A Third Generation Duke Alumnus' Response to Franklin Graham

Last week Franklin Graham the evangelical heir to Billy Graham gained a lot of attention by criticizing Duke University for its announcement to call the adhan from the Chapel for Friday Muslim prayers. Unfortunately Graham has little or no connection with Duke, and knows little about its heritage and traditions and commitment to its religious and educational values. My personal and family connections to Duke and Islam lead me to an entirely opposite conclusion from Mr. Graham.

Both of my grandfathers, Wilson O. Weldon and W. Wallace Fridy, were United Methodist ministers and acquaintances of Billy Graham. Wilson, my namesake, was also a charismatic and well-known preacher, a resident of North Carolina, and a Trustee of Duke University for 12 years (later a Trustee Emeritus and Special Assistant to Dean of the Divinity School). Wilson was very adamant in standing up for what was right when he felt his voice mattered -- once chastising Duke for advertising liquor in athletic programs. I, now, am a third generation Duke Alumnus.

My younger brother, interestingly, converted to Islam nearly 13 years ago, the result of a friendship established at Stanford University. Wilson's wife knew of this fact before she passed away in 2007 and, though startled and concerned, she accepted and loved my brother Jon in light of his direction-changing decision. My brother and his Senegalese wife have been welcomed in the small town community of North Carolina where we were raised.

My family has never felt threatened by Islam or by Jon’s choices; rather, we have striven to understand them and have met them with love. Anyone who knows Jon and his family understands that his choice of religion has shifted his focus inward, peacefully. At its literal best, Islam should not be a threat to Christianity; a coexistence of multiple systems of belief has developed easily in my own family. The similarities between the two religions are extensive and the younger religion of Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet.

Graham's response, however, strikes a tone antithetical to what I have come to know as the foundation of Christianity. Seemingly inspired by fear, his response to the Duke announcement, and the encouragement it gives to others likewise given to fear, is far more likely to be construed as a threat to Islam than any other reaction. The recent events in France served to highlight the hypocrisy of leaders who attribute such violence to a religion. As many have noted, Muslims are being forced to defend their faith while Christians and Jews are not held accountable for acts committed in their name. With two billion Muslims in the world, identifying the religion by a small, radical minority reveals a vast lack of consideration and understanding. Moreover, it smacks of opportunism. Would Mr. Graham want non-Christians to describe his religion in terms of the theology of Westboro Baptist Church? Or maybe he would prefer the Church of Latter-Day Saints? The point here is that Islam is as difficult to define by a small minority as is Christianity -- except in the small world of Mr. Graham with his opportunistic message of fear and ignorance.

As a private institution, Duke University is uniquely situated with the ability to define the uses and scope of its chapel -- opportunistic with a more inclusive bent. In fact, the Duke Chapel has a long history of religious pluralism and adaptability to different faiths. (If you're unsure, just take a look at the chapel's mission statement). Some may recall Duke's controversial decision in 2000 to allow same-sex unions in the Chapel. While unsettling at the time, that announcement was not met with threats of violence or withholding outside support. Setting an example of inclusivity now allows for Muslims to perceive Duke's original intent as a non-threat, to be met likewise with peace and love.

If Mr. Graham takes issue with churches that share a space of worship with other religions, he's going to have a long list of churches to challenge. It raises the question of why Duke Chapel and why now? Who does this serve? I do not pretend to know, but fostering a healthy and forward-looking approach to these issues -- and in the name of Christianity? -- it does not.

Duke University had an opportunity to be recognized further as a beacon of tolerance and inter-religious respect. This message could help to propel other universities, churches, and centers of faith/worship to new levels of conversation around what pluralism is, or could be. While this forward movement will certainly involve discussion and disagreement, it could remain civil. Such healing does not require name-calling, fear-mongering, bigotry or violence. It could reflect one of the most American of passions: personal liberty in choosing how to worship one God.

I cannot project how my devoutly Christian grandfathers would have reacted, but I know that Wilson's wife of sixty years lived to greet Jon, his Senegalese wife, and their daughter with warmth and affection. And I think this lesson of love far outshines a fanatical short-sightedness of angry exclusion.