Sun. May 26th, 2024

“Don’t Give Hate an Audience” — it’s a familiar Subject Line for West Chester University Students to receive in their inbox. This email often comes when once or twice a semester, groups who do not deserve to have their names printed in text come to West Chester University. Penned off like rabid baboons, these groups fling hateful rhetoric as if it were their feces, all in the name of religion. What follows is crowds of students filled with counter-protest signs, drag queens and even the occasional appearance by SpongeBob and Squidward. While this scene would appear to be a product of one of Seth MacFarlane’s random cutaway gags, it is actually a depiction of reality, displaying the total disintegration of religious dialogue here at West Chester University.

As religion defines conflict both at home and abroad, issues including LGBTQ+ rights, abortion access and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continue to create discourse and conflict on college campuses. In juxtaposition to these rifts, there is a project that seeks to create a safer platform to discuss religious issues across denominations, spiritualities and belief systems on the West Chester University campus. The project is called, “The Interfaith, Meaning-Making, and Spirituality Project.” Started by West Chester Professors Dr. Zachary Wooten and Dr. Matthew Pierlott, the program aims to build sustainable efforts in creating interfaith connections through meaning-making and spirituality. The program features three levels of organization: The Student Interfaith Action Committee, The Faculty and Staff Interfaith Advisory Board and The Interfaith Leadership Fellows (a paid campus peer educator program).

Over email correspondence, Dr. Wooten shared, “Though interfaith efforts have been happening organically in various sectors of campus, this project aims to bring these efforts together collaboratively under an increasingly formalized structure to support, equip, and celebrate interfaith leadership efforts.” He additionally shared that the aim of the project was “to develop a sustainable network of faculty, staff, students, and community members who support the diverse ways students orient around religious and philosophical worldviews in order to make meaning of their lives and connect to the world around them.” Yet despite being a pivotal tool in a time defined by religious conflict, interfaith dialogue has struggled to garner a footing here on the West Chester Campus.

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with the leader of the Student Interfaith Action Committee, Gabriella Steffy, to talk about “The Interfaith, Meaning-Making, and Spirituality Project.” For full transparency, Steffy is not only a classmate and colleague within the Honors Student Association, but also a close friend of mine.

I began by asking Steffy her thoughts on what Interfaith action is and is not. She stated, “The goal of Interfaith Action… is really to try and make a difference, creating a more peaceful society for everyone to be able to live happily together… and better understand everyone’s goals and make meaning of our lives.” On the topic of misunderstandings about Interfaith action, she stated, “People always think that you have to be religious… we accept anyone of any background, and if you are religious that’s great, but if you’re not that’s also great.” She went on to further state, “Having those different perspectives can allow us to… make a more peaceful society for everyone.”

Despite attempting to appeal to all religious groups, Steffy shared that religious organizations have been hesitant to engage. The American Psychiatric Association identified “interpersonal struggles” or rather the feeling that “others were looking down on me because of my religious/spiritual beliefs” as one of the biggest stressors on religious individuals This explains one of the potential reasons as to why religious groups are hesitant to engage in Interfaith dialogue — they are afraid others will look down upon them or judge them for believing in something separate from their own beliefs.

In addition to this phenomenon, Steffy identified a lack of interest from non-religious students as another factor limiting the group’s growth. According to Pew Research, the amount of religiously unaffiliated Americans (identified as atheists, agnostics, and other unaffiliated peoples) has risen from 16% to 28% from 2007 to 2023 . Despite this, a stunning 69% of these individuals still believed in a “god” or a “higher power” . That said, 43% felt that religion did more harm than good within American society ). These statistics suggest their lack of religious affiliation stems from a distrust of religion as an institution, which causes religious hesitancy; not from a lack of belief in a creator.

On the matter of religious hesitancy, she stated, “People think they are going to walk into this room and… be forced to believe what other people believe, and that’s not true.” She went on to talk about the intentions of Interfaith dialogue. It is not to provide a space for religious groups to convert to one another but rather to provide a space for differing religious beliefs to come together and learn from each other.

The Interfaith Action Committee has made efforts to do just that through on and off-campus events, two of which I recently had the opportunity to attend.

The first was an “Interfaith Trip” that was spread over two half-day sessions this past February. The first evening consisted of a dinner at a local interfaith organization called ACT in Faith which works to supplement social services such as food stamps and housing assistance for those who do not qualify for these programs at the federal level. In addition, the organization also works to aid unhoused individuals within the West Chester community. The second day was centered on visiting religious communities such as the non-denominational Church of the Loving Shepherd and the Islamic Society of Chester County.

The second event was the much-acclaimed “Better Together Days” which was held in March. The program works as a gathering of religious organizations — as well as a small amount of non-religious organizations (such as the Center for Women and Gender Equity) — at tables set up in the Sykes Ballroom. Students then travel around the room with “passports” that are marked off by each of the tables they visit. Once a student fills out a passport, they are eligible to win a prize. While the event promotes learning about different religions and identities, it provides little in the way of actual Interfaith discourse. In this way, the event is able to garner a higher amount of participation from religious groups, as it is more or less a show-and-tell of religious beliefs.

This event is a starting point for Interfaith dialogue. While informative and welcoming, it does not provide the at times uncomfortable nuisance discussions of how Interfaith dialogue can solve the religious issues that remain on our campus. To that end, it is evident that the barriers which limit the participation of religious and non-religious groups are still present.

Steffy hopes that in breaking down these barriers which persist on the West Chester University campus, this nuanced dialogue can occur. She advocates that interfaith dialogue will help to solve the issues discussed on campus today and that religious and non-religious communities working to break down these barriers only help bring this mission to actualization. “Interfaith is for everyone. You don’t have to be religious. You can be spiritual, you could not be religious, you could be atheist, whatever you believe is important to interfaith dialogue and to interfaith action, and it should be contributed.”

 


KC Thoman is a second-year English Education Major in the Honors College with minors in Civic and Professional Leadership and Communications. kt993641@wcupa.edu.

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