POSTED ON DECEMBER 19, 2012:
The Religions Next Door
Phillips Theological Seminary spearheads dialogue
For more than a quarter of a century, Phillips Theological Seminary has sought to be a place in Tulsa where the focus is on faith.
A theological school for Christians, the seminary -- affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination -- continues to offer degrees for those planning to go into ministry. Others attend simply to deepen their understanding of religion.
But now, the seminary's goal is to also raise its profile in the community, said President Gary Peluso-Verdend.
"There's still lots of people in Tulsa who don't know where we are, what we do. And we're trying to become as visible as any other entity that thinks it has something to offer to the city," said Peluso-Verdend, the seminary's president for the last three-and-a-half years.
The campus on North Mingo Road, just north of I-244, has been home for the school for ten years, though it took an act of generosity for the seminary to arrive at its current location.
Before even coming to Tulsa, the school had a long history. First established in the early years of the 20th century as part of a liberal arts college in Enid, the seminary operated for decades before coming to Tulsa in 1986.
For years, the seminary was based at the University of Tulsa, with operations housed in "older frame houses" rented from the university, recalled Peluso-Verdend, who said he was with the seminary from 1993 to 2000 before leaving and then returning to the school in 2005. When needed, the seminary borrowed space from churches in the community.
But the school's fortunes changed thanks to Chester Cadieux, co-founder of the QuikTrip convenience store chain. Peluso-Verdend explained how Cadieux in 2002 helped usher in a tremendous gift: the former business headquarters of the company. Cadieux is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Peluso-Verdend said.
"What the Cadieux family has done for us has really put us on a foundation we just wouldn't otherwise have," he said, calling the gift "transformational."
The seminary now wants to offer its resources to the broader Tulsa community, he said. For skeptics, he noted the organization's commitment to intellectual inquiry. The school's faculty of 15 hold degrees from prestigious academic institutions like Vanderbilt University and Princeton University, Peluso-Verdend said.
"I think we've drawn some really intellectual resources into the Tulsa community," Peluso-Verdend said, emphasizing the school's approach of blending history, sociology, psychology, and political science into religious studies.
COURTESY OF GARY PELUSO-VERDEND
As part of an effort to share knowledge about religion, the school this fall began a new series of classes for adult learners through what the seminary calls its Interreligious Understanding Program.
"We asked ourselves, what unique contributions could we make? Part of our answer was, we believe strongly that people of faith and goodwill ought to work together for the common good in public," Peluso-Verdend said.
The resulting program, still in its early stages, offers one course at a time. About 18 students signed up in late August to learn about Native American religions. The six-week course met once weekly for 90 minutes. The next course focused on Christianity; about 10 students signed up for that series.
"We have Islam and Buddhism coming up in the spring," Peluso-Verdend said, adding that guest speakers are a highlight of the series. To enroll in six weeks of study, the cost is $120.
Fundamentally, he said it's important to develop a better understanding of other religions, he said.
"I think understanding religious faith is part of what makes for public good. I think we're of the opinion that there is going to be, till the end of time, there'll be many faiths in the United States and in the world and understanding each other and being able to work together in public is extraordinarily important for the kind of civic community that we want -- a community that maximizes both justice and kindness," Peluso-Verdend said.
But the Interreligious Understanding Program shouldn't be perceived as daunting, according to Peluso-Verdend.
"There's no tests, no papers to write. There is reading we ask everybody to do and attend class sessions but, again, we're trying to make this a very lay program versus somebody who's taking courses for their professional interests," he said.
Another step taken by the organization has been to join the Tulsa Regional Chamber.
"I understand the chamber of commerce to be an organization of businesses, all of which want to make Tulsa a better place to live," Peluso-Verdend said. "And we think we're trying to do that, and we'd like to align ourself with others who are trying to do that, too."
The seminary has about 180 students from several states, Peluso-Verdend said, with a total of about 40 employees.
Don't be surprised to see these people about town involved in various efforts.
"We encourage our employees to be involved in other nonprofit organizations around Tulsa, so we have several people who are involved with the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice and the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance and the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry," Peluso-Verdend said, describing three local organizations that have similarly incorporated understanding of religions into their mission.
The seminary also will host its Re-mind and Re-new conference Jan. 23-24. The conference, now in its second year, will no doubt attract religious professionals, but Peluso-Verdend said the public is also welcome to attend. This year's theme is "Faith and Civil Discourse." While the cost is $90 to hear several speakers in the two-day event, Peluso-Verdend said a night session will be offered for free to the public.
But he said the seminary is often open to those who want to learn more about its offerings.
"If someone calls and says, 'Hey, I'd really like to know more about what the seminary is like, the contents of what you all teach,' we always make arrangements to be hospitable to such people," Peluso-Verdend said.
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