What Do We Serve? Interfaith Awareness at Smith College

We are what we pay attention to. Sadly, most of the time we are not attending to the world or ourselves. Psychologists estimate we have sixty thousand to seventy thousand thoughts a day, 99 percent of which are more or less what we thought yesterday… -Mary Piper, Ph.D. , in an excerpt from her book, Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World

I slept and dreamt that life was joy

I awoke and saw that life was service.

I acted and behold, service was joy. -

Rabindranath Tadore

We are in the midst of Interfaith Awareness Week at Smith College, sponsored by the Student Group, Spirituality in Action.

Interfaith Awareness Week Flyer!

Interfaith Awareness Week Flyer!

“Awareness” programs at Smith and beyond are usually designed to bring an issue or social identity to the fore that has been underrepresented in the mainstream. Last week we had the rich and exciting Islamic awareness week put on by Al-Iman. They offered many exciting and informative events, including an amazing program about Halal food. I was able to sample some traditional Middle Eastern Sweets, including Baklava. It seems to me that “awareness” raising is a component and the responsibility of being part of a vibrant, global, prestigious diverse liberal arts community.



Spirituality in Action sponsored the Rev. Ally Szabos to come and speak at the Campus Center on Monday. As she explained, interfaith is “a movement not a thing.” It is religious pluralism, but it isn’t only religious pluralism, it is connection.

I love the definition of pluralism that Diana Eck gives in her work on the pluralism project. Pluralism means fruitful engagement and interaction between various faith groups. It implies a basic grounding in foundational truths of each religious orientation. Interfaith, in contrast, implies, to varying degrees, some areas of agreement, overlap, and even at times synchronicity. This is further complicated by the fact that in academic circles the term ‘pluralism’ can apply to a religious adherent who may not believe all religious traditions are equal and lead to the same place, but draw spiritual substance from more than one tradition. (This definition is somewhat contradictory to how pluralism is defined in the common lexicon, but since I consider myself a religious pluralist I will try to write about this in an upcoming post!)

By eating the Baklava made by Al Iman I could, in a very visceral way, experience something that is part of the tradition of some Muslim students. Nothing can compare to engaging the senses to achieve the end of understanding—especially here at Smith where so much of what we do is cerebral.

So, how can we represent something as diverse and inherently vast as “interfaith?” What would we serve?

One way to do this would be to have a “world religions awareness week,” and try to get every religious group on campus to present their perspective and experience on their religious tradition, as Al Iman did. We could smell incense from a Hindu Puja. We could taste more Halal food, sample Hamantashen, and learn the traditions around them. We could hear Buddhist chants and learn about the concept of sacred sound.

But, at the same time, religions are not monoliths; far from it.

Scholars of world religions here and everywhere will always emphasize that there areJudaisms, IslamsChristainities, and so on. Many of us who are affiliated with a religion are quick; for obvious reasons; to qualify our membership lest we be misunderstood and associated with another sect from whom we consider ourselves diametrically opposed.

So maybe that is why instead of having a “world religions week”, Spirituality In Action is sponsoring Interfaith Awareness Week, which includes a variety of interactive events looking at social identity, spiritual practices, and intra-religious dialogue, on the one hand and service projects, on the other.

The first way to raise interfaith awareness is through relationships.

Having a relationship with someone who associates with and/or belongs to a religion that is different from our own, (and this is not to ignore the reality that a great many of consider ourselves in a category outside religious altogether, not in a category, or half in and half out of various categories) is the greatest predictor of both understanding and appreciation. The Baklava was yummy, and gave me a very sensory experience of a certain tradition. But having the privilege of knowing some of the women who put it together and shared it offered incomparable nourishment.

That is where the interfaith comes in– it is about the “inter”—the connections between the places where the boundaries of religion are themselves permeable. It is about meeting each other and learning about our unique human experiences which are simultaneously both incomparably different and undeniably common…

We know that know one person can never speak for a whole group and we know the dangers of trying. But sometimes that leads us to not ask any questions at all, and then we don’t learn and remain behind a curtain of polite but deleterious ignorance. Not asking question is one thing, but what if we shy away from relationship with that which we don’t understand and are afraid to ask about?

Through meaningful interaction– is a second way that interfaith knowledge happens.

Interfaith awareness is best raised through service. Research shows that the most fruitful interfaith dialogue takes place when people are working together for the common good. In other words, college students performing service together for something that elicits mutual passion does more for interfaith harmony than conversation itself. Some would say service work must be performed in order for dialogue to take place…

So perhaps there is not food that can be served at interfaith awareness—there is only service that can be performed.

