Religious hostility often sits at the core of conflict and violence. Honest dialogue and mutual respect are part of the solution, and hence one reason Loma Linda University Health has created the William Johnsson Center for Understanding World Religions.
The new center, approved by the Board of Trustees in February 2016, held its inaugural event on Sabbath, January 28, 2017.
“Dr. Johnsson’s knowledge and passion for world religions have been invaluable to our campus”
The name of the center recognizes William Johnsson, and his contributions to promoting interreligious understanding in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Johnsson served as assistant for interfaith relations for former General Conference President Jan Paulsen for seven years, following a prolific career in publishing and scholarship in the Adventist Church. Johnsson retired to Loma Linda in 2014, where he regularly teaches courses for the Loma Linda University (LLU) School of Religion and still writes books.
“Dr. Johnsson’s knowledge and passion for world religions have been invaluable to our campus,” says Richard Hart, president of Loma Linda University Health.
Jon Paulien, dean of the School of Religion, who will serve as the center’s director, seconds Johnsson’s vast contributions. “The faculty of the School of Religion consider him one of the great Adventist figures of our era. His work with the Adventist Review and then interfaith relations has truly become legendary to us.”
Purpose of the Center
Dean Paulien notes that central to the definition of a university is the exchange and understanding of diverse ideas—such as different religious beliefs.
“Working or studying at Loma Linda University Health is a calling, not a job,” Paulien says. “If God calls non-Christians to Loma Linda, then that is a spiritual gift to us. They can benefit us by testifying to what God has done in their lives.
"The surest way to people’s hearts is through their faith"
“Furthermore, the surest way to people’s hearts is through their faith,” he continues. “We need to understand the hearts of our students and employees of other belief systems so that we can serve them appropriately.”
For its initial activities, the William Johnsson Center for Understanding World Religions will hold meetings twice yearly, each focusing on a different religion.
Paulien says, “These programs will not be purely theoretical but will also include practitioners of that faith who are employees or students of Loma Linda University Health, sharing what it means to them, with an Adventist then responding about how Adventism at its best encourages Loma Linda to offer an environment where individuals of different faiths peacefully learn and practice alongside each other.”
The inaugural event took place on January 28, 2017 with a focus on the faith of Islam. The two-hour program explored the role and experience of Muslim students and faculty in the context of Loma Linda University Health’s mission and values.
President Hart offered an introduction, while Johnsson, the center’s namesake, discussed the scope and purpose of the new enterprise. Johnsson also gave the initial donation to launch the center.
The program’s expert presenters were almost all students and faculty at Loma Linda University Health. A steering committee comprising Muslim faculty planned the event and selected the speakers.
Nahidh Hasaniya, an associate professor in the School of Medicine, offered a recitation from the Quran, followed with a translation by Shamel Abd-Allah, professor in the School of Medicine.
A special guest from Claremont School of Theology, Jihad Turk, spoke about “Why I Am a Muslim.” Turk is president of Bayan Claremont, a seminary to educate Muslim scholars and religious leaders.
Two more LLU professors, Mahmoud Torabinejad, of the School of Dentistry, and Eba Hathout, of the School of Medicine, discussed “What It’s Like to Be a Muslim at LLU.”
Gerald Winslow, director of the LLU Center for Christian Bioethics, spoke about Seventh-day Adventism and Islam. A panel discussion following included Winslow, Hathout, Turk, and Torabinejad, as well as student Sara Haddad Tabrizi, LLU School of Public Health, and Khwaja Arsalaan Ahmed, radiology resident at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
The choice of Islam as the first program’s focus reflects part of the impetus to start such a center at Loma Linda University Health.
The Center’s Founding
The original suggestion for such a center came from Gabriela Profeta-Phillips, coordinator of Adventist-Muslim relations for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.
Phillips and other General Conference representatives met with the School of Religion dean to develop a proposal to share at LLU Deans Council on December 2, 2015, coincidentally at the same time a young Muslim couple unleashed a terrorist attack on San Bernardino. In the wake of that tragic event, the Deans Council reacted to the idea favorably, with top-level administrative commitment coming soon after.
Paulien remembers, “A month later, we held a meeting with local Muslim leaders, engaging with them to communicate to the community that we at Loma Linda University Health want to be a center of healing, not just for our own campus but more broadly. We expressed our desire to redouble our efforts to be a partner of peace in the wider community.”