This past weekend, a group of five Swarthmore students and three religious advisers traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the Interfaith Youth Corps Leadership Conference. Students Salman Safir ’16 and Shashwati Rao ’15 and religious advisers Joyce Tompkins and Ailya Vajid ’09 spoke about their experiences at the conference and the ideas they hope to bring back to Swarthmore.
“It was fantastic. It was one of the most amazing weekends that I’ve had,” Rao said. “It was really inspiring because everyone there was interested in interfaith conversation and dialogue.”
One prominent goal the group had was the desire to start interfaith dialogue not only between religious groups, but also between religious groups and the larger secular community at Swarthmore. “One of the ideas that we heard over and over again was the importance of including a secular voice in the definition of interfaith,” said Tompkins, who is Swarthmore’s Religious and Spiritual Life Adviser and Interfaith Coordinator.
Vajid, too, emphasized the importance of including the secular in interfaith discussions. “A large part of our campus is secular, and those voices are so valuable in dialogue and discussion,” Vajid said. “Bridging understanding doesn’t have to be on a faith level, but on a non-faith level. I think especially because our campus and the world is mixed like that, it’s important to have dialogue.”
Vajid is Swarthmore’s new Muslim Student Adviser and an alumna of the college. She especially enjoyed the conference’s acknowledgement of differences between religious groups. “Often in the interfaith dialogue we talk about similarities, and that can sometimes efface the differences as if they’re not there,” Vajid said. “Differences don’t have to be some kind of barrier. They can still be openings. […] We can still come together and respect one another’s differences.”
Rao was impressed by majority religious groups’ desires to engage in discussions with religious minorities. “I was surprised by how broadminded and open to dialogue everybody was at the conference. Even kids from other universities, religious universities, were really interested in interfaith conversation and dialogue,” Rao said.
Rao identifies as Hindu and is currently not part of any faith group on campus, although she hopes to form a Hindu group. She was concerned about the burden placed on minority religious students to educate a larger community on their faith. “We want there to be more awareness about different faiths on campus, but if you have just one person talking, then it can almost become tokenism,” Rao said. “How can I represent my entire faith?”
At the conference, Rao was intrigued by an event called Coffee and Conversation she heard about from other schools. “People just get together over coffee in a space like the IC [Intercultural Center] room and just chat in a round circle,” Rao said. “People share their own experience as a member of that faith. […] It allows you to talk about someone’s experiences with their faith without them trying to represent their entire faith.”
One aspect of the conference that Safir enjoyed was a speed dating style introduction to various religious groups. As a Muslim, Safir appreciated the reminder to consider the perspectives of other minority religions. “It was cool to have that perspective, because if you don’t have that perspective, […] it limits your ability to do a true interfaith event,” Safir said. “A good first step is to have a knowledge base, to self-educate yourself on some of the religions you may not know about.”
The group is planning an interfaith week to take place during the last week of February which will include faculty and student panel discussions. One theme they hope to discuss is the intersection between wellness and interfaith. “Some people really rely on their faiths during periods of distress, so they’re really interrelated for a lot of people,” Safir said. “We’re interested in wellness in general because I think at Swarthmore, that’s something that sometimes we put to the side, our own human wellness.”
In addition to the short-term goal of fostering discussion, the group has several long-term goals. “We really want to work toward having a genuine Interfaith Center at Swarthmore,” Tompkins said.
The growth in support for religious students on campus is linked to the group’s second goal of increasing the number of religious students at Swarthmore by working with Admissions and Development. “It’s important to have various religious identities on campus,” Safir said. “You have to have the structure before anybody’s going to come here.”
All of the participants on the trip were optimistic for the future. “We have so much energy now,” Rao said.
“People on campus are just really supportive of initiatives, and I feel really blessed to have people who are supportive, people who are actively involved. I’m very hopeful for the future,” Safir said.
“It feels like a real watershed time for interfaith at Swarthmore,” Tompkins said. “I’m very hopeful and excited.”
Check out the Interfaith Team’s blog at http://swarthmoreinterfaith.wordpress.com/
Photos courtesy of Shashwati Rao ’15.
Note: Abby Holtzman ’16 attended the Interfaith Youth Corps Leadership Conference. She currently serves as the Co-Editor in Chief and Arts and Features Editor of The Daily Gazette. She had no part in the creation of this article.