Charleston is notorious for its skyline. It is a glorious sight. From a distance the city is magnificent: the breathtaking buildings contrast against the backdrop of the indigo-stained harbor as the illustrious church steeples protrude from the shadows of the city they have guarded for hundreds of years. These churches and temples define the city, creating an identity we cherish – the Holy City. Zoom into this picture, though, and it becomes clear that religion is a broad subject in this city and at the College of Charleston, it has the sensational power of binding students together, regardless of personal religious identity.
The Power of Religious Life Exchange
Andrew Spector, class of 2015, recognized the miscellany of religions at the College and in his junior year, formed a group of supportive students who believe in the power of diversity. The Religious Life Exchange seeks to assemble students from a sundry of religions and initiate Interfaith Service Days, through which various religious groups can worship together and serve the Charleston community.
Charli Mims, the current president of the organization, said their goal is to foster a new kind of community where different types of people are able to work together toward a common goal. “It works in a triangle,” Mims said, “where positive attitudes, relationships and knowledge all work together to create a solid interfaith foundation in order to act on social issues or a certain common good everyone can agree to aim for.” The projects are useful in creating a spirit of religious acceptance on campus.
Acceptance, however, does not always come so easily.
Heba Abdin (pictured above) is a Muslim student whose family comes from Syria. “It saddens me,” she said, “that when I step out of campus, there are some who are not as open-minded about diversity, and say or do disrespectful things.” Abdin explained that much of the prejudice she encounters happens off- campus, and that the College community is notably accepting and respects the fact that she wears her faith for the world to see.
The Religious Life Exchange is ushering in this kind of acceptance on campus everyday. Spector said they achieve this by, “opening our hearts and minds to others, entering all conversations with an unwavering respect for all people, seeking to understand, appreciate and love, rather than reject, distort and judge.” Interfaith acceptance starts with personal respect toward others’ beliefs.
Joining Religious Groups
Spector and the various religious groups on campus realize that in order for students at the College to embark on a true and wholesome religious journey, they must immerse themselves in communities that include people who share their beliefs as well as communities that include people with differing beliefs. “It is critical,” Spector said, “to provide space for religious pluralism to emerge from the promise of religious diversity.” By deeply and meaningfully engaging with each other’s religious and philosophical backgrounds, we can create a student body prepared to be effective leaders in a diverse global society.
The Foundation of Faith
Religious Life Exchange breaks the barriers of cultural stereotypes by uniting different religions under one theme: faith.
Faith is expounded in many different ways. “It is one thing to defend your own faith,” Mims said, “but it is something entirely more beautiful to stand up for the rights of other faiths.” To Spector, this faith is something that unites us all. He said, “My faith is the meaningful experiences in my life that empower me to help create a world that honors our interconnectedness through peaceful, loving and understanding relationships.”
Some students might fear that attending interfaith events will hinder their relationship with their God, exposing themselves to opposing creeds. Spector is certain that interfaith cooperation does not dilute a person’s faith and believes that it actually strengthens spirituality. “Effective interfaith organizations,” he said, “facilitate positive, meaningful relationships between people from different backgrounds and increase appreciative knowledge of other traditions.” By working together on interfaith service days, those involved in the Religious Life Exchange can find commonalities in each other.
The Lasting Effect of Interfaith Service
During an interfaith service day last year, a student from a Muslim tradition and one from a Jewish tradition found in common with each other something very small but very meaningful. It was a word that meant service in both Hebrew and in Arabic that sounded exactly the same. Mims said, “Both of them were my friends and one came to me after the project was over for the day and expressed that it really surprised her to hear this and made her rethink how she viewed these other people as a whole community.
It was something beautiful to see how something so small can reach into a person’s prejudices – which we all have – and make the person aware of how wrong it is.” By working together to help the Charleston community, two people with opposing faiths found something even more powerful than faith in God – faith in each other.
Above all, Spector, Mims and the Religious Life Exchange team hope to build a community of students who recognize and respect the common roots that connect all of the world’s religions. “Don’t feel a need to critique the nuances of each religious tradition,” he said. “Instead, feel obligated to deeply understand and empathize with everyone’s story – compassionately seek to find wisdom and inspiration from their narrative.”
Common convictions unite people, and through the Religious Life Exchange, each individual religious organization becomes unified under the overarching idea that at the core of each of us is exuberance in knowing that we are loved by something greater – whether it is a greater God, a greater protective power or, most paramount, a greater appreciation of the commonalities that bring us together.
*This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Yard