Connecting Across Religious Difference

May 10, 2016

Kasey Cheydleur

Students gather in a vigil to honor victims of the attacks in Beirut and Paris.
Photo credit: Rand Zalzala

On Thursday nights, students of many faiths kick off their shoes before entering Multifaith Chaplain David Dorsey’s house. They rush to serve themselves a bowl of curry, or vegetarian chili, or whatever meal Dorsey has cooked for the week, and settle in for a discussion. At each meeting the group talks over a student-submitted question such as, what is it like to be away from home when tragedy strikes?

Interfaith Student Council (ISC) was founded on the idea that interfaith dialogue and the richness of religious diversity can benefit the broader campus culture. ISC is composed of 24 students representing 10 religions and stances. Students are selected for ISC based on the religious voice they represent, the different parts of campus they interact with, and their commitment to interfaith dialogue. A central tenet of the group is that each member is not speaking on behalf of their religion, but rather from the “island of their own experience,” says Dorsey.

Dorsey says one of the ground rules for discussion is to “come to the circle as you are. You don’t have to know more than you know.” He says the rule has helped shape the discussions into a comfortable, but also courageous, space where people feel like they can open up. “We’ve learned the rule is important for the sake of vulnerability,” says Dorsey, “it guards against defensiveness and makes everyone welcome.” He says during their time on ISC, students learn to ease tension around religious experience, and that religious discussions do not need to be uncomfortable.

Luke Burns, who identifies as a humanist/atheist, has been a member of ISC for three years. The senior physics major says he initially joined ISC to challenge the idea that atheist meant anti-religious. “To others who call themselves non-religious, the word ‘interfaith’ can feel alienating, but speaking from my experience, I’ve never felt more welcome in a community. It is a space where I am not expected to know more than I know or to be more than I am; a space in which I am challenged to enter relationships across difference; and a space in which I feel like a whole human being and honest to my commitments,” he says.

The idea of connecting across difference is also what members Aaron Henry and Rand Zalzala say they appreciate most about their time with ISC. Henry, a second-year anthropology major from Philadelphia, joined ISC after participating in the First-Year Initiative program, a version of ISC specifically designed for first-year students to begin interfaith dialogue early in their college careers. Henry, who identifies as Christian, says ISC has helped him appreciate when people are bold in their chosen beliefs, even if they are not ones he shares. Zalzala, a self-designed architecture major from Baghdad, Iraq, agrees with Henry. Zalzala, who identifies as Muslim, says her two years on ISC have helped her enrich her own spirituality and given her the opportunity to learn from others’ religious and nonreligious experiences.

In addition to their dialogue meetings, ISC also sponsors and host events throughout the year to raise awareness of multifaith and religious life on campus. “Many people perceive faith and spirituality as avoided topics on campus, and I think it's important to bring that up through events and activities,” says Zalzala. The group’s events range from the Faculty Faith Stories series to World Peace Day to the Oberlin Thanksgiving Potluck Feast and Multifaith Gathering, an event open to students, staff, faculty, and community members of all faiths. In the spring, ISC organizes Interfaith Service Day, where students volunteer at a variety of religious and non-religious sites. The group also organizes topical events, such as the vigil held in the fall for the victims of the Paris and Beirut attacks.

In the future, Dorsey says he would like to take on ideas and suggestions from students about how to spread the language and culture they experience in ISC into the wider campus community. Dorsey says he would also like to open interfaith conversations with students who may not think they have a lot to say about religion and eliminate the intimidation many associate with such conversations.

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