The Deacon's Bench

A group of seminarians from a variety of faiths has banded together to try and buy a former Carmelite monastery in Chicago’s New Hyde Park section.

If that’s not ambitious enough, their plans including using the building as an interfaith center.

The Chicago Tribune has the scoop:

For a dozen years, Roman Catholic friars prayed inside the ordinary red-brick building on a shady Hyde Park corner and prepared to devote their lives to the church. For decades before that, a young Mormon congregation gathered there to study Scripture and worship. Now a small group of determined seminarians hopes to make the building its own and create a sacred space for believers of all faiths to live together and work toward peace.

Le Anne Clausen, 29, a student at Chicago Theological Seminary, envisions building a Center for Peace and Understanding that would help bridge the chasm between different religious traditions and shape a generation of selfless clergy.

Converting the monastery into affordable housing for aspiring religious leaders would offer a sense of community to commuter students attending Hyde Park seminaries, she said. It would also ease concerns about making ends meet, Clausen said, allowing them to focus on following their hearts.

“This is a beautiful spiritual space in our neighborhood, that has a history shared by several religious traditions who have used it,” said Clausen, director of SeminaryAction, a non-profit group that sponsors interfaith activities and opportunities for seminarians to volunteer and interact.

While the idea for the center may seem quixotic to some, for Clausen it is a goal within reach and worth a try. As she searches for financial sponsors to help buy the $1.5 million monastery, Clausen has been pulling all-nighters writing grant proposals and business plans in hopes of succeeding before the fall semester starts next week.

She envisions providing affordable housing for a dozen students taking courses at any of the six seminaries in Hyde Park: the University of Chicago Divinity School, Chicago Theological Seminary, Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, McCormick Theological Seminary, Catholic Theological Union and Meadville-Lombard School of Theology.

The project also would add what Clausen believes to be an essential component to seminary education: an opportunity for hands-on ministry. While many students come to Chicago seeking experience in urban ministry, Clausen laments that they often land in mostly white suburban churches to do their fieldwork and hear dire warnings about the neighborhoods surrounding Hyde Park.

“Too often they end up withdrawing into the walls of their campuses,” Clausen said. “Very few even get to know students from other church denominations and faith backgrounds while they’re here. … I say, why not help Chicago become the world’s center for training religious leaders in interfaith peacemaking and cooperative action? Especially towards addressing so many of the deep problems we have in our city and our world?”

To help do that, Clausen and friends formed SeminaryAction more than a year ago. The organization targeted seminarians who felt discouraged from doing ministry in nearby blighted areas and believed the ecumenical movement of the 1970s — efforts to bridge the gaps between Christian denominations — had faded.

“Ecumenism, even though it’s not necessarily trendy anymore … is still really important,” said founding member Heather Greenwell, a graduate of Catholic Theological Union who now supports the project through her job at the Interfaith Youth Core. “We all have similar concerns, and our impact can be even greater if we work on the shared values we have.”

It’s a fascinating idea — and if you want to find out more, you can visit the SeminaryAction website to find out how you can help.

Photo: Chicago Theological Seminary

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