Higher Education Seeks Common Ground Among the Religious Faithful

A formerly Methodist church at Johns Hopkins University these days serves a multitude of purposes. At midday on Fridays, Muslim students assemble there for Jummah prayer. At sundown that same day, Jewish students file inside to begin Shabbat services. When Sunday comes, the church’s stained glass windows, depicting Christianity’s iconography, are once again in open view as a Catholic Mass is administered.

“All those groups are able to use the same space because we transformed it, for example, by placing shutters over the stained glass so the non-Christians can worship without [looking at] Christian idols or images,” says the Rev. Albert Mosley, head chaplain and director of the Johns Hopkins campus ministry office and its Bunting Meyerhoff Interfaith and Community Service Center. The private, secular university established the center in an old Methodist church it purchased in the late 1990s.

Like many academic institutions in the U.S., that sprawling Baltimore university has adapted itself to the changing face of the religiously devout in an increasingly ethnically, racially and spiritually stratified America. Nationwide, some campuses have focused on the rise in religious diversity and mending the religious fractures that persist. They have crafted programs aimed at letting a shifting religious landscape follow an unfettered path forward. Even the White House is ramping up its religious diversity initiatives, as reflected in its Advancing Interfaith and Community Service on College and University Campuses conference in June in Washington, D.C. The half-day event convened a dialogue on interfaith with university presidents, faculty, chaplains and religious and community leaders. A Wellesley College professor who co-created Beyond Tolerance: A Campus Religious Diversity Kit—a guide to resolving inter-religious conflict, developing multifaith facilities and encouraging student engagement across religious lines—is one of 60 consultants on Advancing Interfaith Cooperation on College and University Campuses, an ongoing White House initiative that grew out of that June gathering.

Embracing its role in that movement, Johns Hopkins, Mosley says, has spent the last 15 years in a protracted effort to welcome and promote religious diversity. “In our Interfaith Center, on any given day, you’ll find a Jewish kid and a Muslim kid engaged in serious dialogue,” Mosley says. “And that’s not happening in the real world to the extent that it should.”

Media Manipulation

Clashes over religion are apparent throughout the world. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, sided with the University of California Hastings Law School in a suit filed by the Christian Legal Society, a student organization that ran afoul of the university’s mandate that every student group be open to any participant, including those who disagreed with an organization’s mission. The society had been ordering its members to sign a “statement of faith” that they were indeed Christians who, for example, believed homosexuality is a sin.

There’s also the debate over whether Muslim leaders in New York should be given the go-ahead to build a proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks from the former World Trade Center site. News media reports suggest that the project’s opponents outnumber the supporters of religious pluralism, though that has not been empirically proven, says practicing Muslim Aisha Asif, a junior journalism and biology major at Brooklyn College. Islamic women in head scarves or head-to-toe hijab and Muslim men in kufis, the ritualistic head caps, are a comparatively common sight at Brooklyn College.

“The media has this bad habit of juxtaposing issues that aren’t necessarily related,” Asif says. “But I’ve never been treated badly at Brooklyn College. It’s true that some people hesitate to approach me because I wear the scarf but I don’t feel any outright intolerance. I’m hoping their hesitation—which I think comes from Muslims being targeted after 9/11—will change.”

Asif spoke after listening to Brooklyn College English professor Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel To Be A Problem: Being Young and Arab in America, discuss diversity during a late August orientation session. A Jewish alumni donor threatened to withdraw his financial support to the college because it made Bayoumi’s post-9/11 book, profiling several Arab-Americans, including devout Muslims, required reading for this school year’s incoming students.

The donor’s threat also made headlines, which, Bayoumi says, comes with being “a public person” in this social climate. Bayoumi, also an editor for Middle East Report and former member of the National Council of the American Studies Association, says his book is an appropriate subject for college students and the general public to explore.

“Diversity is the most important question of the 21st century,” he says. “If we’re unprepared to understand how people are different from us, we’re traveling down a dark, lonely road toward something deeply unfortunate. Too often, the discussion of diversity in this country becomes a zero-sum game with nuance and clarity left on the wayside.”

What was largely overlooked in the flap over Bayoumi’s talk, says Zoe Zenowich, a senior in Brooklyn College’s Scholars Program and a philosophy and journalism major, “is the fact that the City University of New York is renowned for being a community of colleges that is dependent on a minority population: Jewish people who couldn’t get into Columbia [University] when it had quotas on Jews. … If you understand the history, it’s natural that we would open up a dialogue with Arab-Americans,” one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups on campus.

