Usually when we think of an American academic institution the image that comes to mind is that of the big historical campuses: Harvard, Yale, Columbia…
Hartford Seminary is not like this. The campus hosts a few dozens of students ( at present mostly Muslim) while the majority of students live off campus.
The history of Hartford Seminary began in 1834 thanks to the initiative of a group of congregational ministers. Hartford Theological Seminary was the first American seminary to accept female students in 1889, whereas the study of Islam and the relationship between Islam and Christianity goes back to 1893 thanks to the creation of the Duncan Black MacDonald Centre, which was the first to offer this type of studies in the United States. The seminary immediately became important in the preparation of missionaries. However, with the passing of time – says President Heidi Hadsell - the experience of Islam and our familiarity with it grew together with the respect that led us to the decision to place our experience at the service of dialogue between Christians and Muslims keeping ourselves faithful to the Christian call to testimony”.
Today Hartford Seminary offers a variety of studies which reflect the new needs in the United States. The motto of the institution ‘Differences, Deepening Faith’ introduces one of the most important themes of the seminary: recognizing the difference within the society in which many of the students will work as ministers, imam, chaplains or researchers, and knowing how to treasure it. The programs vary from those primarily centered on Christianity and on the practical aspects of the work of ministers and pastors to those associated with the Islamic field of studies and programs devoted to interreligious studies. “Hartford Seminary offers a theological education to those who are already firmly convinced of their own tradition – President Hadsell affirms. We want to offer students the academic knowledge and the practical ability of leadership which are necessary to work in a world as religiously plural as ours”.
Religious plurality is a fact for the academic staff. Najib Awad is an associate professor of Christian theology. Born and reared in Syria, he cultivated during his studies a double interest in his theological studies: inter-disciplinary and interreligious. This motivated him to continue his academic career at Hartford Seminary. In the interactions between teachers and students, the religious commitment as well as the academic commitment offer new stimulus for reflection. As Najib Awad said “ in class I find myself with students who live intensively their life of faith and who do not just content themselves studying the scientific and the academic dimensions of theology. Their questions clearly indicate the practical aspects as well as those of experience”.
Also Feryal Salem, university assistant, who recently became part of the academic staff of the seminary and who since 1991 has been a Muslim Professor insists on the same things: “As a scholar with the lay academic background, teaching at Hartford Seminary is a unique opportunity to include issues relating to faith and its role in human experience”. Salem, the only Muslim female teacher placed herself at the disposal of Muslim female students of the seminary freely organizing a course in Islamic law, prayer meeting, study and sharing of the hadith which were moments open also to any Christian female students interested.
The practical side of the seminary is clearly evident also from a quick analysis of the students. Taha el.Nil is 23 years old and he is studying to become a Muslim chaplain in the US military air force. The program for Muslim chaplains which gives a certificate for this type of activity is in fact a proposal of Hartford Seminary: “What I like most about this course of studies – she says – is the presence of an interactive and inclusive community which is helping me to develop my personality, my ideas and my ability to express myself in public”.
Pursenla Ozukum, 28 years old, came from India thanks to a scholarship offered by the International Peacemaking Program. Pursenla had studied Islam in a Christian seminary and was now seeking for somewhere to be directly in contact with Islam and Muslims. “In India I met some Muslims but I never had the chance to share much with them. Here instead, not only can we study together but we can also live on the same campus and share the same house”. A dream for the future. “On a social level we know that interreligious dialogue is important but in theological teaching the path is still very far away. I hope I can teach in a seminary when I go back and help other students to learn something more about Islam.
But what makes the concrete difference between Hartford Seminary and other religious studies? It seems clear that other than offer an academic preparation, the seminary aims at preparing students for meeting and dialogues in their activity within their respective religious communities. Heidi Hadsell summarizes the main differences compared to other programs in two points: “We try to get students to interact and to offer them every year a course on ‘Dialogue in a world of diversities’ obligatory to all students enrolled for a Master’s Degree. The second difference concerns the attention to the logistic accommodation of students. On the campus we choose to get students of different religious traditions to share the same apartment. Sometimes the interactions in a domestic environment can teach us more than we learn during lessons“.