WAKE FOREST, North Carolina – A giant among giants. A bridge builder. A maverick.
That’s what some of the people who know Dr. George Braswell said about him during a surprise luncheon Thursday, March 10, at Wake Forest Baptist Church to honor him and celebrate his career. The senior professor of world religions at the Campbell University Divinity School and the founder of the World Religions and Global Cultures Center will retire in May.
“George has been a wonderful gift,” Campbell Divinity Dean Andy Wakefield said. “He is always pushing for new ways to bring the [World Religions and Global Cultures Center] to new effectiveness and relationships. We cannot thank [him] enough for making this center a success and an enduring part of Campbell Divinity.”
As tokens of appreciation, Campbell Divinity staff and advisors gave Braswell a picture book, a written history of the World Religions and Global Cultures Center, and a plaque to mark the March 10 event.
He also got three standing ovations during a luncheon that featured students, colleagues and friends sharing how he influenced them. First-year Campbell President J. Bradley Creed used his keynote address to encourage the nearly 100 attendees to follow Braswell’s example and give the best to each day.
“There is no one thing in life or on earth that will give us meaning besides God. It’s not about the next life or the recognition, but about living each day and knowing each day contains the goodness and grace of God,” Creed said. “Be receptive and open and enjoy life as it unfolds and as God gives it.”
Braswell, Creed added, has done that.
He and his wife, Joan, were the first Baptist missionaries to serve in Iran, where they lived for parts of the 1960s and 1970s. After returning to the U.S. in 1974, Braswell noticed the demographics were shifting as more immigrants were arriving, leading to a rise of religion pluralism.
He drew on his experiences as Christian minority in Iran to develop a Practicum in World Religions that would help church leaders better understand religion pluralism. He introduced it in 1980 when he was on the faculty at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Over the past 35 years, thousands of seminary and divinity students have joined him as he has visited houses of worships and met with people of various religious faiths, including Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists.
He brought the practicum with him to Campbell Divinity in 2005 when he joined its faculty. Two years later, he founded the World Religions and Global Cultures Center. In addition to hosting the one-week, 3-credit hour intensive Practicum in World Religions, the center holds numerous seminars and short courses related to world religions each year. Over a hundred students have also completed the Certificate in World Religions program the center offers.
“There are people of different faiths all around us. We need to understand who they are, what they believe, and how they relate to people,” Braswell said in a 2014 interview with campbell.edu. “So through the center and practicum, we are trying to put students and pastors in touch with the reality around them in terms of religion pluralism.”
Jason Duke, a 2008 graduate of Campbell Divinity, is one of those who took the practicum. Through the practicum and from Braswell, Duke learned that even in a religious pluralistic world, there is a shared humanity.
“We don’t need to apologize for our beliefs, and it’s OK for us to share the same space. We don’t have to sacrifice what we believe or push others away,” said Duke, who described Braswell as a maverick who thinks outside the box. “That’s the enduring value and mission of the [World Religions and Global Cultures Center]. We can show people and highlight that there is room for dialogue and there are friendships and bridges that can be built.
Representatives from the Fo Guang Shan Temple, a Buddhist temple in Raleigh, gave Braswell a framed sign written in Chinese letters that echoed that sentiment and expressed their appreciation for Braswell and what they saw in him: respect and tolerance for others.
“We have appreciated the dialogue between the different religions and the respect he has shown us,” Jill Chen of Fo Guang Shan Temple said. “His humor and his conversation was always warm and left us very impressed.”
Rabbi Eric Solomon, of the Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, received the same respect from Braswell, he said. “The greatest commandment is to love your neighbors as yourself. I used to think I understood what that meant. Then I met Dr. Braswell. He’s very strict on loving your neighbor as yourself, and he reminded me how strict I need to be in loving my neighbors as myself — all my neighbors.”
Speaking directly to Braswell, Solomon added: “Your influence, with God’s help, is greater than you imagine. Your influence is beyond the heavens.”
It’s because of Braswell’s commitment to being a bridge builder — of bringing people together and creating understanding, love and appreciation for each other — as to why he “stands as a giant among giants,” said Dr. Bill Slater, a member of the World Religions and Global Cultures Center advisory council and senior pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church.
“We all need at least one person in our lives who is a balcony person — someone whom we can always look up to,” he said. “George, you are that for us.”
Of all the outpouring of love, appreciation and admiration he received during the March 10 luncheon, Braswell said: “I am blessed. I will remember this for the rest of my life.”