Simon Xavier Guerrand-Hermès, MTS '93, says that he felt "slightly ridiculous" in 1990 when, at the age of 50, he enrolled in Harvard Divinity School's master of theological studies program. His friends and colleagues at home in France didn't offer him much comfort. Why, they wondered, would the president of the board of Hermès of Paris U.S., one of the world's largest luxury goods firms, step away at the height of his wealth and success?
"In my life, competition was number one," says Guerrand-Hermès, "but I was always interested in spirituality. When I was young, I wanted to be a priest, but my family decided that I had better things to do. I finally got to a certain point where I decided that I had to make my own mark in life."
Thanks in large part to what he describes as a "transformative experience at HDS," Guerrand-Hermès has indeed made his mark beyond the boundaries of his family's multibillion-dollar company.
Just a few years after graduation, he started the Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace (GHFP), a global think tank that promotes a 'sustainable human future' through "the resolution of human problems in a spirit of optimism and realism."
The GHFP operates more than a dozen projects in Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East that foster peace through interreligious understanding, education, and personal development, and also through innovative solutions to poverty and injustice.
"What we do is try to get people to listen to one another," Guerrand-Hermès explains. "The voices of extraordinary people aren't always heard. Our goal is to foster understanding, even as we help people to become more themselves."
As an example of the GHFP's work and impact, Guerrand-Hermès points to the 'Healing the Wounds of History' conference of November 2011. The foundation brought scholars, students, and activists to the ancient city of Byblos, Lebanon, to discuss the roots of violence in that war-torn country.
Participants shared their stories of trauma and devastation, but also their hopes for a future without conflict. The product of the conference was a "Declaration for Healing Our Wounds of History," which was presented to Lebanon's prime minister.
" 'Healing the Wounds of History' started the desire to heal from the war and to realize that Lebanon is one country, not a collection of different groups," Guerrand-Hermès says. "People saw that forgiveness could be transforming. When you're consumed with anger and despair, you make the person who hurt you live forever. Forgiveness is saying: 'It happened. It's ghastly. Now I need to go on with my life.' Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is freeing yourself from the issue."
The GHFP might never have gotten off the ground had it not been for Guerrand-Hermès's own experience of trauma and forgiveness, which occurred during his third year at HDS.
On a drive from Manhattan to Cambridge in 1993, he was struck head-on by a nearly blind, elderly man who had mistaken an exit for an on-ramp to route 84 in Connecticut. Guerrand-Hermès was seriously injured, but miraculously walked away from the accident. At the hospital afterward, he was possessed by the conviction that his life had been spared for a reason. He forgave the man who hit him—and found the inspiration to start the GHFP.
"The combination of the accident and being immersed in life at HDS worked together to create an extraordinary change in me," Guerrand-Hermès says. "Dean Ronald Thiemann said to me when I graduated that most people come to HDS with some form of being religious and leave with more doubt. In my case, I came with some belief and left with far more. It summed up my transformation."
Guerrand-Hermès enabled other students to have the same type of transformational learning experience when he established the Guerrand-Hermès Family Scholarship at HDS. Each year, the fund supports an international student interested in interreligious or interfaith study.
"There is a lot of diversity at HDS, and also an extraordinary amount of belief and talent and knowledge to be found," he says. "I felt that I had benefited from doing something I wanted to do. I was in position to help someone go through a process and add a new dimension to their lives. That was my purpose and I was happy to do it."
Anna Kneifel, a German student who studies Islam, received the Guerrand-Hermès scholarship during the 2011-12 academic year. The first on her mother's side to attend university, Kneifel says she wouldn't have been able to come to HDS without financial aid.
"I love them," she says, referring to the Guerrand-Hermès family. "It's been wonderful."
It's critical to support the Divinity School, Guerrand-Hermès says, precisely because of the work that students like Kneifel go on to do. HDS graduates often lead lives of service and help to promote understanding between people of different faiths and cultures. It's work that makes the world a richer place, but is usually not financially enriching for alumni.
"All schools have objectives, but HDS has objectives that make people go around the world as scholars, ministers, peacemakers, and more," he says. "It puts them in a situation where they are not going to make a lot of money. They are people with a totally different view of life. I'm very touched by that."
—by Paul Massari