(This is an updated and expanded version of the printed article)
As a non-denominational institution, deeply rooted in its Christian heritage and committed to the “gospel of impartial love,” Berea College has long encouraged students to develop their faith through the informed exploration of other beliefs while critically examining their own beliefs. This makes Berea a perfect match for Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based, international nonprofit organization that promotes cooperation and understanding among people of different religious and non-religious identities on college campuses.
Through the leadership of the Willis D. Weatherford, Jr. Campus Christian Center, Berea College and IFYC have worked together in various ways over the last eight years. Most recently, Berea College and IFYC undertook a multi-year “Model Campus Engagement” partnership. The college was among the first three institutions to enter into such an in-depth partnership with IFYC. Through this partnership, Berea engaged in campus asset-mapping and surveying, strategic planning, and capacity building. This process, which included participation from students, staff, and faculty, led to the development of religious diversity and interfaith cooperation training modules used by many student labor and student leadership groups beginning in 2013. The Berea-IFYC partnership has also led to opportunities for Berea’s interfaith work to be highlighted in a variety of national arenas. Berea was an invited participant in early conversations that led to the development of President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, now in its fourth year. Katie Basham, ’02, who currently serves as Assistant Director and Coordinator of Interfaith Programs in the Campus Christian Center has been an invited panelist to speak about best practices at the President’s Challenge annual gatherings in Washington D.C. “During my time as a student at Berea, I was challenged to examine and strengthen my own Christian faith while encountering people who believed very differently than I did. A study abroad experience in Israel, in particular, ignited a deep interest in learning about how people with different religious commitments could live peacefully as neighbors. Today, I love that my work at Berea allows me to work with a wide array of students to build a more peaceful world. Today’s interfaith leaders at Berea constantly inspire me.”
“I think there is a great holiness to cooperation between people of different faiths.”
founder of Interfaith Youth Core Dr. Eboo Patel, IFYC founder and president, and member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, has also taken note of Berea’s inspiring student interfaith leaders. “I have seen lots of exciting leaders at Berea College. I have been very moved and impressed, and we love the idea of inspiring Berea students to be interfaith leaders.” Patel has been a convocation speaker at Berea twice, first in 2005 as the Service Convocation speaker, and later in 2010 as the Robbins Peace Speaker. His first book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation has been a popular selection for various on-campus reading groups.
IFYC’s presence on Berea’s Campus has been well-received, and many of Berea’s student leaders have joined the campus efforts to further interfaith cooperation. Janice D’Souza, ’14, Student Government Association vice president and Multi-Faith Council member from Mangalore, India, is one of them. The purpose of interfaith cooperation, she said, is “to learn to live a life with all kinds of people, with all kinds of faiths. That’s what the real goal is, isn’t it? All kinds of different people all trying to fit in.” IFYC’s central tenets of respect for religious and non-religious identity, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good are a natural fit for a college that continues to be inspired and shaped by its own scriptural foundation, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26).
At Berea, interfaith engagement happens in many ways, including weekly interfaith “Spiritual Seekers” lunches that bring students from diverse religious and non-religious perspectives together over a shared meal to explore a wide range of topics and learn about different faith perspectives in a safe, respectful setting. Student leaders and volunteers in the Center for Excellence in Learning through Service (CELTS) receive training in interfaith cooperation and incorporate elements of interfaith reflection into their existing service initiatives, helping to strengthen the connections between students’ personal faith and values, and their community service. Residence Life student staff receive training about how to make residence halls welcoming places for students of diverse religious and non-religious perspectives.
Students have also had opportunities to experience perspectives of others through field trips to places such as the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. The group on this particular tour included Christian, atheist, agnostic, and Jewish students. “Even though none of us believed in creationism at all, we went in there with an open mind, trying to understand their point of view, and that’s what interfaith is,” said D’Souza. A student group went to a Hindu temple in Lexington, Ky., for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. “We ate, and we danced, and we saw the rituals, and that was really exciting and interesting for me, to see my own culture and traditions through the eyes of other people,” D’Souza reflected. In May 2013, a group of students, staff, and faculty, including President and Mrs. Roelofs, traveled to Louisville to hear the Dalai Lama speak.
On college campuses across the country, students are engaging in interfaith cooperation as a way of bringing diverse people together to effect positive changes in their communities, through relationship-building, learning about others, and service and activism. Patel feels that interfaith cooperation ought to be a high priority for campuses “because there are lots of young people, lots of students who want to be interfaith leaders. They’re tired of seeing religious violence. They’re tired of having the friends from other religions or their own faiths maligned, and they are interested in bringing people from different faith backgrounds together to serve others.”
At Berea, we often hold up the example of the Civil Rights Movement as a time when people from diverse religious and non-religious perspectives came together, each inspired by their own beliefs while recognizing shared values, in order to bring about much needed change. Today, at a time when religious diversity is often seen as a source of deep conflict, Berea College, IFYC, and others engaged in interfaith work seek to offer an alternative narrative. “When diverse religious communities gather together to do something positive, it not only helps the world in concrete ways, I think it’s a holy endeavor,” said Patel. “I think there is a great holiness to cooperation between people of different faiths.”