This semester, USC students have the opportunity to attend a variety of events dealing with themes of race and religion in society from the perspective of three major religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
The Race, Faith and Violence program, a collaboration between the USC Caruso Catholic Center and the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, features panels of three scholars-in-residence from different faiths — Amir Hussain, Reuven Firestone, and Pim Valkenberg — having conversations about issues such as race, gender, sexuality and interfaith violence.
The program was born out of an interest to address topics that are often considered taboo, but are at the center of current political discourse. The program is the brainchild of Father Jim Heft, the head of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. Heft also had the idea to have scholars-in-residence specifically available for students in order to engage in these difficult conversations during official events, at weekly office hours and scripture readings.
Professor Amir Hussain is one of the three scholars-in-residence this semester. Hussain is a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University and an editor for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. He’s recently released a book about how American Muslims have become interwoven into American life and culture, titled Muslims and the Making of America. His work has focused on how different faiths can work together and has explored interfaith relationships, which made him one of the first people that Father Heft thought of when creating the program.
“I think the opportunity to connect with people is great,” Hussain said, referring to what attracted him to the Race, Faith, and Violence program.
Hussain emphasized the value of having multiple viewpoints at each of these events, and the successes they’ve had in diversity of speakers as well as the topics they’ve been able to cover. He credits much of this to the resources of the University and the help from the Caruso Center as well as the Institute.
Pim Valkenberg is the second scholar-in-residence. He’s a professor of religion and culture in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and has authored multiple books. He’s previously worked at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies through its “Learned Ignorance” series. Valkenberg specializes in partnerships between the Christian and Muslim faiths based on their shared Abrahamic heritage.
Valkenberg agreed with Hussain on the benefits of this program. He said that the greatest advantage is having all day to work together with colleagues and students in small settings and the ability to learn from one another.
However, Valkenberg also pointed out some of the difficulties of the program.
“It’s really hard to advertise it in such a way that students think, ‘Whoa, this is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ which I really do think it is, but it’s kind of hard to find a language in letting students know about it,” Valkenberg said.
Rev. Reuven Firestone, also a scholar-in-residence, is a USC professor in the School of Religion and the Middle East Studies Center, as well as the Regenstein professor in medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College. He’s also written a number of books, has worked on numerous projects to promote interfaith understanding and worked to bring together different faiths, especially in the Middle East.
To Hussain, this program is especially significant in today’s troubled political times, when people are struggling to see beyond the hateful political rhetoric of our presidential candidates.
“What’s more topical than race, faith and violence in the age of Black Lives Matter, in the age of Islamophobia and the  election? It’s really relevant for students today,” Hussain said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Professor Amir Hussain’s book was called “Islam and the Building of America.” It is called “Muslims and the Making of America.”