Interfaith Engagement: Because We’re Lutheran

With temperature and humidity pushing into the nineties, the football team broke early for lunch. As players headed over to the cafeteria for lunch, a few hung back. The coach approached, offering to walk with them. “Thanks,” one replied.” “But it’s Ramadan, and we’re fasting.”  When the non-Muslim teammates heard the reason for their absence at the meal, they decided to fast for a few days with them in solidarity, literally, “leveling the playing field.”


“Religion in Residence,” a unique integrative learning course, invited Residential Advisors already enrolled in a world religions course to a biweekly discussion group with the residential life officer and a professor of Islamic Studies.  Together they explored real-life issues in the dorms. Did the request by a group of Jewish students to light a menorah during Hanukkah comport with the school’s fire safety policy? As they researched how other institutions handled similar situations, students learned a lot about Judaism. The religion professor observed: “People expect we’re about religious advocacy and we’re not. It’s really about religious literacy.”[1]


I couldn’t get the hang of the hymn at that Wednesday night campus Communion service, so I turned to the student next to me. “Help!” She smiled, “I’m Jewish, so I can’t.” I later found out that her roommate had invited her at the beginning of the year. Drawn to the darkness, the quiet, and the welcome she’d received, she kept coming back. 


[1] Lutheran institutions are laboratories for interfaith engagement. Because these institutions are “deeply rooted in the Lutheran intellectual tradition,” they are “boldly open to insights from other religions and secular traditions.” (Rooted & Open, 1). For Lutheran institutions of higher learning, interfaith work is not a luxury.[2]

[2] Interfaith engagement is embedded in the DNA of schools committed to educating the “whole person,” body, mind, and spirit. Find it on the athletic field, in the classroom, in campus worship spaces and ritual ceremonies, as the examples above demonstrate. These encounters provide the raw material for engaging religious traditions more deeply, offering graduates the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities they will need in a religiously diverse world, whatever their vocational calling or professional goals.[3]

[3] In the landscape of higher education, Lutheran institutions have a distinctive place. They join other faith-based institutions (e.g., the network of Jesuit colleges and universities), whose very rootedness in a particular religious tradition empowers them to be open to people of other religious backgrounds — and no background at all.  They stand in contrast to faith-promoting institutions, on one hand, and faith-bracketing institutions on the other. Faith-promoting schools, like Bethel University (Christian) or Hebrew Union (Reform Judaism) or Zaytuna College (Muslim) nurture a particular kind of faith in curricular and co-curricular settings.  Because of the separation between church and state, state schools are faith-bracketing institutions. Religious studies and philosophy departments pursue the academic study of religion in classrooms segregated from the activities of various campus religious groups.

[4] Faith-based institutions, like the network of Lutheran colleges and universities, acknowledge that religion is both an academic discipline and a practiced faith. A Muslim student introduced me to her parents at graduation, and they spoke of their comfort in sending their daughter to a Lutheran school: “We knew you weren’t going to turn Nastaran into a Lutheran. We knew you’d respect her own faith.”[4] These same sentiments could have been expressed by Jewish parents at Wagner College or Hindu parents at Muhlenberg.

[5] Lutheran institutions have a particular purchase on interfaith engagement.  Simply put, for these schools, interfaith engagement is not a luxury. Arguments from both scripture and Lutheran tradition support that claim. There are many; here are three.

[6] A first reason is embedded in the tradition itself.  The Lutheran movement is always in the process of reforming (semper reformanda). God became human in an ongoing revelation called “incarnation.” In the person of Jesus, God participated in the full range of human experience, body, mind, and spirit. When God comes as a person, not as a set of sacred texts or a Book of Confessions, the only thing for disciples to do is to “follow that person.”  And people move around, showing up in company with people of other faiths — and no faith at all.

[7] A second and related reason is a deeply embedded epistemological humility. Lutherans admit to being saint and sinner simultaneously (simul justus et peccator), a double vision that operates against a clear-eyed absolute certainty. In fact, Lutherans should be quite certain they don’t have all the answers.  That ought to make them humble, open to, even dependent upon the knowledge of those outside the tribe.  All of this conspires to engender a kind of epistemological humility.[5]

[8] Finally, a third and final reason why, for Lutherans interfaith work is not a luxury is Luther’s theological focus on the “neighbor.” Luther was fluent in the language of “neighbor,” a theme that echoes throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (Leviticus 19:18, cf., Mark 12:30-31). “Neighbor” is not the language of “family,” a community bound by blood, or “friends,” a community bound by loves and preferences, or “enemy,” a community bound by hatred. “Neighbor” is also not the language of “stranger,” language that erodes community like an acid, creating a place where no one belongs.

