An Oasis of Peace in a Harsh Political Season

The Interfaith Dinner is a search for community through guidance from prophetic voices.

2016 Interfaith Dinner
More than 200 people attended the 15th annual GW Interfaith Dinner, which began on campus after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
October 07, 2016

George Washington University students gathered Wednesday for the 15th annual Interfaith Dinner to explore the meaning of inclusivity and diversity at a time when conflicts around the world and the political climate in the United States have sometimes challenged these ideas.

The theme for the evening was “Many Roads, One Community,” focusing on building one community with people who come from many backgrounds and different faiths.

For some students, contemplation of religious values offered a respite from politics, for others, an occasion to consider the divisiveness it can give rise to.

Nianci Lyu, a senior international affairs and economics major representing the Buddhist faith, was attending the dinner for the second time. She spoke to the gathering about finding guidance in Matthieu Ricard’s writings in “Altruism and the Power of Compassion to Change (your Life) and the World.”

“I care about the future generation,” Ms. Lyu said. “I try to devote myself to building a better world and hopefully better environmental conditions in the future.”

The dinner was organized around presentations from student leaders of various faith organizations who spoke about their personal journeys and the prophetic voices that help them build a community that is inclusive and diverse. Fellow students seated at tables spread around the Marvin Center Ballroom were then encouraged to engage in a dialogue around the questions posed by the presenters. More than 230 people signed up for the occasion.

Ms. Lyu, who is from southern China, was specifically concerned by the failure of influential leaders like presidential candidate Donald Trump to act altruistically, attributing mean-spiritedness toward Muslims and Chinese in social media to remarks he has made. As someone who might want to become an immigrant, she said his remarks offended her.

“That’s why I brought up the environmental problem. He made a comment that global warming is not true, that it is a conspiracy proposed by the Chinese to steal jobs from the United States,” she said.
 
Sagarananda Tien, a Buddhist monk, joined the discussion. “Harsh speech does have an effect on a larger scale,” he said.

The response to such rhetoric, Mr. Tien said, should be “to achieve peace.”
“(Buddhism requires) for the younger generation to take some time off to reflect on themselves, to purify themselves and use that as a foundation to engage in our community,” he said.

At another table, the experience comparable to finding fulfillment through altruism for senior Jenna Friedberg was in her Jewish faith through giving and volunteering.

“Doing a good deed, a mitzvah.” Ms. Friedberg said.

The first Interfaith Dinner was held in 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Jewish and Muslim students came together then, and the event has become an annual tradition that has since grown to include many other faiths and secular communities.

After the presentations and discussions, George Washington President Steven Knapp spoke, describing the Interfaith Dinner as an oasis in the university’s hectic fall schedule that gives students an opportunity to pause, come together and reflect.

“Yours is the generation that has to overcome fear and overcome antagonisms by bringing people together around their common goals and common aspirations, whatever their individual backgrounds may have been,” Dr. Knapp said. “This evening every year symbolizes the power of doing that. “

Dr. Knapp asked the crowd to reflect on the words of former Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel laureate Shimon Peres who died last week.

“The time has come to reconsider some old assumptions; the significance of borders is going through a deep change,” said Mr. Peres, who was awarded GW’s President’s Medal in 1998. “If you don’t open your country to the rest of the world, the world will be closed to you.”

In closing, Interfaith Council President Amira Bakir, who was the emcee for the event, drew attention to the words on the program of the university’s namesake, President George Washington’s promise to a Hebrew Congregation in 1790.

“Every American shall sit in safety under his own fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid, for this government shall give to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance.”

 

Student Life