Interfaith Week Seeks Common Ground

Inclusivity was a core principle of the events aimed at broadening appreciation of the GW community diversity.

April 25, 2024

Interfaith Dinner 2024

The Interfaith Dinner was the week’s main event April 18 at the University Student Center. (Cara Taylor/GW Today)

Interfaith Week at the George Washington University, held April 15 to 19, featured events throughout campus and online encompassing a range of organized religions and spirituality practices—an aim to broaden an understanding of, and initiate conversations about, the different ways the community can seek new perspectives and form a greater awareness of the rich diversity of the GW community.

Inclusivity was a core principle of the week, with events spanning a variety of faiths. An event called “Exploring Faith and Wellness” explored how faith, religion and spirituality contributes to mental and emotional well-being and offered activities, discussions, and exercises for participants. A Teaching Mass at the GW Newman Center explained Roman Catholic rituals. Several “Mindful Meditation” sessions offered over several days provided insight into Buddhist philosophy and meditation practices.

“It was intended to be a week about people being in spaces together where we coexist, where we share our truths and practices, share our stories and perspectives,” said Jordan Shelby West, GW’s associate vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement. 

Interfaith Week allows for “the continuation of hard and necessary dialogues—and the beginning of dialogues,” she added.

The Interfaith Dinner, presented by GW’s Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement in partnership with the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington, took center stage as the week’s main event on April 18 at the University Student Center. The great room at the entrance of the building had full tables for the evening, with GW students, faculty, staff and members of the larger community gathering to engage with each other and find common ground. GW President Ellen M. Granberg and Provost Christopher Alan Bracey were among the attendees.

After West gave her opening remarks, Jade Do, an international graduate student from Vietnam, spoke about her faith tradition of Falun Gong. She came to the United States eight years ago and found that life as an immigrant was difficult. She struggled to adjust to a new culture and position herself to compete in the job market, so she looked to Falun Gong’s principles of “truthfulness, compassion and forbearance” as a way to come to terms with her experience. “It helped me to let go of bitterness and resentment,” she said.

“My mindset shifted from expecting the university to do more for me to focusing on how I can contribute to campus life,” Do said.

With compassion, a tenet of Falun Gong, Do came to understand that “we all have challenges to overcome.”

After Do’s speech, the GW Voice Gospel Choir serenaded the crowd a cappella with a hymn.

The keynote speech was made by Sousan Abadian, executive director of the Interfaith Council. An Iranian woman who identifies as Zoroastrian, she also calls herself “a Sufi initiate” and has studied shamanic medicine practices.

“Religious humility is at the heart of the interfaith movement,” she said. This entails “developing the capacity to accept and allow for differences.”

After the remarks, conversations sparked at the dinner tables. Representatives of various faith traditions were spread throughout the room, and people opened up about personal experiences, including intra-family struggles with conflicting religious beliefs.

At one table, where Christianity, Islam and Judaism were represented, there was a common sentiment that there should be more events such as the Interfaith Dinner to allow for the flow of dialogue among those of different religious backgrounds.

Daniel Turner, B.A. ’22, the GW InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Campus staff minister, noted that Lent and Ramadan overlapped this year. That kind of coincidence in the calendar could allow for the sharing of perspectives between Christianity and Islam, he thought.

Jihene Ben Moussa, vice president of the Muslim Women’s Association of Washington, DC, and an attorney, shared that she became interested in understanding other religions after she began studying the Bible for academic purposes. There are “commonalities” throughout religions, she said, the primary one being: “Treat others how you want to be treated.”

 “We need differences,” she added. “Differences are good.”

2024 Interfaith Week events
Mitchell Foster, interim director of MSSC, talks about tarot and the basics of card deck divination as a spiritual practice. Tarot reading when read and practiced mindfully and properly can help provide guidance, insight and meaning to life. (B.L. Wilson/GW Today)

“Ask Me Anything”: A faith-based human library

On the opening day of Interfaith Week, the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington hosted a gathering at the University Student Center that featured three panelists who introduced their different faith traditions and how they integrate those traditions into daily life. The gathering then broke up into smaller group discussions for the presenters to serve as “human books,” answering questions.

Vineet Bhagwat, a member of the Chinmaya Mission and an associate professor of finance at the GW School of Business, led the introductions by speaking about the experience that led him to embrace Hinduism. It happened when he was a graduate student procrastinating on studying for a final exam. A message from the Bhagavad Gita, a part of Hindu scripture, suddenly resonated, giving him motivation: “You can only do the action that’s in front of you,” he recalled. “The results are not in your hand. The action is in your hand.”

Quoting the movie “Kung Fu Panda,” he said: “There are no accidents.”

“You are here for a reason,” he explained while summarizing the teachings of the Gita. “Rather than complain and feel sad, accept your situation and go from there. That perspective gives you a lot of strength.”

The other panelists were Rabbi Sarah Bassin, director of clergy and congregations at the refugee support organization HIAS, and Alex Levin, a yoga teacher at the Sun & Moon studio in Arlington, Virginia.

In the small group discussions, other religions, such as Zoroastrianism and Jainism, were represented. Universal questions concerning daily life came up: How can you retain your tradition while being open to others? How do we live properly? These open-ended questions highlighted how faith traditions can apply to the modern world.

Interfaith Week event 2024
Another session during the week was "Rest as Resistance: One Use of Restorative Yoga Practice." (Lily Speredelozzi/GW Today)

Catholicism, Jainism and Judaism in conversation

The theme of universal questions continued on April 17 at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum during a lunch event sponsored by GW Hillel in partnership with community leaders.

Bernadette Itzkow, a GW Hillel social justice springboard fellow, moderated a discussion between Father Stefan Megyery, the chaplain at GW Catholics Newman Center; Sanjay Jain, an associate professor of decision sciences at GW’s School of Business and a Jainism practitioner; and Rabbi Dan Epstein, the rabbi at GW Hillel who recently graduated from the university with a master’s in Israel education.

“Religion is often used as the basis of conflict, but there’s really no need to justify conflict with religion,” Megyery said.

Jain pointed out the possibility of religion playing a role in peace. “If we can understand each other’s perspectives, hopefully that will lead to peace,” Jain said.

The discussion took deeply philosophical turns, touching on the meaning of life and how to live as an individual and as part of society. Religious doctrines may have differences, but there are similarities in the basic ideas regarding human relationships.

“If the purpose of life is to liberate our souls,” according to Jain, “then religion provides a path, a social code of conduct, which is, generally, to be good to everyone.”

Religion also offers an explanation of the unknown, said Jain, and believing in that explanation is the source of faith. Additionally, religion provides a sense of community, Epstein said, giving an example of Hillel on campus. Some people come to the organization for the social, not necessarily religious, aspect.

Megyery said religion tries to answer timeless questions: “Where do we come from? Where do we go?” He believes religion meets a yearning in people.

 “Our heart is restless,” he said. “We are all looking for something. We’re trying to fill a hole.”

Interfaith Week 2024
GW alumna Tracey L. Rogers spoke about how the study and interpretation of astrology can be a useful tool in one's spiritual and life journey. (William Atkins/GW Today)