response to racism and xenophobia would look like for our country, for the state of South Carolina and for this campus.

I was hopeful then. I am hopeful now.

Even so, I must be clear. That hope is not borne out of ignorance. As a chaplain and as co-chair of Furman’s presidential committee on diversity and inclusion, I carry a host of stories that pain me to my core. I know Catholic students who have been told they are going to hell, Muslim community members who have been told that their tradition is inherently violent, gay and lesbian students who have suffered slurs and blatant disrespect, international students told to go back to where they came from, and the painful list goes on. Perhaps we like to think these things do not happen here, but unfortunately, they do.

We have much to be proud of. We have a long way to go.

Amidst my awareness, exhaustion, and outrage over moments like the ones I just described, I hold to the seemingly outlandish conviction that it is within spaces of great difference, personal, religious, social, and ideological, that the real project of the university comes to life. Homes for higher education were never meant to merely conceptualize democracy for textbook consumption. The real project has always been to facilitate space, learning, and opportunities for the enactment of democracy. This enlivens and enfleshes discourse, calling us into one another’s lives and stories. Here, we sit at tables and live in residence halls and actively listen in classrooms with people who help us grapple with our bias, re-imagine community beyond our well-worn contexts, and embrace the complexity of difference we all pose for one another.

My hope for “what’s next” at Furman is that we will intentionally and joyfully choose to be a place that presses into this grand experiment with equal doses of fervor and care. We must believe that the project is worth our time, and even at the cost of overdramatizing, the grounding force for civilization.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Reverend Maria Swearingen is in her sixth year as associate university chaplain at Furman University. Originally from Texas, she graduated from Baylor University and received her master of divinity from Duke University. She offers pastoral care and interreligious engagement to Furman’s faculty, staff, and students, along with alumni and friends of the university.

*This article first appeared in the Spring issue, Vol.59 issue of The Furman Magazine and is used here with permission.