Bushra Ali ’17, Williams Interfaith’s treasurer, recently came back from a conference and told me that, “lots of other campuses don’t have this.” We were in Thompson Chapel basement’s Interfaith Common Room and she gestured around vaguely: someone was transcribing Interfaith meeting notes from a whiteboard, someone was sprawled on the couch with a textbook, someone was cleaning the kitchen and two people were arguing about the minutiae of prayer traditions. The scene had become so normal to me that I’d forgotten that such casual interfaith socializing doesn’t happen everywhere.
I never planned to get involved with any of this. In the fall of 2013, I started college and didn’t exactly consider religion central to my identity. I’d spent my lonely final year of high school trawling articles and blogs in the backwoods of the internet and emerged as a politically savvy student and critic. Although I was a confirmed Catholic, my religion seemed secondary to my growing systemic, political understanding of the world. Attending mass every week was an inherent part of my life, not something that I ever questioned. It just was. When I came to the College, I kept attending mass but didn’t get involved with any religious communities during my fall semester. I preferred arts and politics; religion hardly occurred to me.
In its current incarnation, Williams Interfaith began just last year. Bushra, one of my first friends on campus, brought me to an organizational meeting in February 2014 and we sat at a table in Paresky with some upperclassmen I’d never met. I knew nothing about interfaith dialogue and was afraid to associate myself with a religious group for fear that I’d be judged or ostracized. I hesitantly got involved, but I didn’t really understand what “interfaith” could mean until I went on the chaplains’ Interfaith Break Out Trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala., over spring break. That incredible experience showed me the potential of interfaith work and dialogue. When I got back to campus, I kept working. A year later, I’m Williams Interfaith’s secretary and spend many nights hanging out and studying in the Interfaith common room. I take it for granted now.
I want to define “interfaith” to confront misconceptions I’ve heard, but honestly, no one agrees on the definition. It’s easiest to say what the group isn’t. Interfaith deals with faith, but it’s not exclusive; many people in our community are non-religious. Interfaith fosters community among established religious organizations, but many of our members aren’t directly affiliated with campus groups. Nor does the organization espouse any political attitudes or present any collective belief system.
This piece details my experience with the community, but I must be explicit: Interfaith is open to everyone, regardless of the definition that any one individual brings to it. Interfaith is not simply my experience or my hopes for its future. It indicates a lifestyle of acceptance and love that functions not because we water down our beliefs but because we discuss and share them. We spend so much time trying to determine Interfaith’s purpose – should we debate issues? Should we community-build? Should we be an activist/advocacy organization? Should we educate? But at its core, Williams Interfaith incorporates all of these purposes. Fundamentally, we are a group of people trying to get closer to each other. We want students to feel comfortable as they transition in their faith or non-faith traditions, understand others’ beliefs and find community centered on the experience of faith. We also want students to see how faith and religion can operate as positive forces in this world.
Williams Interfaith has redoubled its efforts this year to engage the diverse needs of the student body. This semester, we’ve prepared vegetarian, locally-sourced “Interfaith sustainable dinners” each month in Thompson Chapel basement. We source most of the food from the Bennington Farmer’s Market, as we believe that ethical stewardship of the earth is important to our mission, and we take care to make the entire menu is accessible to as much of the campus as possible. At these dinners, we present a discussion topic: February’s dinner dealt with “faith and the environment” and March’s dinner focused on “women in the stories of faith traditions” in conjunction with the Feminist Collective’s events for the month. These dinners have been well-attended and have generated wonderful conversation. Other new initiatives include a monthly panel series about Interfaith issues on campus (we hosted “Faith Transitions” and “Multi-Faith Households” earlier in the semester and we have “Faith in the Classroom” planned for April), increased service opportunities and social events in Thompson.
I write this piece sitting in the Interfaith Common Room, and I don’t find that odd anymore. This is where I’m comfortable. It’s my community. Although I never planned to get involved with Interfaith, it’s been the most enriching part of my experience at the College. When I need to, Interfaith offers me spaces to struggle with my faith tradition as I try to reconcile it with other aspects of my worldview. It also offers me a non-confrontational space to simply feel comfortable with who I am and the choices I make. Most of all, though, it has introduced me to so many wonderful people who enjoy discussing and thinking about the world in different ways.
Abigail Rampone ’17 is from Castleton, Vt. She lives in East.