So maybe interfaith awareness  is most about connections—and all the seemingly secular but deeply spiritual, random ways that they happen– through relationships and the meaningful interactions that occur therein. It is about serving each other and the world.

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April 7, 2014 · 7:11 pm

SWANS: Beyond Atheism, Agnosticism, and Religion to Spiritual Intersectionality

The first week in February was the United Nation’s “Interfaith Harmony Week”. While Smith will be commemorating this week later on in the semester, this is a good time to begin to talk about the what and why of “Interfaith Harmony.” Three Smith students, board members of the  Smith Spirituality In Action  Group have just returned from Atlanta where they attended the leadership institute of the Interfaith Youth Corps. The IFYC’s mission is to build religious pluralism, which they define as as respect for  peoples’ religious and non-religious identities which elicits mutually inspiring relationships and common action for the common good.


Eboo Patel, the organization’s founder says:

We live at a time when people of different faith backgrounds are interacting with greater frequency than ever before. We hear the stories of people who seek to make faith a barrier of division or a bomb of destruction all too often. Instead, we view religious and philosophical traditions as bridges of cooperation. We believe that American college students, supported by their campuses, can be the interfaith leaders needed to make religion a bridge and not a barrier.

Patel talks about his own journey in college and how eye opening it was for him when, after considering his ethnic, cultural, and social location, as well as his gender identity and sexual orientation; he was made aware of the  often hidden importance of religious identity. He notes a time when his father said to him, “are you reading the papers? You talk about race, class, and gender diversity, but you don’t talk about the kind that’s blowing the world up, religious diversity.

This point  speaks to the urgency of bringing the subject of religion out of the shadows of taboo, in order to reach towards deeper understanding and in light of global ills  such as climate change, the necessity of working toward the common good across intra and inter-religious lives.

The work the Smith’s Interfaith Council has been doing inspires and supports the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (CRSL)’s expanding mission, which is to encourage all forms of spiritual query and expression, not just those located when the confines of organized religion. After  participating in the IFYC leadership institute, the student board members  have expanded vision and honed skills which will inform spring events at the CRSL.

One of the most important goals of the Group for this semester is to reach out to what we at the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life call SWANS, students wary and/or neutral on the subject of religion (a term coined by Áine Sweetnam, 2013).

Why do we use this term, rather than atheist, or agnostic, or just spiritual?

Two reasons: first, I think that designating a larger category, which includes many of us, much of the time, even those of us who locate ourselves inside the boundaries of an organized religion—makes room for more of the intersectionality which is the reality of religious identity . Second, to rely on a category of “spiritual but not religious” leaves out the fact that whether we like it or not, and whether we are affiliated in any way with a religious organization, we all have a relationship to religion.

Part of the mission of the center for religious and spiritual life is to “live and work in a world where religion matters.” Thus whether or not we are religious, we have a relationship with religion—even if the relationship is a sense of vague distaste, dramatic marginalization, or even personal hurt. Religion, like race, class, and gender, is part of the world we live in. It is multifaceted and contains profound divergences along lines of culture, belief, class, ethnicity, ideology and countless other categories of difference, which at times seem impenetrable. This sense of diversity is so great that even within distinct religious denominations multiplicity is an important descriptor – perhaps we should be thinking in terms of Judisaims, or Christianities, or Islams, for example. At the same time, it cannot be denied there are some unifying factors between religions.. There are openings  for comparison, dialogue and cross fertilization. Some say religion is like a language—which implies that there are some common human experiences that are articulated by all faiths.

The students who attended the Interfaith Youth Corps Leadership Institute talked with, partnered, planned with students convinced about the importance of interfaith work. The notion of ‘interfaith’ often claims the interest of those who have been strongly identified with religion or those who feel their own identities are “mixed faith.” However, the students attending the Interfaith Youth Institute were pushed to expand the idea of interfaith work to include communication not just across lines of religious affiliations, but outside of religious affiliation, as well.

I think that this is of profound importance, for if we look back in history we see that social movements only flourished when people with different  social identities and different levels of social-political power joined forces. Moreover, as Martin Luther King said “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  In the ongoing struggle for racial equality, to site an example, we do not move forward except when those in the dominant group, have a racial identity. By the same token, religion is deep in the heart of civilization, and whether or not we are religious, it is a pervasive phenomenon that has reverberations everywhere.

