Fostering Connections through Dialogue

Rockefeller Chapel

From March 2019

By Kate Blankinship

The Office of Spiritual Life at the University fosters interreligious interactions across campus through various programming such as Open Space and the School of Social Service Administration’s faith and spirituality group.

One program that facilitates an interfaith dialogue and experience is the Spiritual Life Collective (SLC). Established five years ago, SLC enables undergraduates and graduates to gather once a week to share their stories and have interfaith conversations. SLC gives students an opportunity to“learn how to have and practice difficult conversations with full honesty, rather than coming at them from a place of debate or argument or rigor,” said Jigna Shah, the Assistant Dean of Rockefeller Chapel and Director of Spiritual Life.

Over time, the number of students involved in SLC has fluctuated, but the core group this year is composed of twelve students. SLC is headed by Shah and Assistant Director of Spiritual Life and Advisor for Muslim Affairs Seher Siddiqee, along with one student intern who guides each conversation and meets with Shah and Siddiqee every week in preparation for the next meeting.

Students go through three primary phases over the course of the program. The first is self-reflection, a period that allows students to look at and identify their own core values, which they will then bring into conversations. By identifying their values, students learn how to best share their stories. This leads to the second component—engaging in difficult conversations. Shah, Siddiqee, and the student intern provide topics that promote engagement among the group. The topics spark conversations about subjects ranging from people’s preferred pronouns to conversations about the intersection of various faiths. During these dialogues, Shah and Siddiqee take notes to later provide feedback on how students “wear their values on their sleeves and how that flows into conversation,” Shah said. The third and final phase of the program is planning an inclusive interfaith event, such as a dinner or similar social gathering, which allows students to focus on the process of developing interfaith conversations.

Nur Banu Simsek, a fourth-year philosophy major in the College, has been involved with SLC since her first year. Simsek joined SLC because she “wanted to have an environment where people of different faiths and traditions could have honest and vulnerable conversations about how their beliefs affected their lives, motivated their actions, and how they came to believe what they believed,” she said.  “I wanted to challenge myself and think about aspects of my own faith that I wouldn't think to question or contemplate myself.”

SLC encourages an authentic environment that allows for conversation to mimic what students confront in everyday life. Essential to this is that students from all backgrounds participate. “Instead of joining hands and rejoicing in how similar we are, we try to talk about what makes us fundamentally different and what do those differences mean,” Simsek said.

“It's a natural place to talk about religion, and it's an easy place to ask questions—not just about religion in general but also about how people internalize their faith,” second-year master’s student at the Harris School of Public Policy Kjersten Adams said. “It's really nice to have people to talk to about such personal questions and to feel safe and encouraged in the active pursuit of spiritual growth.”

This is the first year that Adams has participated in SLC, but she has already gained “friendships, explanations, and a sense of belonging in a group that seeks for knowledge and understanding of other people, other faiths, and our own spiritual journeys,” she said.

Over the past four years, Simsek has “come to realize that some things which make no sense to me can be extremely coherent and satisfying for others, and others feel that way about some of my very fundamental beliefs as well.”

Connections and realizations like these are what SLC hopes to foster by creating a space for vulnerability to exist.  In facing their vulnerabilities, students learn how to consider more perspectives than their own. “You’re confronting yourself and your own biases, ideas, and how that doesn’t fit with the rest of the world,” Siddiqee said. “Difficult conversations can be transformative for an individual or a group because the way in which you share vulnerabilities opens up that space for other people and together you’re able to grow.”