As a teen, Sarah Bier traveled from Chicago to Israel to learn more about Judaism. But her journey to the Holy Land, marred by religious violence from beginning to end, ultimately led her to explore other faiths as well.
Syafa Almirzanah chose to pursue similar studies after growing tensions among Muslims in her native Indonesia began to threaten formerly healthy relationships with the Christian and Jewish minority there.
On Thursday, Bier and Almirzanah will become the first Jewish woman and the first Muslim woman to receive advanced degrees from Catholic Theological Union—a sign of how the graduate seminary has expanded its mission to foster a peaceful co-existence of religious traditions around the world.
Seminary leaders say both women offer hope in a troubling era when religious alliances have become strained and religious tensions have erupted in violence.
"I think of them as real pioneers, both of them, in their own communities," said Rev. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union, which was founded four decades ago to train priests.
"We need bridge builders like this or else we're going to be killing each other. Religion often becomes the battle line. We desperately need people who can say 'We can live together and show mutual respect in a pluralistic world.' "
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, motivated Bier to begin asking questions. Then a recent high school graduate, she had arrived in Israel only a week before they occurred.
The following year was one of the most tumultuous periods of the Palestinian Intifada. Near the end of her trip, terrorists bombed two hotels on Israel's northern coast during Passover.
"I don't think I realized it at the time that it was very difficult for me to process all these experiences," said Bier, now 25. To reach a resolution, she designed an undergraduate major focused on Middle Eastern conflict.
Eventually, her curiosity gravitated toward different sacred scriptures, in which stories often overlap or duplicate. On Thursday, she will receive a master's degree in theology with a comparative focus on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scripture.
"I gained a lot of respect for Christians and Muslims during the journey," she said, adding that she prefers to say "respect" instead of "tolerance," which she views as a negative word. "There are all kinds of Muslims just like there are all kinds of Jews—some who view their faith in radically different ways."
As a teacher at Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield, Bier occasionally shares with her students how Muslims and Christians interpret stories found in the Hebrew Bible, revealing the kinship at their cores.
Bier also oversees the school's Interfaith Club, which includes students from Loyola Academy, a Catholic high school in Wilmette, and Universal School, a Muslim academy in Bridgeview.
Almirzanah, 45, a professor of comparative religion at Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, came to Chicago with her son. Now 16, the boy attended public schools for six years while she studied at the Hyde Park seminary.
In addition to receiving a doctor of ministry degree with a focus on Christian-Muslim relations from Catholic Theological Union, Almirzanah will receive another doctorate Sunday from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
She was invited to Chicago by Harold Vogelaar, a retired professor who founded the Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice at the Lutheran seminary.
In her dissertation, she explored the similarities of mystic traditions as a way of transcending barriers to interfaith conversations. She describes true interfaith exchanges as journeys "from the Motherland to the Wonderland." Each journey has the potential to deepen one's own faith, she said.
Almirzanah says her passion to bridge divides is more than a scholarly pursuit. It is a personal conviction.
"For me as Muslim, I have to do that," she said. "Serving humanity means serving God. Speaking about God is OK, but never speaking for God. This is my responsibility. That is what I have to do. Honor other people. Respect other people because diversity is designed by God."