Africans praise Claremont multi-faith plan

Claremont Lincoln University, the multi-religious school founded last year in California by UM-affiliated Claremont School of Theology, met a lot of opposition by United Methodists in the United States, but received a thumbs-up by a group of African General Conference delegates.

The new university offers three separate degree programs by partnering Claremont School of Theology with the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles. Each division oversees its own curriculum and trains spiritual leaders while collaborating in other areas. Claremont Lincoln University came to be after David and Joan Lincoln donated $50 million over two years for Claremont School of Theology to open the new institution. David Lincoln is a Claremont trustee.

Except in certain areas, it is likely that people of multiple faiths don’t knowingly interact on a daily basis in the United States. However, in Africa, just the opposite is true, which is why the delegates recognized the need for a school that educates about other religions.

Professors Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook (left) and Najeeba Syeed-Miller teach a class on interreligious conflict resolution at Claremont Lincoln University in Claremont, Calif. UMNS PHOTO COURTESY OF CLAREMONT SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY

The Rev. Guy Mande Muyombo, North Katanga Conference, Democratic Republic of Congo, said the mixed Muslim and Christian population of the area made it vital that both sides learn to live and work together.

Mr. Muyombo said there has been a lot of intermarriage in North Katanga, and pastors cannot be successful if they cannot minister to families that have Muslim members. Mr. Muyombo, director of Kamina Methodist University, said Kamina is considering education aimed at providing understanding of Islam.

The Rev. Zaqueu Silva Ranchaze of Mozambique said the climate between Christians and Muslims in his country requires “care, understanding and appropriate language,” and education to help them to do this is a blessing. He cited an example of how both communities now work together to monitor elections and collaborate on other programs.

The Rev. Jerry Campbell, president of both Claremont institutions, was pleased with the positive reception.

“I didn’t know where the African delegates would be on the issue,” Dr. Campbell said, adding that in the future, the United States will have a greater mix of different religions, and getting along will be important.

“This country’s changing, and we’ve got to get over the phobia of responding to new neighbors,” he added. “It’s not a matter of tolerating one another. We’ve got to get beyond just tolerance; it’s got to be a mutual understanding, respect and ability to work together.”

Recent world events support Mr. Muyombo’s and Dr. Campbell’s insistence on the need for harmony:

• On Aug. 5, a gunman in Milwaukee, Wis., opened fire on a Sikh temple, leaving seven—including the shooter—dead.

• The next day, a suspicious fire destroyed a mosque in Joplin, Mo.

• Soon thereafter, at least 19 people died in a Nigerian church when gunmen stormed in and began firing during worship. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but a militant Islamist group has carried out attacks on other Christian churches in the area.

• A proposed Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has been at the center of a two-year legal battle—and a target of vandalism and bomb threats—waged by groups that oppose its construction. The center is set to open Aug. 10, and a Baptist church near the center is staging an ongoing protest.

Guy Mande Muyombo

During General Conference, Dr. Campbell also received an unexpected invitation to collaborate with Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. After a conversation with Asbury president the Rev. Timothy C. Tennent about Claremont Lincoln University, Dr. Tennent inquired about possible collaboration with Dr. Campbell on interreligious issues.

“It would be something like a tragedy if Claremont were able to collaborate with other religions but not with more conservative Christians,” Dr. Campbell said. “I welcome that invitation from Dr. Tennent. At Claremont, we don’t want to be one end of the spectrum or the other. We’re trying to be Christian, rather than progressive or conservative.”

Funding controversy

Claremont Lincoln weathered a storm of controversy before opening.

In January 2010, the theology school had its Ministerial Education Fund allocation embargoed by the University Senate, a sanctioning body within the denomination that determines which schools meet the criteria for listing as institutions affiliated with the United Methodist Church. After re-evaluation, those funds were reinstated.

Announcement of the university project led to questions whether United Methodist apportionment dollars would fund the training of imams and rabbis. However, the three-pronged structure of the school means the money doesn’t mingle.

“That was a big misconception,” Dr. Campbell said. “No apportionment dollars leave the seminary; it’s for the education of United Methodist clergy. We don’t want to change anyone’s tradition, including our United Methodist Christian tradition.”

The 2011 Mississippi Annual Conference approved a resolution asking the 2012 General Conference to sever all ties with Claremont School of Theology “due to its establishment of a clerical education program for non-Christian religions.” General Conference delegates did not support the petition.

Dr. Campbell said the creation of Claremont Lincoln University was intended to continue Methodism’s ecumenical roots, not to be divisive.

“When Claremont was relocated from being the school of religion at the University of Southern California in the mid-’50s, the Methodist Church, in its articles of incorporation, made Claremont a Christian ecumenical school. In the ’50s, that was pretty radical,” he said.

Mr. Campbell cited the Los Angeles area, where Claremont is located and “where it seems every religion is represented on every block,” and asked how to “continue the experiment that the Methodists were brave enough to do in the ’50s.”

Despite the actions taken against the school, Dr. Campbell said he values Claremont’s affiliation with the United Methodist Church, and has no plans to sever those ties. He was born and raised Methodist, and became an elder in the denomination. He said he even “converted” his late wife from a Southern Baptist to a United Methodist.

“I’m not offended by my fellow United Methodists objecting to it, but the school has been misunderstood, and it’s a complex situation.

“You might say that the way we’ve practiced theological education for the 20th century has reached the end of its life cycle. The question is how do you refocus it for the 21st century and post-modern America, a much more interreligious population?”

Jerry Campbell

Retirement, plans

Now that both schools are on solid footing, Dr. Campbell has decided it is time to step away. He announced his retirement in June after serving as president for six years. However, he will not leave officially until June 2013 to allow time to find the next president.

To achieve independent accreditation, Claremont Lincoln must have its own president. In preparation for the formal split of Claremont Lincoln from Claremont School of Theology, the governing boards of both institutions will conduct searches for new presidents. The goal is to have two new chief executives in place by July 1, 2013.

“What we need now is the next generation of leadership that will have more energy and time,” Dr. Campbell said. “I’d do this forever if I’d last that long, but while it is prudent, we need to recruit some new people to come in and take over the helm and move things along.”

While stepping away from day-to-day operations, Dr. Campbell has accepted an advisory role of chancellor at Claremont Lincoln.

Looking back on his tenure—even though he has a year to go—he said, “It’s what I had hoped to be able to do.”

Claudia Pearce, director of public relations at Claremont, contributed to this report.

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