Story Magazine - Second Quarter, 2007

Muslim Student Provides Opportunity for Cross-Cultural Involvement at Luther

by Allison Schmitt, M.A. '07

What would lead a Turkish Muslim student to Luther Seminary? Why, Google, of course.

Yasir Bilgin will begin his second year in Luther's Islamic Studies program this fall. Although he lives just minutes away and frequently drove past Luther, it took a Web search for him to discover it.

Bilgin is a native of Bursa, Turkey, a city about three hours southeast of Istanbul. Born into a traditional Islamic family, Bilgin earned an undergraduate degree in theology and started a master's degree in Qu'ran interpretation in Turkey. But a time of self-reflection led him in a different direction. He had a keen interest in other cultures and faiths, thanks in part to his involvement in a movement led by teacher and thinker Fethullah G৘len. A Turkish religious scholar, G৘len won countless followers by encouraging Muslims to embrace such ideals as tolerance and democracy. His message of parental respect and academic achievement had an immediate impact on the then
teen-aged Bilgin, who rose to third in his class after joining the movement. Inspired by G৘len's call for Turks to introduce their culture to the world, Bilgin put his graduate studies on hold to travel to the United States. After his April 2001 arrival, Bilgin spent time in Pennsylvania, where G৘len now lives and teaches. Two years later, Bilgin moved to Minnesota at the invitation of
friends who are graduate students at the University of Minnesota.

Bilgin then decided to take up graduate studies once again, this time looking at psychology programs. While attending a conference of Abrahamic faiths at Hartford Seminary, a student there suggested he attend seminary, where he could gain a religious rather than secular understanding of human beings. "It made sense to
me," he said.

So he began researching his options. His Internet search led him back almost to his own front door. He was surprised to learn that what he thought was a church was actually a seminary. He met with Dr. Mark Swanson, former Associate Professor of Christian History and Islam and Director of the Islamic Studies Program. Bilgin was encouraged to learn that he could incorporate pastoral care classes into his studies. Despite the obvious religious differences, Bilgin entered Luther's Master of Arts
program in Islamic studies. He was convinced Luther was the right place for him to continue his education. "Science is a science, regardless of the religious collar on it," he said.

It's been a time of discovery for Bilgin. He learned that his fears about "how are [students] going to look at me, how are they going to think of me" were for naught. He's found that Luther is a good fit for him in more ways than he first realized, noting similarities between G৘len's teachings and the seminary's emphasis on cross-cultural education and youth ministry.

But perhaps the most surprising part of the story is that Bilgin served as a chaplain one spring semester. Although not a requirement of the Islamic Studies program, Bilgin participated in a clinical pastoral education program. At first he was uncomfortable talking with and reading the Bible to patients. But as the discomfort waned, his ability "to put myself in other people's shoes" grew. "It was a really lifechanging event for me," he said.

He especially appreciated one elderly woman, whose depth of faith impressed him. Like many, she saw the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as a divine warning; however, she saw it not as a pronouncement of judgment but as a call to spread the Word. Likewise, Bilgin sees sharing the love of God as the right way to counter terrorism. He quotes is mentor, who says that a terrorist is not a Muslim and a Muslim is not a terrorist.

While not an evangelist in the traditional sense, Bilgin feels called to spread a spiritual message--the message of a tolerant, peaceful Islam. He hopes to do so by remaining in the United States for the foreseeable future, pursuing a doctorate in counseling or psychology. He plans to continue to serve in the Turkish Muslim community by leading prayers and Qu'ran studies while at the same time fostering inter-religious understanding. He is helped in this effort by his wife, Betul, who is a doctoral biomedical student at the University of Minnesota.

Each religion has its "own personality, own richness," he said. Islam teaches that God revealed himself through creation and the holy books, as given to the prophets--Adam, Moses, David, Abraham, Jesus and Muhammed. "According to the Qu'ran, Islam is the last and most completed religion in the sight of God," said Bilgin. Even so, "As a part of our faith, someone should believe that these messengers received the true message from God and they reflected God's purpose and carried it to human beings in their time," he said. The stated purpose of Luther's Islamic Studies program is to "encourage awareness of the Islamic reality" and to "prepare Christian leaders for meaningful involvement with Muslims." By attending Luther, Bilgin has provided just such opportunities
for those in as well as outside the Islamic Studies program.

"Having students like Yasir on campus enriches and enlivens the Luther faith community significantly," said John Hildebrand, M.A., '07. World events like the Sept. 11 attack and the Iraq war make it imperative that "future pastors and leaders of the church understand better and have the chance to dialogue with our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions," he said. "I personally have learned so much from them."

"I have had a wonderful time getting to know Yasir," said Liz Olson, M.A.,'07. "He has been patient as he teaches me of his faith tradition, from sharing his experiences at morning prayer to enjoying Turkish food together."

Bilgin's contributions are academic as well as cultural. "Reading the Abraham cycle in Genesis and the kosher and sacrifice laws of Leviticus through Muslim eyes with Yasir was especially rewarding for the unexpected contrasts and comparisons that resulted," said Mark Throntveit, Professor of Old Testament. He anticipates Bilgin's presence will occasion "illuminating insights" in the class.

"Greater knowledge of and appreciation for the beliefs, customs, and presuppositions of a variety of traditions invites us to examine our own," said Throntveit. "As we continue to live in a world of changing if not clashing cultures, we will best be served by taking advantage of opportunities to examine and discuss our differences and similarities whenever possible."

For Olson, getting acquainted with Bilgin is more than social. It's caused
her to ask, "How can we as Christians better receive those of varying faiths?"

One cannot find the answer to such a question on Google, but rather in "meaningful involvement"--involvement that is possible right here at Luther, thanks to Bilgin's presence.