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A Renewed Search For Faith

A Renewed Search For FaithMany college students, says Tufts Chaplain David O'Leary, re-examined their faith in the days and months after the September 11 attacks.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.11.02] On September 12, Tufts Chaplain David O'Leary threw out the syllabus for his religion and international relations class. The terrorist attacks, he said, raised a host of new questions for many students which required a fundamental re-examination of faith - both theirs and others.

"In my class last fall, we had a very mixed classroom, [including] some very committed Muslim students," O'Leary said in an interview in Sunday's Boston Globe Magazine. "They were searching and couldn't understand why September 11 happened."

It was an experience shared by many college students, he said.

"There was questioning, and I see questioning as good - it means they're trying to find their own answers," O'Leary told the Globe. "They are either appropriating their own faith tradition for themselves, and it's not the faith of their parents, or they're coming up with their own ideas."

In response to his students' questions, O'Leary crafted a new syllabus for his class. At its heart were discussions to help each student understand their faith, as well as the faith of their classmates. It's an approach he's continued to use.

"I try to expose the religious ideal and the inconsistencies under that," he told the Globe. "[In my class,] you had to remind students to be fair about others' religions sometimes - let's air out all the dirty laundry together. Civility was the rule."

That rule is at the very core of Tufts.

"Tufts is very open to religious ideas," he told the Globe. "That's why we were founded - Harvard was too conservative in 1852."

And the civility of the University's students and staff was visible immediately after the attacks.

"It was the Muslim student association that started the idea of having a candlelight vigil last September 11," he said. Thousands of students participated.

O'Leary - who is the first Roman Catholic to serve as the head chaplain at a private nonsectarian university - said the events of September 11 will have more than just a negative impact on the current generation of college students.

"I think it will have eliminated complacency for many in this generation," he told the Globe. "If you're going to accept a higher power, then you struggle with why bad things happen. You have to grapple with evil. Then you think, 'OK, I'm a believer, but now what do I do with this?'"

Some students have already found some answers.

"One of my students went to the Sudan to rescue people still enslaved," O'Leary told the newspaper. "We had students trying to hook up with people in Israel and Palestine for an exchange of ideas over the Internet."

Photos courtesy The Boston Globe.

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