A happenstance walk with ministers of two other faiths on the Syracuse campus, and an impromptu prayer in South Africa before physicians operated on his infant son.

Those world-apart moments were used by The Rev. Brian Konkol, Ph.D., dean of Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel, to describe his approach to forming community around diversity, inclusion, and outreach on campus. 

He was the keynote speaker for the School of Information Studies’ annual fall convocation last week, invited by Dean Elizabeth Liddy. She described him as “someone who has become increasingly central to our University, and a model for each of us, both in his words and his actions.”

In the first instance, Rev. Konkol told of encountering two fellow Syracuse University religious leaders on an unplanned walk on campus his first week here, 14 months ago. He suddenly recognized how the trio—moving along together as a Lutheran pastor, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam—represented “the beginning of every bar room joke I’d ever told in my life,” Rev. Konkol explained to laughter.

Joking aside, he said, “Something in that moment represented the methodology we use at Hendricks Chapel. That is how we journey together in solidarity for the sake of one another, recognizing we have different beliefs, but from the roots of those beliefs we can create reach. From our individual roots we extend a generous reach when we live in community together. That’s our methodology, and of course it’s the history of Hendricks Chapel, which was built as an interfaith space, one of very first in country.”

In the second illustration, Rev. Konkol described the anxious moments when, as a young Caucasian Lutheran minister on mission in South Africa along with his wife, the time came to hand their infant son over to surgeons “who believed, looked and acted incredibly different from me.” The physicians, a Muslim woman and a Hindu man, along with their evangelical Christian assistant, offered to pray together with Rev. Konkul and his wife. At first, the Dean explained, his “theological brain” wondered what god they’d be praying to. “Then, you do what’s best for your heart. In the single most vulnerable moment of my life, people who believed and looked and acted incredibly differently from two small-town kids from Wisconsin ministered to us.”

Those instances illustrate the essence of his efforts to create community here, he said, particularly since he believes that the questions students face upon coming to campus can be summed up in three words:

  • Belonging. (“I’m not sure we ever leave first grade. We ask ourselves, who am I going to sit with at lunch today – where am I going to belong?”)
  • Becoming. (“The university experience in many ways is about education, but more than information, it’s also a formation and also a transformation. In that journey of becoming, how do we form citizens for common good in ways that bring life nourishment to the university?”)
  • Bestowing. (“What is the mark I leave behind; what is the gift I bring to this world; how do I serve as a blessing?”)

From its earliest outreach to the Jewish and Muslim communities, Hendricks Chapel now has more than 25 different affiliated religious groups and it provides countless programs “that help you and that help you direct your students to us,” Rev. Konkol told the staff and faculty assembled. That community is reflected in an African proverb that he also believes is essential on a campus and in life: “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”

“Ultimately, we need each other to become ourselves,” he advised. “Getting to know each other in the act of accompaniment helps us to build a strong team and model that for the rest of the university. We’re better when we’re together and we go far when we’re together.”