New interim associate dean hopes to foster diversity, dialogue

by James Huddleston
News Editor

Amid homework, tests, 10-page papers and the general hecticness of college life, religious reflection or practice among students may fall by the wayside. Nancy Jo Kemper, newly appointed interim associate dean of interreligious life, hopes to change this.

“College students are invited to explore many dimensions of life,” Kemper said, “(and) religion represents the cultural systems, belief systems and worldviews by which persons interpret the meaning and purpose of life. My hope would be that a church-related college would help students evaluate the belief systems which they brought to college, challenge them to wrestle with those big questions and work for some kinds of personally chosen values, rather than merely continuing their lives with the belief systems of their childhood.”

A Lexington native, Kemper grew up as a member of the Disciples of Christ church, the Christian denomination with which Transylvania is affiliated. Following her graduation from Transy in 1964, she attended three years of seminary at Yale University Divinity School, which awarded Kemper with the William Sloane Coffin Jr. Peace and Justice Award in 2010.

The only female to receive the award in its history, Kemper has also earned a litany of professional accolades from other organizations such as the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Central Kentucky Civil Liberties Union and the Interfaith Alliance of the Bluegrass. In 2001, Kemper also received an honorary doctorate of humane letters degree from Transylvania.

Though now retired from full-time work, Kemper was still happy to accept a one-year appointment to this newly formed position.

“I accepted this one-year appointment by President Williams in order to be of assistance to Transylvania,” said Kemper, “and out of love for my alma mater. With the new president, Transylvania will be moving in some new directions, including … working to become a more diverse institution. Helping Transylvania develop a new commitment to interreligious dialogue and a greater religious diversity seemed to suit my skills.”

While Kemper herself does not have any long-term goals due to the brevity of the appointment, she hopes to work with other faculty members and the president to plan for what the position should entail on a full-time basis.

“We are … working to articulate what it means to be a church-related institution, rooted in the particularity of a tradition that is itself committed to dialogue, openness and hospitality,” Kemper said, “while expanding the capacity of the university to serve students from many religious traditions.”

Among the ideas for programs Kemper would like to see developed is one she calls “Intersections,” which would involve inviting a prominent member of a particular religious tradition to have dinner with students and faculty, where he or she could engage in open conversation about various issues.

Kemper also aims to encourage greater dialogue among those of different faiths, or different sects of the same faith, on campus.

“I hope to introduce students to persons who are living their lives as a Buddhist, or Hindu, or Muslim,” said Kemper. “I hope also to bring the campus Christian organizations together more often for dialogue and deeper understanding. I firmly believe that the divisions in Christianity have negative consequences for our presentation of the Gospel to agnostics or nonbelievers.”

With high hopes for her new position, Kemper expects its development into something more permanent and influential to take time.

“These aren’t the sort of goals that are ‘accomplished,’ ” Kemper said. “We work at them. We establish a path and walk it for a while to see if it feels appropriate. If so, great; if not, we change the way we are doing things. This is a year in which we will be trying to move in some new directions, and then it will be someone else’s responsibility to move the idea of interreligious activities on Transy’s campus into the future.”

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