All Together Now

Coloring this religious moment on campus are data from a long-range University of Ca lifornia, Los Angeles study of the religious preferences of college freshmen. It shows that, while most identify themselves as Christians, the tally of professed Christians in colleges has declined. The tally of students identifying themselves as nonreligious has risen from 14.9 percent of freshmen surveyed in 2000 to 21.9 percent of those surveyed in 2009. Though still a fraction of surveyed students, those identifying as Buddhist or Muslim are growing.

Attesting to that trend is Buddhist lay minister Hoji Scott, a former Christian and one of 18 ordained and lay persons serving students through the Interfaith Center.

“I end up seeing a fairly diverse community of students who are Buddhists, a lot of people who simply want to meditate, a lot who are agnostic, if not straight-up atheist,” Scott says. “We do a seated meditation, and, of course, some of the students who attend are very interested in the theology of Buddhism.”

She continues: “As a religious person, I firmly believe religion is a true thing. It’s not like arts and crafts, something that’s nice to have because it’s nice to have. … And diversity is a requirement for truth during what is a very formative time for these [college] kids. The diversity helps them learn understanding and respect. We don’t have to fully agree with someone’s religion to respect it.”

For the assistant campus ministers advising Johns Hopkins’ 23 religious student groups, “no proselytizing” is a fundamental code of conduct. They sign a covenant stating to that effect. This happens, Mosley says, despite the reality that most religions and their adherents buy into the belief that theirs is the only route to God and, on that basis, they must evangelize.

On the diversity-minded campus, that convention doesn’t work, says Laurie Svatek, director of campus ministry at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. “We start from the basis that, in each other, we witness God. Independent of religion, race, culture or ethnicity, we all have that common starting point, the very basic belief that we are made in the image and likeness of God,” says Svatek, who supervises the four other lay ministers in the campus ministry office at St. Catherine, a private Catholic institution. Its Interfaith Prayer Room draws, among others, Christians, Muslims and members of the Hmong Daughters whose religious beliefs are largely rooted in Hmong culture.

Recognizing the religious mix, St. Catherine developed a diverse slate of presenters for this fall’s “Seeing You, Seeing Me” student orientation. They were not alone in highlighting diversity. Orientation at Berea College, a nonsectarian Christian college in Berea, Ky., had students from various faiths setting up tables to provide literature and talk about whom they are and what they stand for. “God has made of one blood all the peoples of the Earth” is inscribed as part of the campus logo.

Johns Hopkins’ student-run Interfaith Council kicks off its religious diversity awareness week Feb. 28. Meanwhile, it will continue to co-host regular sessions on the dual issues of diversity and faith. “We sit in a very large circle,” Mosley says. “We share food. We have a topic of conversation. For instance, ‘What does it mean in your tradition for you to pray or have a conversation with God—or not?’ We share different types of sacred literature.”

“For me personally,” he adds, “I’ve always been attracted to a conversation about what people might call ‘the other.’”

A similar curiosity and purpose have fueled Dr. Victor Kazanjian, Wellesley College’s director of religious and spiritual life. “The issue of religious diversity is a justice and equality issue,” says Kazanjian who, with a colleague in the Wellesley, Mass., college’s Education as Transformation program, helped create the Beyond Tolerance kit. If societal civility and peace are to be achieved, he adds, it will require that religious differences and similarities be tackled in the same manner that inequities based on race, gender, sexual orientation and physical disability were thrust to the fore.

“Our argument has been that, in a pluralistic society, where there are many religions, no one religion should be superior,” says Kazanjian, co-author of the upcoming Building a New Global Community, a book on the challenges and responsibilities of religion and religious people.

With the work of Kazanjian and others, progress is made on religious tolerance more so on college campuses than elsewhere, observers contend. “What we’re seeing is that it’s a good thing for students to be exposed to these ideas,” says Rawa Jassen, adviser to the Baha’i Faith organization at George Mason University, a public institution in Fairfax, Va.

Says Svatek: “As a society, as an institution of higher learning, we haven’t reached a place where we’ve got it all figured out. We still see people forced to the fringes because they are different. We have to keep this on our radar so that there comes a time when these stories about differences will not be current stories but stories from the past.”