[9] For Lutherans, interfaith work is not a luxury.  It is part of the mission and identity of each one of these institutions.  Each institution lives it out in very different ways, because each institution serves different contexts and each institution bears distinctive gifts.  But all of the institutions in this ecology of Lutheran higher education share a commitment to see the other as neighbor, to be neighbor to the other, and to live in our various contexts as if they were a neighborhood or a “commons.”

[10] Let’s see how a few institutions operationalize interfaith engagement.


Concordia College, Moorhead MN

[11] Concordia College located its interfaith engagement in a Forum on Faith and Life, which former and founding director Jacqueline Bussie led from 2011-2021.[6] The center’s title was a deliberate choice. The word “faith” rather than “interfaith” or “Christian” signaled a commitment to the lived practice of religion. It also created space for both interfaith and intra-faith conversation, i.e., dialogue between traditions and dialogue within them. After all, no tradition is a monolith; its practices and beliefs have multiple expressions. The word “forum” signaled a public space for these conversations, both within the campus community and with the religious leaders in the Fargo-Moorhead area. As a hinge between college and community, the Forum offered a Speakers Series inviting these leaders as participants and presenters. The Forum trained various cohorts of Interfaith Scholars who did learning projects in the surrounding community.

[12] Locating the Forum outside Campus Ministry was also a deliberate choice. Interfaith work was not a subset of Campus Ministry. The Forum worked with rather than under CM, which gave it greater flexibility to link to other divisions across the college. A President’s Interfaith Advisory Council with representatives from faculty, admissions, advancement, student services, dining services, Campus Ministry, and the Forum coordinated these various initiatives. Finally, the Forum worked closely with the chief diversity officer at Concordia to ensure that college’s diversity training included anti-bias training in religion.

[13] Recognizing the need for multi-religious literacy in every graduate’s professional toolkit, especially, pre-law, pre-med, or business, Bussie developed an interfaith minor, which drew on the resources of a Religion Department with broad expertise in the world’s religions and involves 35 faculty from 13 different departments.

[14] Perhaps most significant was the development of an Interfaith Cooperation Statement, which states Concordia’s “public identity” in terms of its interfaith commitments: “Concordia College practices interfaith cooperation because of its Lutheran dedication to prepare thoughtful and informed global citizens who foster wholeness and hope, build peace through understanding, and serve the world together” (emphasis mine). After a year-long process of consulting with faculty, students, staff, and administration, the document was approved unanimously.[7]


Muhlenberg College, Allentown PA

[15] In terms of the composition of its student body, Muhlenberg College moved from being predominantly Lutheran to interfaith to multi-faith. The college has long been attractive to East Coast Jewish families, who realized that their faith practice would be respected, even nurtured at this faith-based institution.

[16] More recently, Muhlenberg has drawn a sizable number of Hindu and Sikh students from New Jersey, along with a small, but growing number of Muslims. A wildly popular baccalaureate service incorporates elements of each of these faith traditions, and in 2019 it featured a group of Bollywood dancers, Top Naach. Along with a freshman year candle-lighting ceremony,  baccalaureate bookends the college experience of a religiously diverse student body. As former College Chaplain Rev. Kristen Glass Perez put it: “Embracing ritual helps us figure out who we are and where we are. If we focus on that, we’re a lot more connected.”[8]

[17] Because of its climate and culture, interfaith engagement on campus was lodged institutionally in Religious Life. During her tenure Glass Perez tried to change that. In her reflection before every faculty meeting, she pressed the question: “Why do we do interfaith work?” She had a ready answer: “Because we’re Lutheran.  Because, because, because – I really worked the because.” She consciously worked to move interfaith work into the institutional life of the college, into policies and procedures, into dining services, residential life, even the work of other centers.

[18] Glass Perez advised the curricular/co-curricular partnership that became the integrated learning course, “Religion in Residence.” Resident advisors in the course realized that, although the college offered kosher dining in its cafeteria, it had no accommodation for Muslim students during Ramadan. And Glass Perez pushed beyond accommodation. “If we take seriously our rhetoric about being open, we don’t simply accommodate. We make people feel at home.  This is your home.”

