From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Bridge to Understanding
all together crowd

Leadership of the Utah State University Interfaith Student Association meet regularly to schedule activities and service-oriented projects that promote the ideal of interfaith cooperation. The student leaders are guided by Bonnie Glass-Coffin, PhD, professor of anthropology and affiliate professor of religious studies. Leaders include, (from left) Audrey George, Alex Troutner, Allison Fife, Advisor Bonnie Glass-Coffin, Allison Hawvermale, David Tauber, and Sarah Keating.

All Together Now

EACH OF THE STUDENTS AGREED that the fact they are all a part of USU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences means they may be more apt to explore broad philosophical questions and look for ways to help their fellow human beings. But, these student leaders of the Interfaith Student Association (IFSA), which is a part of Utah State University’s new Interfaith Initiative, also believe the issues they are attempting to address are universal and especially relevant to the general intellectual and personal awakenings that are so often a part of the college experience.

“I think the real power of this movement is in the fact that religion and spirituality play such a critical role in everyone’s life,” said Allison Fife, one of the student leaders of USU’s IFSA. “And because that’s so related to individual identity, I really do believe this is a movement that can cut across majors. Every student is interested in having a safe environment for their religious self.”

In fact, creating that safe environment where all faith traditions are honored and sincere questions are respected is the foundation of both the USU Interfaith Initiative and the IFSA. The binding agent in this recipe of appreciation and acceptance comes in the form of service projects.





WORKING TOGETHER

Service is a fundamental component to the work of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based nonprofit founded by Dr. Eboo Patel. IFYC is the organization upon which USU’s IFSA is modeled. Central to IFYC’s mission is the idea that “we do better together” and that by focusing on a benevolent objective, a climate of interdependent cooperation that transcends differences — in religions beliefs and more — is fostered.

Ideally, as a worldwide generation of students learns both respect for and acceptance of various and often very different religious beliefs — or disbeliefs — a new, more peaceful global future will be created. And while some might consider a movement with an unspoken objective of world peace to be somewhat quixotic, the CHaSS students involved in USU’s interfaith effort say they know their works, and those of Patel and his organization, are changing lives.

Patel, who served on President Obama’s inaugural advisory council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, spoke to crowd of more than 1,200 at USU this fall.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Patel said at the beginning of his address. “I’m excited to be with you here at USU to learn from you, to share with you, and to build bridges together.”

Patel spent much of his USU address likening the global interfaith campaign to the 1960s era civil rights movement in the United States. Using such diverse political and religious figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as influences in his own life such as a Latter-day Saint former girlfriend and his Muslim faith, he spoke passionately on themes common to all religions — acceptance, love, patience, kindness, respect — virtues taught but not always practiced.

“What will our grandchildren say of what we of different religions do together today?” Patel asked toward the end of his speech. “That is the question that we answer now in discussion and, most importantly, tomorrow in action.”

MAKING SPACES

Bonnie Glass-Coffin, PhD, a CHaSS professor of anthropology and affiliate professor of religious studies, was the impetus behind Patel’s visit and the energetic architect who not only laid the foundation for, but also designed and directed construction of USU’s Interfaith Initiative and the Interfaith Student Association. Now, Glass-Coffin acts as the faculty lead (with an adhoc committee of more than 20 students, faculty, administrators, and staff members) of the Interfaith Initiative. She also serves as co-advisor for IFSA.

“The future of our world depends upon leaders who are not only literate about other religions, but who can bridge the faith divide,” Glass-Coffin said.

Glass-Coffin began broaching the idea of an on-campus interfaith effort more than two years ago. She and others began working through various channels to address what they feel is an important component of overall higher education: personal growth that goes beyond academics.

Because the controversy associated with allowing an exploration of spirituality in a classroom setting continues, Glass-Coffin began to seek extra-curricular options for “making spaces on our campus where students, faculty, administrators, and staff feel like it’s okay to engage in discussions that allow us to bring our whole selves to the table in the service of academic growth.”

Creating that space required a research grant, several round-table discussions, and a series of student interviews that eventually led to an understanding of the need for a ‘safe space’ to be able to openly discuss individual religious tenets and to explore spirituality and beliefs.

Dr. Patel’s campus visit was the culmination of nearly two years of efforts and signaled an unofficial beginning to a more unified and directed on-campus, extra-curricular, interreligious effort.

STUDENT LEADERS

The students involved in IFSA believe strongly that by fostering the virtues emphasized by Patel — pluralism, love, patience, kindness, respect — and providing opportunities for their fellow students to practice such, they will create not only a safer, kinder, and more welcoming university campus, but they also hope to do their part to add foot soldiers to a growing army of warriors seeking only peace and cooperation.

Along with Fife, who is a dual major in history and economics, other CHaSS leaders of USU’s IFSA include David Tauber, a religious studies and anthropology major; Erica Hawvermale, a medical anthropology major with a minor in music; and Audrey George who is majoring in anthropology; along with a small group of other equally-dedicated students.

