It's September, and while the stores haven't started hanging wreaths and hawking cheesy holiday knick-knacks yet, our department is preparing to order end-of-year holiday card to send to our donors. This year, I have been charged with the selection.
Holiday cards have become so charged lately. My holiday celebration is fairly secular, appreciating my family and friends by giving gifts and spending time with my loved ones. But there are people everywhere who create storms of vitriol over calling things "Christmas" or "Hanukkah" or "[insert end-of-year holiday name here]." Particularly Christians who are lobbying for Christmas.
I despise the horrible-ness that people display at this time of year instead of tolerance. I would love to shout to all of them that the United States was begun with people running away from religious intolerance, and trying to find a place to worship without hatred.
And so, in the spirit of spreading the word that religious tolerance and co-existence can, in fact, happen, I provide you with this story from a college in Atlanta, GA. It was written by a newly minted college president.
When I arrived at Oglethorpe, there were few signs of religious life on the campus. That was another surprise, given my assumptions about religious activism in the South. The fact that there was no appreciable Jewish presence on the campus hardly registered with me until the spring of 2006, when a young student and his mother sat in my office, trying to decide where Nathaniel would enroll (yes, I do want to talk to every high-school student who visits our campus, and that was a surprise, too).
Nathaniel had been accepted to many institutions but had narrowed his choices to Oglethorpe and to a larger, more well-known university nearby. The family is Jewish, and since I am Oglethorpe's first Jewish president in its almost 200-year history, Nathaniel wanted to know about Jewish life at the college. The other university he was considering had, literally, a thousand Jewish students and a well-established organizational structure for them.
Here was my moment of truth. How truthful was I prepared to be?
I took a deep breath and said, "Well, Nathaniel, that's a great question. It's true that if you go to [that university], you will find it easy to participate in religious life and maybe in a few years you might take a leadership position in one of their many Jewish organizations. On the other hand, if you come to Oglethorpe, you can start our Jewish student association and be president from day one. You can change this place, and I will help."
I knew that soliloquy would not be persuasive for many 17-year-olds, and I was fairly certain at the end of the meeting that neither Nathaniel nor his mom were convinced of my logic.
After the fall semester got under way, however, I glanced up one day to see Nathaniel in his Atlanta Braves hat, walking across the campus. We chatted briefly. Neither of us mentioned anything about religion. If I recall, we talked baseball. Several weeks later, I saw a notice posted in our student center announcing an upcoming meeting inviting students interested in forming a Jewish student association to attend.
By the end of Nathaniel's first year at Oglethorpe, his vision and energy had stimulated three other student religious groups to spring up or be resurrected.
One of those groups was the source of yet another surprise. It came last spring when Mustafa Abdullah, the founder of the newly formed Muslim Student Association on the campus, came and asked me to be the club's faculty adviser. My first thought, naturally, was, What would my mother think? Two seconds later (her line was busy), I said yes, I would be honored to serve.
In addition, the Jewish, Catholic, Christian, and Muslim student associations jointly sponsored an interfaith movie night. Mustafa Abdullah selected a movie about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Nathaniel and others collectively cooked a meal of culinary delights that would be served at a traditional Passover Seder and at an Easter Sunday celebration. Mustafa began the evening welcoming the crowd in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, wishing everyone peace.
Not surprisingly, I was incredibly proud.
I anticipate wading through a lot of different holiday card styles and trying to find something that reflects the image of my institution, that won't offend anyone. Even though it offends me that people must make such a scene over a card, that, image of a wreath aside, is intended to send good wishes.