Interfaith work is for everyone. Even-or maybe especially-waterfowl with long necks and a reputation for beauty, mystery, and loyalty.

…Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still….

-WB Yeats, The Wild SWANS  at Coole

Magness Lake Swans 015


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30 Poems In November: My Black Friends Laugh When I Tell Them I’m Black

(Yolandi Cruz)
I’m black!
… your skin is light

but I’m black!
… well your hair is too curly

but I grew up around all black people
… yeah but you got mad Spanish cousins and y’alls accent gets too thick

when y’all talk fast
Anyways what chu know about being black? What chu know about slavery
Your people didn’t go through Jim Crow or the middle passage
Martin Luther King wasn’t your king. Rosa Parks did not sit for you.

So what chu know about being black?
You don’t even smoke weed!
Or perm your hair
When’s the last time you got a weave?
If you can still get tan in the summer then you ain’t realllllyyyyy black
You said you put  sofrito in your ramen… Man you ain’t black!

How many of your family members are currently locked up?
If you can’t name at least five off the top of your head
you ain’t really black.

How many pins have you pinned to your
North Face bag saying R.I.P Trayvon Martin?
Did you even buy the hoodie with his name on it?
Oh, you’re definitely not black.
And no, you can’t call me a nigga
cause even though we grew up together you ain’t realllllly black

I used to braid my hair just like you
I used to perm my hair just like you
All my uncles are locked up just like yours
Man, I stopped wearing pins on my bag because I ran out of space

We all used to go to Brothers’ Market,
buy a cheese slice with a 25 cent tinny after school

So when did I stop being black?
or least when did I stop being black to you?

I know black is not  twerk it’s not perm
it’s not whitening cream it’s not violent
it’s not ignorant it’s not give up
Black is strong you taught me that
My skin is too light to be black but too tinted be white
to white America I am black and with justification,

my ancestors exploited through Spanish colonization,
my ancestors brought in the tres cascabeles
La Pinta, La Nina, y La Santa Maria
We are blood sisters because my ancestors’ blood and your ancestors’ blood were both spilled in the boats

My Taino empresses dragged out of their thrones
Your African queens out of the Congo

Tell me again how I’m not black?
How is it that I can be your girl but not your sister?
I’m not asking to be black
I’m asking to be loved
My skin may not be as dark as yours
But I still be queen like you

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Is God “One?”

Earlier this fall I read this story about a group of Muslims in Peshawar Pakistan who made a human chain outside a church where Mass was taking place, standing in solidarity with the worshippers when a nearby church was recently destroyed by suicide bombing: 

http://tribune.com.pk/story/614333/muslims-form-human-chain-to-protect-christians-during-lahore-mass/200-300 people formed a human chain outside the St Anthony’s Church adjacent to the District Police Lines at the Empress Road, in a show of solidarity with the victims of the Peshawar church attack two weeks back, which resulted in over a 100 deaths. The twin suicide attack on All Saints church occurred after Sunday mass ended and is believed to be the country’s deadliest attack on Christians. Standing in the small courtyard of St Anthony’s Church, as Mufti Mohammad Farooq delivered a sermon quoting a few verses of the Holy Quran that preached tolerance and respect for other beliefs, Father Nassir Gulfam stepped right next to him after having conducted a two hour long Sunday service inside the church. …

The photographs accompanying the story are inspiring and beautiful representations of interfaith cooperation and solidarity. One of the images that caught my eye was one of the placards that people displayed at the protest “One God Many Faiths”

It caught my eye because I liked seeing it, as I always do hearing claims of this nature like “One God, Many Religions” or “we are all climbing different mountains, to get to the same place.”

It gave me a counter narrative to what I think is the overarching argument of a book I just started reading by Stephen Prothero; God is not one, which is that “God is not one. Faith in the unity of religion is just that-faith…and the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination.” (p 3)

In contrast to Prothero, I believe that God is one, that there is one divine source, expressed, manifested, conceived of, worshipped, in a vast multiplicity of ways.  As a student said recently in a panel we held on family weekend, and others have said before, religion is like a language. Endemic, instinctive, inherent in most of humanity—and existing in pervasive, almost mind boggling multiplicity.

