Many talks around faith this year have involved violence, often focusing on shootings in places of worship. But at Bowdoin, around the couches in 30 College and through events all across campus, members of the Brunswick community have gathered to engage in interfaith dialogue in a collaborative and optimistic manner.
These discussions were led by four students—Caleb Perez ’20, Abigail Wu ’21, Nick Suarez ’21 and Lucas Johnson ’22—who are part of Bowdoin’s new Multifaith Fellowship. In the fall, the fellows met weekly to explore their different understandings of religion and faith, and analyze portions of the world’s major sacred texts. But this semester, their talks have branched out into campus-wide events.
The Multifaith Fellowship is spearheaded by Eduardo Pazos Palma, director of religious and spiritual life, and funded by the Interfaith Youth Core, an American non-profit that works on college campuses to promote dialogues about religious diversity. The funds covered the fellows’ stipends in the fall and event costs in the spring.
“The central core of what we were learning [in the first semester] was really trying to understand how religions engage one another; it was a lot of introspection,” said Johnson.
The fellows read portions of the Old and New Testaments, the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon, as well as other major religious texts. They were each tasked with hosting a community event in the spring that drew from their learning this past fall. The topic and organization of the event was up to each fellow.
Wu’s event before spring break explored the new trend of yoga and mindfulness and their potential cultural appropriation. Last week, Suarez led a discussion at Howell House about womanhood and Islam, which focused on veiling in Islamic countries and highlighted how some Muslim women feel that the practice has affected their faiths and their lives.
“[Each event] is a sample of the diversity of what we were talking about in our meetings, except with a narrower focus and more people coming out to learn,” Suarez said.
“There is a lot of emphasis on being able to get people to learn what we learned but in a much more concise and easy to understand way,” Johnson added.
This Wednesday, in the Roux Center for the Environment, the fellows hosted a panel of religious leaders from the Brunswick area who discussed interfaith dialogue. The panel was composed of four clergy leaders from the area: Presbyterian Pastor Gordon Cook and Pastor Jonathan Larssen, both of whom work for the Spiritual Wellness Program at Mid Coast Hospital; Reverend Sylvia Stocker, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick Maine; and Reverend Mary Baard, the Senior Pastor at the First Parish Church.
Despite their varying backgrounds and experiences, the panelists all stressed the importance of discourse and cooperation between people of varying faiths and emphasized the similarities rather than the differences that people share.
“When you get to know someone personally, of a vastly different religion, it just enriches your life so much,” said Cook. “I can’t overstate how important that process of listening and growing is.”
Stocker agreed and explained that cooperation between faiths could have concrete benefits for multiple people.
“I think for me, there’s a very practical application of interfaith relations and it has to do with finding the common ground so that we can all serve the common good,” said Stocker. “And yes, we could pick and pick and pick and find the differences but there’s really a lot we share across the board.”
Much like the panelists, Pazos Palma and the fellows felt that interfaith work is becoming more crucial both in the United States and around the globe.
“I think there’s an absolute necessity of being able to understand and comprehend other individuals’ religions, traditions and faiths, especially as we look forward in the United States,” said Johnson. “I think for any of us in the next 20 years, we’re going to be having colleagues, neighbors, friends who are of different faiths and backgrounds … and the ability to understand where they’re coming from and who they are as spiritual individuals is incredibly necessary.”
While the discussions throughout the year have been fruitful for the fellows and have begun to reach a wider audience, fellows worry that not all are willing to engage in these events.
“When I was telling some of my friends to go to my Modesty, Women and Islam [event], they were like, ‘I feel like it’ll be weird for us to go [because] we’re not Muslim,’” said Suarez. “But that was kind of the point, to get people uncomfortable talking about something that they don’t usually talk about; bridging that gap is really awesome.”
Pazos Palma hopes to continue this uncomfortable discussion. Next year, the Office of Student Affairs and the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life will incorporate the Multifaith Fellowship into their budgets and Pazos Palma will work with Perez to redesign the curriculum and choose next year’s group of students.
“There’s a really good conversation to be had around the role of religion in public life, in the face of an increasingly secular society, and also the role of religion in a increasingly globalized society,” said Pazos Palma. “There’s a lot to be said about religion and human rights, religion and morality. So there’s just many ways in which religion and spirituality are intersectional to a lot of the interests that Bowdoin students have.”