The Muslims weren’t terrorists, they were students.
The two men were students from nearby Nazareth College, whose sociology course asked them to visit a house of worship from a religion other than their own. They picked the evangelical Browncroft Community Church in a Rochester suburb, and had already been there once before. During their second visit they went to the coffee hour and talked to congregants, and someone apparently contacted the feds and the state police.
Then on Monday morning, Religious Studies Department head Susan Nowak got a surprising message.
“I had a message from our campus safety, saying that the State Police had contacted us and that there was a cause for concern over a Nazareth assignment,” Nowak told The Daily Beast.
The assignment was the two young men engaging with their Christian neighbors, Nowak confirmed. (The school is not releasing their names out of respect for their privacy.)
Nazareth, despite what the biblical name might evoke, is not a religiously affiliated college; it dropped its Roman Catholic affiliation in the 1970s, Nowak told The Daily Beast. Instead, the college picked up a commitment to religious pluralism: Every undergraduate is required to take a religious studies course, and engage with faith traditions other than their own.
Often, that engagement includes attending religious services belonging to another faith, be it at a mosque or a synagogue—or what Nowak describes as “the closest thing to a megachurch” around. They introduce themselves as students and ask probing questions: What are your core values? How do you see them as the same or different from those of other religions?
“This is what we say about Nazareth: Our president is Jewish. The executive director of our interfaith center is Muslim,” she said. “And I, the director of our religious studies program, am a Roman Catholic nun.
“So if you want to know if Nazareth is committed to pluralism, there it is,” she added.
Nowak says engaging with other religious communities is often frightening for students at the start of the year, but becomes one of the most rewarding parts of their courses. So many from the small college have been out on such excursions that Nowak joked religious leaders ask, jokingly, which of three professors sent them out.
The same was true for the two Muslim men, who returned to the Browncroft Community Church for their second visit on Sunday. Their first visit earlier in the semester had passed without incident.
“What they said, and what was really one of the most difficult things for them to process, is that they felt very well received,” Nowak said. “They left feeling that this was a very good encounter, and a rich, positive learning experience.”
“Some of the church members hugged them before they left,” Nazareth President Daan Braveman told The Daily Beast.
Braveman told The Daily Beast that he spoke to Browncroft’s senior pastor, Rob Cattalani, on Thursday.
“He is very interested in continuing the dialogue, and the faculty member who teaches the course at issue is going to the church on Wednesday to talk to one of the pastors,” Braveman said. “So there may be some good that comes out of this, too.”
Nowak, the director of religious studies, said that until now, Browncroft Community Church has not been an active member of the interfaith dialogue happening on campus through the college’s well-funded interfaith center. But she added that she hopes this incident may serve as a tipping point to push Browncroft into the conversation.
“The [Muslim Students Association] students, as hard hit as they were by this example, instead of calling for a protest at the church, they’re calling for a dialogue. The two students involved have said, ‘we do not want a protest, we want a dialogue,’” Nowak said. “We need to commit ourselves to dialogue, to get to know each other.
“It’s hard work, but it may be the most important work that we do in this point in our history,” she said.