Smith Explores Model of Interfaith Cooperation

In the first year of my interfaith fellowship at Smith, I have used the idea of Interfaith Cooperation as a guiding principle, operating within the belief that college students both long for contexts to explore and develop themselves spiritually; but also are compelled by conviction and circumstances to interact with religious difference. Therefore one of my primary goals has been to try to develop and strengthen interfaith organizing and leadership among students. A group called The Interfaith Council has been meeting over the course of the academic year and now has a leadership board which is in the process of submitting a charter to become a recognized student organization.

The interest and enthusiasm of the students thus far seems to bear out the theory of Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, which is that American college students, supported by their campuses, can be the interfaith leaders needed to make religion a bridge and not a barrier. The students involved in the organization this year have asked questions about each other’s faith background and religious traditions, expressed their commitment to religious literacy, and begun to engage in service projects and social justice organizing that have faith convictions and spiritual inclinations as their uniting force. Patel 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.

Patel believes that interfaith cooperation is achieved through building respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities, and developing mutually inspiring relationships toward united action for the common good. The students on the Interfaith Council Board are finding that within the deep complexities and differences of their belief systems, there is a common thread of drawing upon something larger to inspire that work. In a wonderfully diverse, secular academic institution, I think the students have found this common ground both exciting and emboldening. At the same time, they are also exploring and discussing the very definition of religion and unpacking what happens within and around that framework. For in fact, part of the changing mission of the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life is to fully confront the dynamism and fluidity of religious faith for college students and in society as a whole. Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Cooperation on a college campus needs to account for the fact that social identity is itself multifaceted, and religious affiliation is not always static or either-or. Dean Jennifer Walters said in 2010:

In the last decade, social scientists have become increasingly interested in researching college student religiosity and spiritual development. What we can conclude from the studies is useful but not definitive: An increasing number of students are claiming multiple religious identities, for example Buddhist and Catholic or Unitarian and Jewish. During college, young people are often more likely to express a belief in God or concern about spiritual growth than they are to attend religious services.

Therefore the Interfaith Council is not only exploring the work toward the common good among people of different faiths, but recognizing the differences within religious traditions and acknowledging multiple informed identities and ways of being in the world. Religious affiliation has been less attractive to many young people, and a great many who express a belief in a transcendent force do so as a perspective of spiritual but not religious. At the same time many students say they come from interfaith families and/or are religiously pluralistic or eclectic. I believe the greatest achievement of the IFC this year has been to acknowledge that there is an urgent need for religion in all its iterations including spirituality or agnosticism to be brought in the conversation about diversity and difference.

The board itself is also working on a mission statement to encapsulate how it will work with Student Government and Residence Life and other areas of Student Life to spread the conversation about religious diversity and interfaith literacy. In the spring semester, the Interfaith Council helped us put on the first annual Spirituality and Interfaith Awareness Week, the goal of which was to explore the intersections of Ideas, Practices and Beliefs, and expand the traditional notion of religion on campus. The week featured three social programs which highlighted religious intersections, including a talk by a local interfaith scholar Robert Jonas, called Jesus and Buddha. It also included a talk by a Smith graduate student and IFC Board member, called I Celebrate Both: Balancing Religious Heritage with Social Identity. The Board also co-sponsored a special Soup Salad and Soul with the Center, called Allyship As a State of Mind, looking at social activism and allyship as a type of spiritual practice. The Council did a great deal of collaboration with the Center to respond to global and campus wide events, including planning and holding vigils after Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing.

In the upcoming year, the IFC will have its charter up and running and be able to be represented at the Student Org Fair. It hopes to continue to refine its mission, and continue to work with various other campus religious and non-religious groups, including the social justice and equity committee, STAND, MISC, Al-Iman, Hillel, and the Smith Christian Fellowship. In the fall board members will lead various orientation activities for new students which we are confident will spread the ethos of interfaith interaction and raise awareness about religious diversity. An interfaith service project will be offered off-campus the Sunday after the first week of classes. The IFC Board also sees itself as playing a liaison role with the community partners and hopes to interact with the community in various ways, including having religious advisors visit meetings and help lead activities. The Council will likely play a role in working with the community on an expanded celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr, which may include the planning of a J-term course focused on faith and the theory and practice of non-violence. It has been an honor and joy to work with this group and I am looking forward to continuing in the advisor role for the 2013-14 year.

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