Leonard Swidler, a professor in the religion department, can always find an opportunity to bring people together, even when he’s literally knocked off his feet.
On his way to teach his World Religions class on Sept. 20, Swidler, 87, was knocked down by sophomore business major Tim Cornwell, who was riding his skateboard down Montgomery Avenue.
After getting up, the professor introduced himself and the two chatted. A few hours later, Cornwell made a $10 donation to Swidler’s nonprofit, the Dialogue Institute, as an apology.
The Institute, which runs programs and workshops centered around interreligious and intercultural dialogue between young people and professionals, turned this small story into their newest campaign, “10 for LEN.” The campaign encourages people to donate $10 or more to recognize Swidler and his commitment to promoting respectful dialogue across religions and cultures.
Since then, “10 for LEN” has raised $400 in donations, which will go toward keeping the Institute running and paying its staff.
“[But] what’s even more important … is making a connection with people who obviously are seriously enough interested in the arena of dialogue among religions and ideologies to reach out and respond in this concrete way,” Swidler said.
“This gives us another whole network to work and promote positive actions,” he added. “And these are clearly people who are self-motivated and action-oriented.”
Swidler and his wife Arlene originally created the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in 1964 as the first peer-reviewed journal focused exclusively on interreligious dialogue. Swidler brought the journal to campus in 1966 and is celebrating his 50th year here. The Dialogue Institute, which he founded in 1978, was a way to put the journal’s theory into practice.
The organization runs programs about interreligious dialogue, which encourages cooperative and constructive interactions despite religious differences. Programs include the Study of the U.S. Institutes for Student Leaders, which brings 20 students from the Middle East and Southeast Asia to Main Campus to study religious pluralism and American democracy each summer.
“We have students who go back with action plans into those communities in Indonesia and Thailand, Egypt and Lebanon,” said Tim Emmett-Rardin, the director of marketing and development for DI. “They have this ripple effect of impact in their local communities and effectively they become advocates for religious pluralism and religious freedom in places where it doesn’t exist.”
“[Dialogue] is generally more preventative,” Emmett-Rardin said. “It takes the approach of beginning to teach people how to cultivate relationships across differences … where there’s not an inclination to connect with somebody.”
“We’re really trying to alleviate that and empower people to have the skills to … figure out ways that they can work together,” he added. “In order to prevent deeper conflict and violence, which we know is happening every day in places all around the world.”
The organization saw Swidler and Cornwell’s story as an opportunity to achieve their goal of reaching past differences to make connections with others.
“Both Professor Swidler’s reaction and Tim’s generosity and desire to reconcile reflects what we try to be about,” Emmett-Rardin said. “And the work we do through dialogue training and through bringing people together across difference.”
“To build a society, especially those of us in the world and in our neighborhoods who are living in separate silos isolated from each other, have to realize that we can’t live that way anymore and we have to listen to each other, the first step to loving each other is listening to each other,” Swidler said.
Emily Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.