Each of the four student leaders comes from a different religious upbringing, with some only beginning to deeply explore their own beliefs. Of the half-dozen or so students who are involved in interfaith leadership, only two are devout members of Logan’s — and Utah’s — dominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other religious affiliations (or “faith traditions” in the preferred and more inclusive terminology) in the group include, Agnosticism, Shamanism, Islamism, various Christian sects, and more.

That such religious diversity is to be found on a relatively small and isolated university campus in the heart of “Mormon Country” may be surprising to some, but not to the students involved in the initiative. And in fact, if the hundreds of students who have now taken part in interfaith activities had proved to be less diverse, the message and indeed the need for the group would not have changed, according to its leadership

As a sophomore, Fife had the opportunity to travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for a leadership conference that included many young Emirati women her own age. Born and raised in Utah, Fife experienced her first introduction to a world in which another religion, Islam, dominated the culture.

“I really treasured that experience,” Fife said, “and when I came back to the United States and saw some of the Islamophobia, stereotypes, and misunderstanding of that religion, it made me really sad, because I knew all these wonderful people and I’d had such a positive experience interacting with them.”

While Fife was attempting to find a way to combat religious stereotypes, George, Hawvermale, and others were working with Glass-Coffin on a research project concerning how religion affects students on USU’s campus. That project eventually morphed into the Interfaith Initiative and IFSA.

For Tauber, involvement in interfaith work began with an effort by Glass-Coffin, Timothy Ledna, and others to form “Interfaith House,” an on-campus dorm dedicated to fostering religious tolerance and a general exploration and acceptance of diversity at USU. As that effort eventually began to evolve and become a part of the Interfaith Initiative, Tauber was there every step of the way, hoping to help other students avoid the feelings he had as a freshman at USU.

“I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t LDS for about my first year on [USU’s] campus,” Tauber said. “It didn’t appear there was anything else out there and that made me feel pretty isolated and actually pretty depressed.”

His interfaith work helped Tauber recognize the depth of diversity on campus and allowed him to feel like less of an outsider. That change in perspective was something Tauber knew he wanted to be able to provide to other students experiencing the same non-academic struggles he had faced during his first months at the university.

Though the early months and even years of USU’s interfaith effort limped along as ideas and efforts coalesced and morphed, the students’ and advisors’ work all seemed to reach a summit with the Patel event. Concerted and multifaceted outreach efforts (everything from paid print advertising, to a radio interview, dozens of campus signs, and university press releases) paid off in a big way, not only with the huge turnout for Patel’s speech, but with scores of students signing up to receive more information about the IFSA and its upcoming events.

“At the very beginning there was very little sense that we were actually going to have an impact,” Tauber said. “For a while we felt like Sisyphus, continually pushing a boulder uphill. But, since the Eboo Patel event, it seems like the whole thing has shifted from an uphill battle to a downhill battle where we’re actually trying to keep up with that boulder.”

all together crowd

LOOKING AHEAD

With Dr. Patel’s visit behind them, IFSA student leaders focused on their next event, which was held less than two weeks later. Dubbed “Speed Faithing” the program included a panel of student Interfaith leaders discussing their diverse faith traditions along with interactive audience participation that encouraged open dialog, honest questions, and a general opportunity to learn more about the other strangers in the room.

Those in attendance eagerly took part in quick individual meetings where they shared facts, ideas, beliefs, and other personal information. Although the students involved might have been willing to share such information without the speed faithing event, the likelihood of feeling “safe” to do so is small. In fact, faith traditions and beliefs are most often shared only between trusted friends and often with those who share similar views. It is more likely that students will keep religious ideas in a protected place close to their hearts that can leave them feeling sometimes safe, sometimes solitary.

Following the success of their speed faithing event, IFSA student leaders began to implement a plan for the service portion of the initiative. Chief among these ideas is “Better Together Week” planned for early spring 2015. The event will provide several “better days” such as “Serve Better Together Day” and “Eat Better Together Day.” More speed faithing panels also are in the works as well as more speakers representing different faith traditions.

With continued effort and support, those involved in starting USU’s interfaith movement hope to be able to see it not just flower, but flourish.

“Our goal is to not just raise awareness with one or two events, but rather to create a sustainable initiative that is going to change the face of campus,” said Fife. “We want to see more accommodations, awareness, acceptance that make things easier for students to bring their religious selves to the table. We want food options for students with restrictions who can’t currently eat on campus. We want worship space available for people who currently don’t have any place to practice their religious beliefs. We want people to be able to come together to do service acts to better the community, all from their different motivations, and to be able to talk about what motivates them religiously or spiritually to serve to make Cache Valley a better place.”

The mountain still to climb is a tall one, but the IFSA student leaders believe they are up to the task and somehow, somewhat miraculously, that boulder does seem to be rolling downhill.