When Fires Blaze

27 Jan

Returning from a hiking trip in the Smoky Mountains, a yearly ritual to say goodbye to summer and fortify myself for the start of the academic year, and as I rounded the town square  was greeted with people protesting the building of a new Mosque.   It was August 2010, an election year with political candidates joining the outcry about threats to the security of our community.   The uproar resulted in the fire-bombing of construction equipment on the site, a FBI investigation, national news media attention, and a protracted law suit for several months.

Students, faculty and staff at Middle Tennessee State University were raising questions about how to respond with a reasoned approach to freedom religion in our community.  I think the driving emotions on campus were repulsion of the violence and hatred plus a profound embarrassment.

My involvement in the issue became more personal as the owner of the construction company (who is United Methodist) whose equipment was destroyed was the husband of one of my staff.   It became clear that the university offered the best setting for a rational discussion of freedom of religion in the United States.

Working with the Jewish and Muslim student associations on campus, a forum was organized in a few weeks with a panel of a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Christian pastor moderated by a faculty member who specialized in the first amendment. Having just a short time to get the word out on campus and in the community, I was greatly surprised to see the auditorium full the evening of the forum.  The response by the campus and community astounded us and now over a year later the panel has made presentations at a total of four events.

In reflecting on this experience, I believe that campus ministry stands in the distinctive place to provide an academic exchange on the civil reality of freedom of religion in our communities.  It is astounding to realize not only the lack of understanding of other faiths within the Abrahamic tradition, but to discover how little understanding of the Christian tradition by church and higher education leaders in a university town.

Also, I am energized by the deep hunger by students, faculty and the average person in the pew to comprehend the faith of another.  Often it is the current political discourse that defines the religious other as different, incomprehensible and threatening.  When voices of those who are willing to disagree, respect and live out friendship, the civil discourse is changed.

Interfaith dialogue and academic seminars on understanding religious traditions is a gift which campus ministers can provide, in ways that local clergy find daunting and difficult.  We have to opportunity to live out what Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki calls “mission as friendship.”  Please do not delay until an “interfaith crisis” appears, offer this gift to your campus and community.


Bill Campbell is the United Methodist campus minister at the Wesley Foundation at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN.   He has hung around the college campus for many years hoping some youth would rub off and somebody, out of sympathy, would throw a degree his way.   When the weather is nice Bill can be found driving around with the top down on his Miata, teaching his daughter Eryn to drive a stick shift.  Other times, his wife Trinace, has him working on projects around the house,  while his son-in-law, John, patiently teaches him to fly fish.   Bill received a B.S. in Social Work & Psychology from Lambuth University, and a Master of Theology from Southern Methodist University.  A D.Min from Wesley Theological Seminary awaits a project (when it is finally safe to write) on General Conference and campus ministry.


2 Responses to “When Fires Blaze”

  1. paul walley January 27, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    Tremendous piece, Bill! You used an explosive situation and turned it around so it became an occasion for interfaith sharing and understanding in your campus and community. I commend you for your effort and vision.

  2. Barbara Heck January 30, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    So well done! Thank you for hearing the call of Jesus and doing something “immediately”!!

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