At the 18th Annual Interfaith Reception, President LeBlanc leads a discussion with students on learning about different faiths.
By B.L. Wilson
George Washington University students of all faiths and beliefs including seekers and secularists gathered in the City View Room of the Elliott School of International Affairs for the 18th Annual Interfaith Reception Tuesday evening.
The theme of the program this year was “What Does Faith Have To Do With It,” the goal being to allow students “to engage in a robust discussion of various aspects of faith and its significance in our lives,” said GW Interfaith Council President Jaiya Lalla.
The evening opened with a prayer from Tali Edid, president of the Jewish Student Association, who said that her faith teaches her that a wise person is “someone who learns from everyone.”
Representatives from various faith groups, including Islam, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism, offered blessings throughout the evening.
“Now more than ever,” GW President Thomas LeBlanc said, “it is critical for us all to listen— really listen—to those who are different from us.”
He said the GW campus, where a multitude of faiths, beliefs and traditions coexist, provides an opportunity to listen, learn and share.
“In our current political climate and in a country and a world where, tragically, many are persecuted or targeted simply for their beliefs, interfaith discussions are even more important,” said Dr. LeBlanc.
The Interfaith Reception—formerly called the Interfaith Dinner—began shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when students from the Muslim Student Association and the Jewish Student Association, concerned about anti-Muslim feelings in the wake of terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, joined to share in the Iftar meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast.
The evening was organized with groups of six to eight seated at about 20 tables, allowing for roundtable conversations on three key topics: faith, others’ perceptions of your faith and holiday traditions of faiths.
A blessing of the food was offered by Anjali Patel, president of the Hindu Student Association, who prayed, “May we all be nourished, may we work together with great energy, may our intellect be sharpened and let there be no animosity amongst us. Om peace in one’s self, peace in nature, peace in divine forces.”
Long before the talking points were displayed on the screen, students dived into conversation, volunteering why they had chosen to participate in the interfaith evening.
Samey Noor, a Muslim and a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs involved in conflict resolution, already had been on a journey promoting empathy and interfaith harmony. First-year student Waleed Masood was involved in interfaith activities in high school in Little Rock, Ark.
They found Catholics and other Christians at the table eager to learn about Islam and the role of women in particular. Mr. Noor and Mr. Masood said that interpretations of the Koran more often have to do with a country’s policy than the Koran.
“Like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are different, and Afghanistan, they all have different gender policies.” Mr. Masood said. “In the U.S., Muslims are not under strict guidelines about women driving or having to cover every part of their body except their eyes.”
Senior Emily Parker, who said she was raised a Catholic and is a feminist, comes from the Detroit area, which has a vibrant Muslim population. She said she is exploring different faiths. “Rules made by men have taken faith from women,” Ms. Parker said.
Ronni Farid, also a senior, whose Iranian father is Muslim and whose mother is Catholic, said she is “not very religious but [strives] for a very idealized Christianity.”
Representatives from other tables reported on conversations that were similar. Student Association President, S.J. Matthews said her favorite was the personal story of a participant who disclosed how important it was that he and his partner were allowed to marry in the faith.
There was concern expressed at one table that the campus is perhaps “controlled by a secular narrative” and a feeling that students “shouldn’t be practicing openly on campus.” Sophomore Raina Hackett said, “We’re in a space to counter that and embrace our religious diversity.”
Another table discussed misconceptions about Christianity being homophobic after a group was seen on campus preaching a message of hate. Josh Kim, a sophomore, said the group at his table decided that that particular message “is not faith.”
“Faith is about love and compassion,” he said, “and it was great to have that reminder tonight.”
Ms. Lalla said there are more than 30 faith organizations on the GW campus. “I think a lot of students were able to engage in dialogue with people of different faiths that they may not have been able to do before,” she said.
It was an idea reinforced by Timothy Kane, associate director of inclusion initiatives at the Multicultural Student Services Center. “People were saying, ‘I never would have met someone from the Hindu faith, the Sikh faith or from the Muslim faith,’ as a Christian or as a Jew, which are the two [largest] religious identities here at GW,” he said.