James Buchanan has vivid memories of the first time the F.B.I. came calling. It was five years ago, shortly after the U.S. State Department began sending representatives from the Muslim world for visits to Xavier’s Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue. Buchanan, the Center’s director, gave each of the visitors his business card, one of which was later found in the possession of an individual with questionable ties in the Middle East.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Buchanan says, “simply because they came in and they knew everywhere I traveled throughout the whole year. ‘When you were here, who did you meet with?’ ”
Times have changed. Buchanan has gotten used to the now-annual event. These days the agents often call instead of stopping by, and those calls serve as regular reminders of how far the Brueggeman Center has come in just a few short years.
Six years ago, the Center was nothing more than a name and a few shelves in the McDonald Library. Now, through projects like the annual Town Hall Meeting, the Christian/Jewish/Islamic “Artistic Expressions of Faith” series and the landmark “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People” exhibition—as well as many less-visible-but-no-less-important projects—the Center has emerged as an important cog in interfaith relations locally and beyond. Equally important, the Center’s scope also provides space at the table for other disciplines, the business and governmental communities, and civic society.
When it comes to environmental issues, Ralph Nader and John Pepper appear to be polar opposites. But Nader, the famed consumer-advocate and presidential candidate, and Pepper, the former chairman of Procter & Gamble, discovered unexpected common ground at the 2003 Town Hall Meeting on “Globalization and the Environment.”
“They were disagreeing, but in many ways their goals for humanity were pretty much the same,” Buchanan says. “What was interesting is that they found a kinship in that moment.”
Such is the power of dialogue. The ground rules are simple—the projects must be cutting-edge and the participants must have what Buchanan calls “the will to risk”—that is, they must be open to the possibility of having their views transformed. Finding an answer is secondary to beginning the conversation. “Every project we do I look at as a spark of hope,” Buchanan says. “You don’t know what’s going to come of it.”
Such sparks of hope are a treasured commodity on all fronts these days. Shakila Ahmad, a trustee for the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, says dialogue is critical for real interfaith progress. “If we don’t talk to each other, how are we going to build understanding and learn to work together?”
The Islamic Center and the Brueggeman Center have engaged in a number of joint projects, from the biannual Artistic Expressions of Faith to a recent film screening that included opportunities for audience members to engage in one-to-one dialogue, to the 2006 Town Hall Meeting on “Islam and Globalization,” which featured Karen Armstrong, an internationally known expert on Islam. Ahmad says those projects neatly illustrate the Center’s multi-level contributions—fostering one-to-one discussion, taking a leadership role to bring in world-renowned experts for dialogue and in the creation of programming that can serve as a regional an national model.
Jonathan Cohen, associate professor in Talmud and Halachic Literature at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, has collaborated with Buchanan on a number of programs. He points to “A Blessing to One Another” as a high point that solidified the Center’s place as a leader in interfaith relations. “The Brueggeman Center is unique and crucial to our community,” he says. “We need it to succeed in reaching as many people as possible.”
Building social capital is at the heart of everything the Center takes on, and its reach is long. To date, it has hosted individuals from 44 countries. In the midst of this activity, it has also emerged as a model for the power of collaboration—a particularly important trait in this era of shrinking budgets and programmatic reassessment. With funds limited to a small endowment, the Center has partnered with a broad range of organizations and corporate collaborators in staging a staggering number of events that bring in experts from around the world to dialogue on some of the critical issues of the day.
At 7:36 a.m. on May 5, Buchanan is at his computer, e-mailing the 2009 list of Winter/Cohen Brueggeman Fellows. Six students were chosen for the one-of-a-kind program in which they design and implement their own international research project and, ultimately, travel to places like Haiti, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Jordan and Egypt. Alone. Unlike other study abroad experiences, the Brueggeman Fellows don’t have the support of faculty or other students traveling with them.
For Buchanan, that means another summer of sleepless nights. “We live on the edge when they’re out there doing this,” he says. “I’m on pins and needles. While we would never put them in harm’s way, we are not putting them in easy situations.”
