The Hartford Seminary photo by Brad Clift

The Hartford Seminary
photo by Brad Clift

A rabbi, an imam and a priest walk into a bar…Uh oh–that’s a different story.

But if you want to see a rabbi, a priest and an imam together, visit The Hartford Seminary (THS), the US’s first center for the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations. Though the seminary was founded in 1834 by feuding Calvinists, by the early 1900’s a young Scottish scholar named Duncan Black Macdonald declared that he “came to Hartford determined to have a school of Arabic…..I made up my mind that if I could do anything to train missionaries to understand Islam, I would put my back to it.”

The Hartford Seminary no longer trains missionaries. Instead, through degree and certificate programs as well as courses and seminars open to the general public, it promotes understanding among the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Student residents are housed with people of other religions and are thus exposed to different beliefs daily and informally. It brings to my mind one of my great uncles, a stern, conservative Norwegian who had no use for African Americans—except the ones he knew.

THS goes beyond the “since we’re neighbors, let’s be friends” slogan, though. Among its expressed values is to “commit to a justice that moves us beyond toleration to critical engagement in an environment of trust.” In other words, tolerance is one thing, but critical challenges to different faiths is another, potentially divisive matter. However, The Hartford Seminary is a safe place to challenge others’ beliefs because it is a community that welcomes disparate voices.

If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I like symbolism. The mission of The Hartford Seminary was brought home to me at the opening of the Martin and Aviva Budd Interfaith Center. Down a main hallway I was surprised to discover that my Catholic/Jewish family’s living room rug that I donated to THS had become a Muslim prayer rug, complete with an indicator of the direction of Mecca. I guess you could say that interfaith understanding begins at home.



About Alexis

Alexis Rankin Popik, author of Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate, is an award-winning short story writer whose work has appeared in The Berkshire Review and Potpourri Magazine. She has penned numerous articles about local history that have been published in Connecticut Explored and the University of Connecticut School of Law and The Hartford Seminary publications. A former union organizer, Popik traveled the country educating shipyard workers about health and safety and founded a labor-management health plan before turning to writing fiction full-time. She lives with her husband in New England.
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