Yet at the same time, I believe that what is true for someone is true. If a person’s religion is the only truth for them, and their God is the only God, then that is true. That does not begin to justify violence; I believe extremism and violence in the name of religion is a distortion of that religious tradition. But I cannot simultaneously say I am religious pluralist and respect the claims of all religion, and say that those who do not hold my view are wrong. If I believe in my own position- that all religions are expressions of the same set of phenomena, needs, and experiences- then I must also allow others to claim the truth of their own positions, even ones that assume exclusivism- that their God is the only God. I must also respect the “inclusivist” claims like that of Karl Rhanher, who says that adherents of non-Christian religions are actually “anonymous Christians,” and if they practice their own religions well they will gain entrance into heaven…

In reality, of course, I don’t accept that position. So I must accept that my own version of truth is a position, which may in fact be in opposition to other positions, even though my experience of my position is that it is one of openness and flexibility to all other claims. In fact, it is not.

Why does all this matter? The claim “any faith one God” is at the heart of the message of those Muslims who came together in Peshawar to protest the violence against Christians, standing against religious extremism. But it raises a question—how is a political claim that God is one, and it/ her/his expression in faith combat extremist views?

 Does the belief in ‘one God, one faith’ necessarily lead to extremist violence? 

No, of course not.

Does  “Interfaith harmony,” or the coming together of religious groups to support one another, require a united theology? Can’t this call to mutual support exist in recognition and celebration of difference?

One of my knee jerk responses to this article and the “one God many faiths” claim being made on the sign at the rally was somehow there is an ethos of religious pluralism that leads more seamlessly into a notion of interfaith blending in southeast Asia than in the highly secular west. But if this is the case, its existence obviously does not lead to interfaith harmony, as the sectarian violence in Pakistan and all over the Middle East demonstrates.

In his book, Prothero says the following about religious pluralism and the claims of people like Huston Smith, who claim that all religions are speaking the same idiom and heading to the same place:

These men are not describing the world but re-imagining it…They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such visions, and such hope. Yet, we must (not mistake it for) clear eyed analysis.

It is hard to disagree with what Prothero is saying here, especially since the aim if his work is to reveal the dangers of Pollyannaish pluralism insofar as it pulls a veil of ignorance over our eyes with respect to understanding religious violence.

But I think I do disagree, to a point. When Prothero critiques Huston Smith and reinterprets a statement of the Dali Lama—“when he says that the essential message of all world religions is very much the same, what he means is what all religions share is not so much God as the Good”—he is also speaking from the vantage point of his own claim. What he has to say in his book is value laden, just as is my position, Karl Ranher’s position, and the position of the Pakistani Muslims.

I am going to continue grappling with this troubling, vastly complex and multilayered question, as I have for many years. Yet I think where I come down on it today is that it has something to do with what we mean when we say “One” and “Many.” In the US—a country dominated in equal parts by a certain brand of Christianity, and the secular ethos of a newer nation whose government was founded on post-enlightenment, post- reformation ideals—when we say one, we mean one in a certain way.

Perhaps those who had the courage to stand in solidarity with their countrymen were evoking a sense of theological unity that transcended religion. Maybe in that moment of interfaith cooperation, signs could be held saying that there is “one God, many faiths’ because in that moment of courage and solidarity, there was one God. Maybe God took one form toward ‘the good” that Prothero claims the Dali Lama is talking about.

I admit that I am making a claim. I admit I am making this claim as what Prothero would deem “an act of faith.” I think my God changes by the moment. It is a mysterious, dynamic God, and perhaps I cannot even myself be in one position in relation to it.

I will keep reading Prothero, and keep looking to people who have the courage to show solidarity with those across lines of faith, coming together both in spite of, and because of, something mysterious and unnamable that they have in common

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30 Poems In November: Untitled

(by Katherine Dymek)

Vulnerable is selfishness severed from greed,
pure frailty, pure
need for anyone’s touch or finger-
brush, anyone’s milky-
synthetic feeding—Vunerable
plants itself in the ground and squalls new breeds of desire:
pouting iris’ hung with orange seed—
Vulnerable is in heat,
prepared to meet the worst of ends
for a pitiful means.

Vulnerable gleans
mouth gaping to the sky
petals rusty-yellow to green, Vulnerable
trembles at the catch of the shining beak, as if keening towards
one final chance to be seen.  Vulnerable
is not so Naïve, does not actually believe in its own survival
but has no bite, no limbs to fight
much less breath to agree
Yes, this is how I want to end
this prolonged shrivel
this top-heavy crystal bath
your used-up masterpiece.

