Encouraging Interfaith Experiences

With students of many faiths, how can colleges design spaces and organize their activities to encourage interreligious understanding amid individual spiritual exploration?
March 26, 2008

What sorts of campus structures, architectural, administrative and otherwise, might encourage meaningful interactions across religious lines?

At a summit in Washington sponsored by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, a discussion Tuesday of spiritual exploration and multifaith understanding -- and the roles and responsibilities of the academy in that regard -- explored different answers to variations of that question. “It seems to me that in our setting, our environment, people come into the Kay Spiritual Life Center knowing it’s going to be a profoundly interfaith experience,” The Rev. Joseph Eldridge, a United Methodist minister and the university chaplain at American University, said relative to American's multifaith facility. “It’s implicit. It’s embedded in the DNA of the place.”

Panelists participating in Tuesday morning's discussion described beautiful buildings that house Muslim prayer rooms and Hillel staff offices under one roof, and administrative hierarchies that gather (paid or unpaid) advisers for various religious traditions under a single (paid) supervisor charged with coordinating and supporting religious life and interreligious connections more generally. Said Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California: “I’m a rabbi, but I am not the campus rabbi.” A former director of USC's Hillel Jewish Center, Laemmle now fills a campus-wide coordinating role, with other religious and lay leaders directing Hillel activities.

Peter L. Laurence, the founder and executive director of Education as Transformation, Inc., a consulting and educational organization based at Wellesley College, said that at Wellesley, a number of religious advisers report to a dean. "They as a team exemplify collaborations across religious lines," Laurence said.

Meanwhile, at the student level, a student multifaith council meets regularly at Wellesley. Specific religious celebrations, like Sukkot, a Jewish festival, and Diwali, a Hindu one, are open to students from across the campus.

And, architecturally speaking, Wellesley's historic chapel is under renovation. The lower level, Laurence said, has been gutted and transformed into a multifaith center. “This is another attempt to use facilities to bring students together across religious lines,” Laurence said.

“A lot of campuses have that challenge: They’ve got that magnificent old chapel. What do you do?”

Summit attendees also envisioned what future Hillel student centers could look like. “I think that Judaism of the future and some aspects of Christianity will be reflected in their buildings,” Sharon Margolin Ungerleider, a member of Hillel's Board of Directors and the founder of a Hillel affiliate at the University of Oregon, said in an interview. She said Jewish campus leaders in Portland are imagining what a Hillel facility they'd like to build there would look like. One of the possibilities that’s emerging is the incorporation of an interfaith component -- something she anticipates will be considered as other Hillel centers are built or renovated in coming years. “We’re building a Hillel building that will reach into this century and the next. What kind of world are we building into? What kind of spiritual building are we building into?”

For all the talk of structures, however, some in Tuesday’s session pointed out that this is a case where building it doesn’t mean that all will come -- or talk to one another if they do. “Just because you have an interfaith center doesn’t mean you have interfaith dialogue,” one audience member said, pointing out for instance that Jewish students can come and pray and leave and Muslim students do the same without interacting.

“Let’s be aware,” said Rabbi James S. Diamond, who teaches in Princeton University’s Program in Judaic Studies, “that even at their best, there’s a substantial number of students out there that just won’t [come to interfaith centers]. That’s not the address they’re going to go to.”

And audience members also prompted the panel -- made up entirely of representatives of private institutions -- to confront the challenges facing public universities when it comes to encouraging students’ spiritual explorations while upholding the separation of church and state. Robert Smith, director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs at Pennsylvania State University, described Penn State’s facility, which was expanded to double its previous size in 2003 and which functions administratively very much like Wellesley's religious and spiritual life office (although in Penn State's case, advisers for particular religious groups are not paid by the university because of its public status, Smith said).

Groups meeting or worshipping at Penn State's center include the Catholic Campus Ministry, Asian American Christian Fellowship, Unitarian Universalist Students, Korean Buddhism Organization, and Hillel. Recently, an association of atheists affiliated with the center, which in a typical week attracts between 4,000 and 5,000 students, Smith said.

Penn State, said USC’s Laemmle, is “definitely the exception that shows that public universities can be leaders in this regard” -- but an exception nonetheless.


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