Students and staff come together

Puget Sound may not be known for its religious diversity, but Interfaith Coordinators Adriana Flores, Rebecca Short and Ian Fox are inspired to change that with the information they took away from the fifth national conference for collegiate interfaith councils last weekend.

Held on the Princeton University campus, “Coming Together 5: A Venture Across Religious Boundaries” was put on with the goal of helping eliminate religious division in collegiate communities by providing student leaders with the opportunity to discuss how to do so on their respective campuses.

Coming Together (CT) summits, held annually since 2006, are planned and designed by student and staff leadership from the host institution with support from the Association of College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA), a consortium of University Chaplains and Deans of Religious Life.

“We launched CT to offer a chance for students in our programs to meet, exchange ideas, learn from one another, and develop a sense of national connection,” ACURA member and Puget Sound Chaplain Dave Wright said. Wright has been instrumental in enabling Puget Sound students to attend these annual conferences.

He sees conferences like this as especially crucial for smaller campuses like Puget Sound where students lack exposure to the breadth of religious diversity that larger university students would have. “The chance for students to learn from one another and get a sense of the broad religious diversity of our society and the world is tremendous, and CT does this like nothing else I know,” he said.

What sets Coming Together apart from similar interfaith summits is its ability to foster close ties between student attendees through its commitment to peer-to-peer learning.

This year’s conference consisted of workshops presented by students on topics such as pluralism without relativism, interfaith diplomacy and religious extremism. Flores, Fox and Short were selected to present on the topic of navigating situations of ethical disagreement.

Other events included religious open houses for students to participate in worship from different religious communities, and a keynote speech from Dr. Eboo Patel, head of Interfaith Youth Core and member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships.

“Each year students bring back a great deal of energy, new ideas, borrowed ideas and a deeper sense of what we might accomplish to provide rich opportunities at Puget Sound,” Wright said. Attendees of CT 1 in 2004 presented plans to adapt Kilworth Chapel to offer flexible spaces to accommodate multiple religious rituals. This winter, Facilities Services completed construction on these spaces, which have been designed for Muslim prayer, meditation and yoga practices.

Flores, Fox and Short returned with similar aspirations for the Puget Sound campus and a better understanding of its shortcomings when it comes to religious pluralism.

“Puget Sound’s campus is very secular, which is okay, but unfortunately with a noticeable helping of hostility and disrespect toward people of dissimilar spiritual views,” Short said.

To counteract this secularity, Interfaith Coordinators are planning several events concerning religious discussion, interfaith dialogue and service/social justice work. “We can create real, lasting, positive change in the world if we network with each other and bounce off each others’ ideas and enthusiasm,” Short said.

“There needs to be more discussion and dialogue within the entire Puget Sound community about difficult issues like faith and religion,” Fox said. “This would help make the campus a more inviting place for people of poorly represented religions.”

The conference also helped Flores recognize an opportunity to create a more diverse community from the ground up. “Being involved in Interfaith Council and the Campus Visit Program, I am inspired to make it a priority that all students feel comfortable on this campus so that we can attract a more diverse and accommodating religious community,” she said.

To learn more about Interfaith Council or religious life on campus, go to www.pugetsound.edu/student-life and click on Spirituality, Service & Social Justice.