Engaging in dialogue with others, realizing differences and finding commonalities, and joining in a common pursuit of truth are core values at Valparaiso University.
These values were further explored on Monday, Jan. 21, as Valpo celebrated its 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. The Opening Convocation featured keynote speaker Eboo Patel, founder, president, and CEO of the Interfaith Youth Core, who discussed the similarities between the visions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as King’s impact as an interfaith leader.
Patel said he is inspired by King not only as a great American intellectual and leader, but also as a great interfaith leader, pointing out that King viewed faith not as a “bubble of isolation” but as a bridge.
King’s views of faith as a bridge tied directly to Valpo’s theme for this year’s MLK Celebration of Building Bridges: Dream. Dialogue. Service. King, as a Christian man who was strong in faith and conviction, drew inspiration from the message of Gandhi, who, as Patel pointed out, was also strong in faith and conviction as a devout Hindu.
Valparaiso University President Mark A. Heckler also pointed out the connection between the work of King and Gandhi, saying “because Dr. King was open to the message of someone of a faith different from his own, his own understanding of how to affect change peacefully was broadened.”
The message resonated well with the audience, as Valpo has a long history of encouraging the exchange of ideas and broadening individual worldviews. Valpo is a place where students who come from various traditions, perspectives, backgrounds, and life experiences engage with each other about difficult issues — intentionally and respectfully, while living and learning together.
And just as King drew inspiration from Gandhi’s message while holding fast to his own faith, Valpo welcomes the open exchange of differing ideas while staying true to its own Lutheran heritage. Valpo is a distinguished Lutheran community of learning, constituted by people of many and various beliefs and backgrounds in dialogue with one another in common pursuit of truth.
“Dr. King knew that we must work together and truly listen to one another in order to bring about positive change,” Heckler said. “In today’s increasingly globalized society, we have the wonderful opportunity to engage with others from cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds that are different from our own.
“By opening our ears, our minds, our eyes, and our hearts to others, we have the opportunity to learn and grow both as individuals and as a society — to build bridges across cultures, through dreams, dialogue, and service.”
Patel recognized that this year Martin Luther King Jr. Day fell on the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, and that on this day another historic event was taking place — the inauguration of the United States’ first African American president, Barack Obama, into a second term.
In addition to his work with the Interfaith Youth Core, Patel also served on Obama’s Inaugural Faith Council and was asked to come to the White House two weeks after Obama’s inauguration as president in 2009. During the first meeting of this council, Obama laid out his priorities: faith and moral communities need to become more actively involved in service; this service should be done together, by members of different faiths; this involvement will serve as an example to the rest of the world; and more young people need to be involved in leadership roles.
These priorities mirror the fundamentals behind Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core, and they also resonate deeply with the values of Valparaiso University. Valpo encourages students to become thoughtful leaders, to engage with and learn from others from differing perspectives and backgrounds, and to be deeply involved with service to the world.
In recognition of individuals who embody the philosophies held by King and Valparaiso University, as well as Patel and Obama, Convocation participants also saw Heckler honor the recipients of the 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Awards.
Allison Schuette, associate professor of English, and Liz Wuerffel, adjunct professor of art, received the first award for their work on the Welcome Project, a collection of audio and video clips that shed light on the complex state of relationships on Valpo’s campus and in the surrounding Valparaiso community, while helping others discover commonalities.
Moninder “Holly” Singh, director of international students and scholars, was also honored for his work with international students and scholars. Singh has been instrumental in the establishment of the Summer Global Leadership Institute at Valpo, a three-week program for prospective international college students that immerses participants in the American higher education system and the overall university culture.
To close MLK Day festivities at Valpo, Jamil Khoury, founding artistic director of Chicago-based theatre company Silk Road Rising, gave a talk on finding the intersections of culture and what happens when we react with fear rather than compassion.
Several focus sessions took place during the afternoon, one of which continued the comparisons between King and Gandhi’s philosophies. “What Do Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Have in Common? (The Power of Nonviolent Resistance Revisited)” featured videos of inspirational speeches by both leaders, followed by an analysis of the principles of nonviolence and the similarities between the leadership styles of King and Gandhi.
Both men recognized that destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends and identified nonviolence as the relentless pursuit of truthful ends through moral means. The leaders encouraged their followers to stand up for their rights and not to follow unjust laws, urging others to refuse to cooperate with the opponent or submit to the injustice being fought.
As he closed his speech, Patel charged students to think about their own paths of interfaith leadership and how they are building bridges. He pointed out that both King and Obama began their lives as interfaith leaders in their early 20s, not much older than many of the students in attendance.
“Where in your hearts resonates the idea that we are better together in a world that’s trying to convince us every day that we are better divided?” Patel asked. “Where do we go from here — chaos or community?”
These words echoed those from Heckler earlier that morning, as he expressed his excitement for the University community to “go forward and continue to build bridges and learn from others here at Valpo.”