Council aims to raise awareness of religous diversity

By Emma Gallegos

On a campus where diversity is a buzzword, some say that one type of diversity is often overlooked: religious.

Members of the new Multifaith Council, a part of the recently opened Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, said they are working to make the campus more aware of this issue. Council members said they aim to bring different religious and spiritual groups together in a way that strengthens their own religious commitments while encouraging dialogue between groups.

Already, the Council has hosted one event, a worship service during Family Weekend. Unlike the nondenominational Christian services of the past, this year’s Family Weekend service, titled “A Celebration of Religious Diversity: Unity in Diversity,” incorporated aspects of several religious traditions. It included student speakers from Catholic, Unitarian Universalist and Muslim backgrounds who spoke on different topics related to the theme of the service.

“The service was a vision of how people could come together,” Lucy Forster-Smit, the Council’s advisor and Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, said­­­.

While there was some disappointment in Sunday morning’s turnout, Forster-Smith said she was optimistic about the feedback she received from those in attendance.

Although the Council is student-led, it doesn’t operate like other student organizations on campus that are voluntary and tend to wax and wane with student interest. According to its by-laws, the Council is intended to be a permanent part of the structure of the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life.

The Council aims to include members from all the religious and spiritual organizations on campus. Six positions are available to students who may come from religions not represented by campus organizations or may not connect themselves to any religious or spiritual institution. Forster-Smith said that these perspectives are especially important to engage at Macalester, where many students do not align themselves with a particular religious institution.

The Council grew out of the Multifaith Roundtable, a group of chaplains and students from religious organizations that until recently met monthly to discuss various issues across religious traditions.

However, the reach of the Roundtable was limited, said Zach Teicher ’07, a charter member of the Council. Teicher said that he and other members wanted to take the goal of working toward mutual understanding and expand it to the greater campus community.

Teicher and charter Council members Katyana Melic ’08 and Hillary Mohaupt ’08 have led the student front in reassessing religious programming on campus, attending conferences in the last two years on creating multifaith organizations on campus at colleges around the country, including Princeton and Johns Hopkins.

At these conferences, Mohaupt said she was surprised to learn how new the idea of a multifaith council is among colleges and universities across the country. Macalester is a part of the “first generation of multifaith councils,” she said, adding that the Council intends to send more representatives to a conference at the University of Southern California this year.

Members concede that there are challenges inherent to bringing together students of different faiths and making their group relevant on campus.

“In the initial stages, we’re starting with unity in order to engage the difference,” Forster-Smith said. “The differences will be there, but why not start with unity?”

Forster said she hopes that students who participate in multifaith events and dialogue can find a space where they are comfortable working on their own religious identity while supporting someone else from a different background.

She concedes that this is a challenge on a campus where she says even uttering the name “Jesus” can come off as “jarring and oppressive.”

Jesse Light ’08, a Council member, echoed this concern and said that as a first-year, she didn’t feel comfortable talking about her own faith. She noticed that there is a certain amount of suspicion even with being a “mainstream Christian.”

“You get weird looks,” she said.

Said Guled ’07, co-chair of the Muslim Student Association, agreed, saying that religion is “concealed and hidden” at Macalester. Despite the religious diversity on campus, he said, many people will come away not knowing about other students’ religious lives. He said he hopes that the council encourages students to learn more about “everyday stuff” and not obscure, abstract topics.

Light said that in the future, the council will host panels of students and community leaders on broad topics that would draw on community interests and questions, such as “Does God exist?”

Additionally, Light said the council would like to continue the “Coming Out in Faith” series that the Roundtable began, by inviting professors to an informal lunch to discuss how religion has affected them personally and professionally.

The Council’s current goal is to hold a monthly event open to the greater community, but Mohaupt hopes that eventually the council will have a large, established event, “something the campus could tie us to,” she said.