On the morning of September 11, 2001, I stood in my College Dean’s office welcoming members of Georgetown’s Board of Directors to an informal breakfast. In the hour before their formal board meeting began, we chatted about the semester’s start, and I spoke about new programs that we were launching in Georgetown College. Suddenly, a cellphone rang and one of the board members, a top airline executive, was told that an American Airlines plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The room erupted, and we quickly turned on a television to follow the horrifying story as it unfolded. When another plane plowed into the Pentagon just after 9:30, rumors began sweeping across Washington: The White House had been targeted, the State Department was under attack, Army troops were flooding the city. Students with dorm rooms overlooking the Potomac stood aghast watching the smoke from the Pentagon billow up the river.

The Georgetown community realized immediately that alumni, parents, and other relatives were likely lost in the multiple sites of devastation. Campus ministers quickly planned prayer services for their constituencies: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim. But in the midst of that planning, students began to push back. They did not want to pray separately. They wanted to come together as one. Soon, faculty, staff, and students gathered from all parts of the campus for a prayer service that expressed our common fear and dread and grief.

Faculty, staff, and students gathered from all parts of the campus for a prayer service that expressed our common fear and dread and grief.

While interfaith initiatives were not unknown at Georgetown, the tragedy of that September morning gave them new urgency. The renewed realization that religion can play an important role in world affairs spurred efforts to enhance university research and teaching about other religious traditions, to analyze and assess the geopolitical impacts of religious adherents and their communities, and to provide leadership and support for informed interreligious engagement. Support from several members of the university’s Board of Directors underwrote Georgetown’s efforts to respond to these priorities and to commence the creation of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

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