Students enjoy the newly-renovated Damietta Cross-Cultural Center at Siena College. Featured on the walls is artwork by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM. (Photo courtesy of Br. George Camacho)

Iconic Redesign for the Damietta Cross-Cultural Center

By George Camacho, OFM Around the Province, Home Page – News

LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. — During the spring and summer of 2021, the Damietta Cross-Cultural Center at Siena College experienced a major redesign. The hallmark of this renovation includes a series of wall sketches depicting elements from the icon of Francis and the Sultan created by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, of St. Bonaventure University. Br. Robert generously granted permission for the center to use his work as part of his ongoing mission to utilize iconography as a dynamic form of evangelization. The icon recalls the encounter of Francis of Assisi and Muslim leader Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade in 1219 in the city of Damietta, Egypt.

“Byzantine icons are the earliest roots of Christian visual art,” notes Br. Robert. “In the West, they morphed into Romanesque art and influenced millions of believers for many centuries. In the East, they remain the dominant form of visual art.  Because the Byzantine icon is so ancient, and because it arose in a culture that understood the importance of myth, it can depict truths of the heart and soul much better than modern ‘realistic’ art.”

The heart and soul of the Damietta Center is its spirit of genuine inclusivity. It is a brave space in which students are encouraged to meet peers of various cultures, identities and backgrounds. In our center, students often laugh and play games, but also engage in an array of serious topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion. The college’s affinity clubs each have a small storage space and club pictures that adorn the walls.  The affinity clubs include the Asian Students Association, Black Student Union, Pride-Gay Straight Alliance, Muslim Students Association and Latinx Student Association.

MSA Club Officer Elham Malik,’22, states, “The depiction of the icon of St. Francis and the Sultan remind us of a lost history of wonderful Catholic and Muslim relationship through all of the political turmoil of the time and reminds us of the importance of inter-religious dialogue where respect is the foremost concern. Agreeing to disagree while supporting and uplifting each other is the perfect takeaway!”

Elements from the icon are incorporated throughout the Damietta Center. (Photo courtesy of Br. George Camacho)

Colleen Sheedy of the Mission Office and Art Director Sergio Sericolo spearheaded the redesign efforts, and Fr. Greg Gebbia, OFM, consulted during the initial design phase. The space has been decluttered and enhanced with the addition of new furniture and a fresh coat of paint – the new large aqua bean bag chair has been a popular feature.

The values of compassion, mutual respect, and acceptance permeate the engagement amongst students in the Damietta Center while also referencing the encounter of St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil. Br. Robert adds, “the encounter…belongs to both history and to myth.  There were no newspaper reporters present in the sultan’s court, recording the event for posterity. Instead, we have stories told by several different types of men who took part in that Crusade – and we have evidence in the life of St. Francis himself that indicates how the encounter changed him and influenced what he hoped to pass on to his followers.”

Student leaders, known as Damietta Advocates, emphasize the concrete manner in which they and their peers put forward the values depicted in the myth.  Alyssa Blanco, ’24, states, “every new person who comes in is welcomed by whoever is already there. It’s a very inviting place: you are bombarded at the door with welcome in the very best way possible.”  David DaCosta, ’23 adds, “helping newcomers feel welcome is what we’re all about.”

— Br. George Camacho is the director of the Damietta Cross-Cultural Center at Siena College.

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