[19] As the college adjusted to its multi-faith calling, there were other shifts as well. For years Muhlenberg was home to the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding. Building on a legacy of interfaith cooperation, in 2020 the college expanded that mission of IJCU to embrace the world’s religions. Chair of the Religious Studies Department, William “Chip” Gruen heads the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding, and he argues the importance of multi-faith engagement: “Understanding the religions of the world is essential to understanding the motivations and actions of people everywhere.”[9]


Augsburg University, Minneapolis MN

[20] Its urban location in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood brought interfaith engagement to the campus of Augsburg University. Adjacent neighborhoods were home to Little Earth, a vibrant Native American community, and one of the largest Somali Muslim communities outside of Somalia. Gradually the student population grew to reflect the demographics of its location, and today Augsburg has a larger percentage of Muslim students (12%) than ELCA Lutherans (9%).[10]

[21] Interfaith work at Augsburg started by gathering scattered initiatives across campus, which began with an interfaith coordinating committee composed of faculty and staff from advancement and campus ministry and now includes plans for an Interfaith Institute. Founding director of the Institute, Mark Hanson, puts it this way: “Interfaith work is deeply grounded in the vocation of this institution. We strive to hold the what and the why together: what we do and why we do it.”[11]

[22] Augsburg’s mission and its Lutheran identity supply the why:  “…our context demands it; our mission commits us to it; our future depends on it,” as a paper on Interfaith Work boldly declared.  And as the coordinating committee reviewed the curricular and co-curricular interfaith initiatives, it identified five dimensions of the what:

  • Everyday experience, highlighting ordinary expressions of interreligious diversity;
  • Ethical praxis discernment, along with action and reflection in the public square;
  • Global awareness, deliberately emphasizing the responsibilities global citizens;
  • Vocational exploration, identifying one’s own values and beliefs in the process of studying the world’s great traditions;
  • Spiritual engagement, appreciating religion as a practice of faith.

[23] Augsburg’s Interfaith Scholars Program embodies these five different dimensions. What began as a student-led response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti has now become a year-long, stipended course, brilliantly led by religion department professor Matt Maruggi. The course has three components: interfaith discussion, public leadership, and civic engagement.  One alum summed up his experience. “It’s a course – but more than a course.” The course gave him the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities to be an interfaith leader.[12]

[24] I’ve given a snapshot of interfaith engagement at only three NECU institutions; I could have offered a gallery of portraits from across the network, as these institutions trains graduates for a religiously diverse world.  Challenges remain, of course…Yet, whatever their religious persuasion, students, staff, and faculty at Lutheran institutions find both neighbors and a neighborhood of welcome.







[1] Muhlenberg College in Allentown PA offers “Religion in Residence” to all residential advisors, and the course was realized by Associate Director of Residential Education Katy Mangold and senior lecturer in religious studies Sharon Albert, who is quoted here.

Accessed June 28, 2021.

[2] I borrow this expression from the late poet, critic, and public intellectual Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007) 36-39.

[3] Director of the Interfaith Youth Core, Eboo Patel, identifies talks about the knowledge, skills, and qualities that make an Interfaith leader in his book, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer (Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2016).

[4] From the overall enrollment numbers in 2020, 11.5% of Augsburg students identified as Lutheran (9% ELCA), 10.3% as Roman Catholic, 23.6% from other Christian denominations, 12% as Muslim, and 7.1% as “other religions,” a number which includes Hmong shamanist, secular humanist, atheist, agnostic, and no religious affiliation.  Accessed June 26, 2021.

[5] There’s a tendency among Lutherans to talk about “militant modesty,” but mere modesty of qualifies as “humility-lite,” and it comes packaged with insincere self-deprecation or “cheap apology.”  “Cheap apology” is as inauthentic as “cheap grace.”

[6] In September, 2021 Jacqueline Bussie became Executive Director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville MN.

Accessed June 29, 2021.

[7] Read the full text of Concordia’s Interfaith Cooperation Statement, as well as the work of the Forum on Faith and Life here:

Accessed June 29, 2021.

[8] In the fall of 2020, Rev. Kristen Glass Perez assumed the position of University Chaplain and Executive Director for Religious and Spiritual Life at Northwestern University in Chicago IL.

Accessed June 29, 2021.

[9] Read more about the Institute and its work:

Accessed June 29, 2021.

[10] See the latest demographics:

Accessed June 29, 2021.

[11] Find out more about the Institute and its work:

Accessed June 29, 2021.

[12] Thanks Matt Maruggi his forthcoming article, Matt Maruggi and Rachel Svanoe, “A Baha’I, a Muslim, a Christian, and a Buddhist walk into a church basement: Co-creating interfaith space in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood,” 2021, unpublished ms.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).