Yakubu Jakada of Nigeria and Pursenla Ozukum of India, students in Hartford Seminary's International Peacemaking Program (IPP), are both first-time visitors to the United States. Both are also intent upon building their skills in interfaith dialogue through the IPP program.
Most important for Yakubu – a Baptist – is the chance to learn about Islam directly from Muslim instructors. In Nigeria, where he teaches at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Kaduna, Muslims do not teach Christians about their religion, he said.
“The interaction here is quite appreciable,” Yakubu said. “I’m learning a lot of practical skills on interfaith dialogue.”
Those skills, he said, will not only benefit his pastoral work but will expand to his students at the seminary.
“In teaching, you multiply yourself,” he said. “The impact of the seminary will be more than what I’m doing alone.”
Yakubu’s roommate at Hartford Seminary is a Muslim from Egypt, and he enjoys that part of his cross-cultural experience.
“Even though we are both from Africa, we are of different backgrounds,” he said.
Yakubu admits, though, that he hasn’t adjusted to an American diet. Shortly after arriving in Hartford for the fall semester, he found a store within walking distance that sells African groceries.
“I’ve been eating African foods as if I’m in Nigeria,” he said.
Pursenla’s journey to the U.S. had a bit of a rocky start when she had to sleep overnight at JFK Airport because of a delay in getting through customs. Despite that, she finds that “the people here are very welcoming and very friendly.”
In Pursenla’s politically troubled home region of Nagaland, which is mainly Christian, people of different faiths rarely interact. Also a Baptist, Pursenla first met Muslims and Hindus when she did post-graduate work in Islamic Studies after getting her bachelor's degree from Clark Theological College.
“That’s when I was challenged to get beyond my comfort zone,” she said.
At Hartford Seminary, Pursenla — who also has a master's degree from the North India Institute of Theological Studies — has the opportunity to study outside of India on a campus with many non-Christians. When she returns to India after her year as an IPP student, she hopes to work at a seminary there to “impart what was learned in Hartford.”
“We are so much aware of peacebuilding and the need for dialogue,” she said.
Hartford Seminary began the International Peacemaking Program (IPP) in 2004, recognizing the need for skilled peacemakers in many countries with which the Seminary has connections, as well as the unique leadership training that could be provided here. The program, which is supported by donors, provides a full one-year scholarship for students who are selected to participate.
The IPP is for Christians, Muslims or Jews who live in overseas areas where there is interreligious conflict. Students in the International Peacemaking Program spend an academic year studying interfaith dialogue and leadership skills that also includes an emphasis on public engagement and public speaking skills. In addition to their formal studies, students are embedded in a local faith community where they experience American religious culture firsthand.