Lutheran Center hires new director

Deanna Thompson ’89 joined the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values and Community as director last spring, an appointment that comes on the heels of the Center’s founding last October.

St. Olaf created the Center in October 2018 because there was a need to define what it means to be a Lutheran school, Thompson said. As a former professor of religion at Hamline University, Thompson aims to build “bridges across religious difference” in her new role.

To support students participating in various religious organizations, the Center created the Student Interreligious Council (SIRC) this fall. SIRC invites members of groups involved in religious or spiritual activities to participate, Thompson said. The Council met for the first time Sept. 26.

The purpose of this meeting was to “build a sense of supporting each other’s events,” Thompson said. Every participant received a copy of educator and interfaith leader Eboo Patel’s book, “Interfaith Leadership: A Primer,” which focuses on embracing religious diversity. Patel is visiting campus next fall.

Holly Beck ’22, the community events coordinator for the St. Olaf branch of Delight Ministries, a women’s Christian bible study organization, attended the SIRC meeting.
“We all had a really nice, candid discussion about things that we really value about our faith tradition, as well as things that we value about other faith traditions as well,” Beck said.

The Center has a bevy of other interreligious initiatives planned for the coming months, such as an ongoing search for an associate chaplain for Muslim life.

“We’re doing all of these things to try to really say that we’re going to be a religiously inclusive place.”
– Deanna Thompson ’89

“We hope to have that person here by the end of the year,” Thompson said. The Center funded the hiring of Rabbi Shosh Dworsky as Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life in January.

The Center will host Leading Out: LGBT+ Clergy in the ELCA on Oct. 16, which will invite a panel of Lutheran ministers to talk about their sexuality and faith and celebrate the 10th anniversary of welcoming LGBT+ clergy into the Lutheran church.

This spring, Thompson hopes to bring Lutheran pastor Lenny Duncan to campus and celebrate the 50th anniversary of allowing women to become pastors in the Lutheran church.

“We’re doing all of these things to try to really say that we’re going to be a religiously inclusive place,” Thompson said. “I don’t think we’re there, but that’s the vision and I’m hopeful that we’re starting to take steps in that direction.”

The Center received part of its funding from the “To Include is to Excel” (TIITE) grant, which will be used to host book discussion groups among students, faculty and staff from winter through summer 2020. TIITE is a four-year, $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that supports St. Olaf’s efforts to promote equity and inclusion.

The Center also designated Eboo Patel’s new book as summer reading for first-year students, part of a new process at the College which hopes to engage students with diverse issues before they arrive.

Finally, a taskforce of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America wrote a Declaration for Interreligious Commitment this summer. Thompson talked to a group of students about the Center’s vision in line with the Declaration, and how St. Olaf can “actively work against stereotypes” regarding members of non-Lutheran faiths.