Despite the sleepless nights, Buchanan says the program is his favorite among the Center’s many activities. Previous fellows have visited 17 countries. It’s all part of better preparing students to live and succeed in a globalized world. “It’s transformative,” he says. “They come back changed.”
A glimpse at some of the past Town Hall topics conveys a sense of the Center’s programmatic scope and underscores its focus on globalization. “China and Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities,” “HIV and Globalization,” “Globalization and Ecology,” “Cincinnati on the Brink: Race, Regionalism and Prospering in a Global Economy” and “The Impacts of Globalization on Women in the U.S. and Globally.” The events featured participants including Nader, Pepper, David Rusk, Mary Robinson, Dr. Paul Farmer and Vandana Shiva.
Buchanan has been studying globalization for years as an extension of his dialogue work. Now that globalization has become mainstream, his work puts the Center ahead of the curve and provides an edge in creative, impactful programming. Along with this programming, the Center is increasingly involved in other types of projects, such as producing books as the outgrowth of programs like last years symposium on religion and mortality, “Confronting Death.” It’s also working to aid refugees and asylees in Greater Cincinnati and trying to help navigate the financial and international regulations that would allow the production of affordable AIDS medication in Ghana. The Center was also one of eight nationally to participate in a new Fulbright visiting scholar program in 2008 and is involved in a long-term project on fundamentalism.
On Feb. 3, Buchanan was delivering the 2009 Harry S. Truman Lecture in Kansas City, an event sponsored by the Truman library and Avila University. While there, he floated a new idea to the audience—the need for a cabinet-level position on interfaith relations within the U.S. State Department, someone who understands the various religions and can effectively engage them diplomatically. If the idea didn’t stick with anyone in the audience, it didn’t matter because it stuck with Buchanan. And when he gets an idea, it rarely dies. So as he travels—a byproduct of the Center’s success—he’s working to build support for the idea and plans to propose it more formally in the near future.
“The fact is, they don’t have people who really truly understand the religions or how to engage those networks,” Buchanan says. “If you think of how much of the world is being driven negatively by interfaith conflict, the question becomes how can we take that and flip it around so that interfaith relations are something upon which we can build new types of international or global communities to work for common good?” And it isn’t just the greater world. Buchanan also believes interfaith cooperation holds a key role in America’s future. “As America moves into what I think is a genuine crisis with this financial meltdown, with the disintegration of our communities and everything, we need to find new sources of social capital, and I believe interfaith communities can be a real source of social capital in our communities again.”
To that end, Buchanan follows a dialogic model through all phases of programmatic planning and implementation. “We rarely ever run a program by ourselves,” he says. “One of the ways we’re able to do so many is that we partner, we leverage. That allows us to do more and bigger programs. But the real payoff is that every time we do a program with a different group and involve them from the planning stages all the way through to implementation, we’ve made another friend. We’ve brought somebody to us who, the next time they have an idea for a program, is going to think of us first, come back to us and be out there telling people, ‘Xavier is a good place to partner with.’ ”
For Cohen, this openness for true collaboration is one of the Center’s truly exciting facets. “Not only is the Brueggeman Center a leading center in interfaith relations, but it is also one of the most exciting organizations to partner within a wide range of areas because it has succeeded in collaboration in a meaningful way,” he says. “There are many places that invite you to participate, but there’s a difference between being a guest and being a collaborator.”
This willingness to partner may succeed in building social capital and make it easier to do a variety of programs, but the responsibility for long-range planning still resides in the Center and its staff of two. “The real challenge is trying to figure out what we should be doing a year and a half from now and putting that in motion—and figuring out whether I’ll have the money to do it,” Buchanan says. “If your programs aren’t cutting edge, if you’re not ahead of the curve every time, people quit coming. But that’s what keeps it interesting. There’s no humdrum about this because it’s all creation. The Brueggeman Center gets reinvented every year, every month, with every new program. The primary question is always ‘What’s next?’