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30 Poems in November: Companions Without Maps

As part of a month-long event co-sponsored by the Smith College Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, “30 Poems in November” includes student-penned poems for the purpose of raising money (and awareness) about The Center For New Americans. This literacy center provide immigrants (as well as refugees) with the resources needed for them to learn how to read in English.

Companions Without Maps
(by Angela Acosta)

Hot embers seemed to lick her skin
Each time her acquaintance proposed the question
“Remind me, where are you from?”
Repeated as if it were an anthem
To indicate disinterest in the prospect of friendship.

Instead, the forgotten details symbolized
Her willingness not to judge based
Upon insignificant fragments of a past
That involved emotions, stories and adventures, instead of facts,
Which do not convey compassion or sympathy.

The situation repeated itself, with variations in the intonation
Depending on her travels and the new speaker’s location.
Such was the case when questioned in Spanish,
Yet the woman’s courteous reply, demonstrating curiosity, banished
The fear that every negative connotation of her hometown would be scrutinized.

When others made condescending jokes about each state
Where she had lived, this new acquaintance would never underrate
Any country, or mistake it for a state of mind.
Dispelling all insignificant questions, the two would find
That they had the same humor and shared design to continue to write.

She would never again discount a trifling
Slip of memory or foreign pronunciation of an American name.
It would be petty to return the gifts of a companion
In exchange for insincere scrawled notes of names and personal interests;
Perhaps some have exchanged their appreciation of friends
For lifeless questions and utterly esoteric answers.

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Fight or Freeze: Can We Move Beyond the Binary?

Matilda Cantwell


When I was in college, we used to talk a lot about “the binary.” I don’t know if it is still in use in the common lexicon—but think it is still associated with things we talk about a lot with respect to gender identification and other social identities. We disavow a binary construction of gender, culture, and race, and we recognize that either/or descriptions don’t fit or do service to any human being. We see a spectrum, a range of positions of what is possible, each based on the individual qualities and multiple factors that inform and reflect who we are—we recognize intersectionality. In the dominant discourse however, in politics and elsewhere, ‘binary” constructions are still the norm…

I have been thinking about this concept with respect to U.S military response in Syria. Regardless of my confusion as to what to think about the Obama administration’s oscillation on the subject, I was once again stuck by the “binary” choice that was initially laid out for us as it most often is with respect to military intervention and lack thereof. While there is in fact a “spectrum” of options; as we now know as Obama did go to congress to glean their approval after initially proposing a unilateral executive order for military intervention; the initial rhetoric was  the familiar “either /or.”  Kerry, after laying out the context in Syria, said:

And make no mistake, in an increasingly complicated world of sectarian and religious extremist violence, what we choose to do or not do matters in real ways to our security. Some cite the risks of doing things, but we need to ask, what is the risk of doing nothing?”


Kerry was using as his reference point the all too familiar violence/ reframing from violence binary here– fight or flight– and this is the paradigm we are all most familiar with. Another form of “flight” is to “freeze”—which seems to be describing Kerry’s view of what we are doing if we don’t use military action. In politics, a binary construction of decision making is still the pervasive construct.

We are still talking about binaries in college now, their origins in the parts of enlightenment rationalism that have failed us, and the ways this generation is called to stretch , deconstruct, and configure what they have defined, right? Contemplative Practices (meditation, prayer, spiritual practices, even writing and various art forms) and much of what is taught in the liberal arts curriculum itself exists to help us learn to think and feel beyond a binary construction. Fight or flight exists deep in us, in our physiology. But so does the capacity to move beyond the physiology to the imagination—that is part of what it means to be human. And to be educated means to always look deeply in to what is before you, to never except at the truth exactly as it has been presented by the mainstream.

So let’s look at the dominant voices when it comes to war and peace. The US talks about security and freedom. But being constrained by an ideological binary in which military action/ inaction are the only options can never bring true freedom, can it? Aren’t political and ideological pluralism part of living in a liberal democracy, and isn’t the heart of a liberal democracy putting human rights at the center of all discourse? Thus striking that our secretary of state can speak as if to not strike Syrian is to “do nothing.”

In the words of Adrienne Rich, “War is an absolute failure of imagination.” It is imagination that moves us beyond what is most primitive, beyond our “fight or flight” impulses. It is our imagination that allows us to have empathy and think outside the boxes that have been created for us, with respect to things like social and cultural identity. Let’s use it to explore the urgent question of war and global violence, let’s see how wide and vast and rich and multifaceted the space between fight and flight might be.

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