Interfaith discussions connect communities

“What we most need is the prayer of fervent desire for growth in grace, expressed in patience, meekness, love and good deeds.” With this prayer, Ali Tozier ’09 opened an evening of spiritual discussion this past Friday at the Jewish Religious Center (JRC). About 100 students and members of the campus community, including members from all eight religious organizations at the College, joined together for a second interfaith dinner, which was followed by an open discussion regarding spiritual belief and identity.

The evening marked a significant step, as religious groups try to direct some of the energy generated by the recent activism on campus to fuel their outreach efforts and to connect with other organizations and students who do not identify with any faith.

When the racially charged incidents of early February galvanized the campus into forming Stand With Us, several members of the religious community felt that the spiritual aspect of the situation was being overlooked. “While on one hand we had an act of discrimination against a racial group, there was also an act of discrimination against a religious person,” said Bob Scherr, the Jewish chaplain, referring to the op-ed Jacqueline Magby ’11 wrote in the March 5 issue of the Record, in which she described the bigotry she experienced in her entry in addition to the racist vandalism. “We had this shocking event take place in our midst, and a whole bunch of people felt a response to it from their religious faiths,” Scherr said.

The rising call for an examination of social culture on campus through a religious lens prompted Williams Catholic, under Catholic Chaplain Gary Gaster, to take the reins and arrange the first interfaith dinner. Held three weeks ago under the leadership of students from Williams Catholic, the dinner was open to devotees of all faiths and encouraged spiritual dialogue regarding discrimination. Caster explained that he is always looking to facilitate student interaction and to encourage students to learn from one another, and that he saw this occasion as an opportunity to bring religion to the forefront of discussion.

Students who attended the first interfaith dinner deemed it a success. “When we left, we were all hungry for more discussion,” said Tozier, a founding member of the Christian Science Organization (CSO) at the College, the smallest faith-based group on campus. “There was a lot of talk about forming some sort of group or doing something like this again, so we decided to meet about it.”

The organizational meeting, held later that week, was attended by about 20 people, including Caster, Scherr, Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding and students from six of the eight different faith-based groups on campus, including the Williams Christian Fellowship (WCF), Muslim Student Union (MSU) and Williams Catholic. At a second meeting later that week, a smaller group met and decided to organize the second dinner.

“In the long run we were hoping for a group to come as the result,” Tozier said. “But we decided to jumpstart it with another dinner discussion, so people could get an idea of what being in an interfaith group is like.” Unlike the first discussion, which focused on the issues raised by Stand With Us, the second was intended to foster more general conversation about spirituality and different faiths at the College. The organizers prepared questions asking about students’ own sense of spirituality, their methods of prayer and the ways in which being at the College has influenced their faiths.

Students and staff who attended the event praised it as a success. “It was great to see so many different perspectives coming out, particularly because it humbled me to see how little I really knew about others’ personalized views on religion,” said Uzaib Saya ’08, an MSU member.

Saya saw in the discussions the potential for lasting effect, particularly in combating the notion that “religious student groups are too insular and only work within their own circles,” he said.

While the event did not specifically address problems of racism and prejudice, many students found the conversations they had relevant to the issues tackled by the Stand With Us movement. “Instead of being reactive, we are taking a proactive stance towards tolerance,” said Irtefa Binte-Farid ’11, co-chair of the MSU. “We are trying to understand each other before more hate speech happens.”

Past and Future

While the two recent interfaith dinners were well attended and deemed fruitful, they are by no means unprecedented. “This is definitely not a new idea that has sprung up just because of recent events,” Saya said. He mentioned a group called the Liberal Interfaith Experience that was founded a few years ago by Mariama Massaquoi ’07, but has since disbanded.

Saya added that sharing spaces with other faith-based groups has heightened cooperation and interaction among the groups. The O’Connell room in the basement of Thompson Chapel, for example, is currently being transformed into a space that many groups, including the MSU and the Meditation Society, will be able to share for different meetings and services. “This is hopefully just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how different faith-based groups may start communicating within a common space,” Saya said.

Spalding said that the recent addition of two staff members – Caster in the Chaplain’s Office and Matt Mascioli, who was hired by the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship to work with WCF – has also raised the level of interaction across different faiths on campus. “Both are deeply committed to inter-religious dialogue and have helped to lead their communities into a much higher level of inter-group discussion and activity than we’ve had in recent years,” Spalding said. He referred last week’s “Theology on Tap,” in which Caster, Spalding and Scherr took part in an informal religious discussion over pizza in the ’82 Grill. “This year has seen a higher level of collaboration among us chaplains than any year in recent memory.”

“There has certainly been effort on the part of WCF and the other faith communities on campus to build bridges with each other,” Mascioli said. “It has been exciting to get to know each other better and build friendships despite faith differences.”

As for the next step, most parties involved see this past Friday’s event as a launching point. Will Slack ’11, one of the event organizers, sees two potential courses of action. “Periodically, I think we’ll be having these dinners that bring groups together,” he said. “There also might be the need for more regular, continued dialogue, and there are definitely people who are committed to it.”

According to Tozier, there are already plans in the works to start an interfaith discussion group this semester. “After spring break, I’ll be hanging up posters and trying to get something started,” she said, emphasizing the inclusive stance that the group will take. “Having a group like this can make a comfortable atmosphere for people who don’t want a title, who don’t identify with any groups but are interested in spirituality.”

Spalding stressed the importance of reaching beyond the faith-based community in any initiatives taken in the near future. “I hope [non-affiliated students] will accept the invitations that will be forthcoming after spring break to ‘organize,’ at least to the point of following their spirituality into non-sectarian commitments to this effort,” Spalding said.
Binte-Farid added that, if these meetings or group discussions become regular, they will not serve as information sessions. “We want people to be able to share their beliefs without feeling in the spotlight,” she said.