New Interfaith Center Planned for Campus
Nejaat Ibrahim ’19 wasn’t exceptionally religious before she came to Goucher, but being away from home, she says, her faith gave her an anchor in a changing world.
“I feel like I’ve become more religious, or, I guess, taken more pride in my religion, since I came to college,” she says. “When you’re here, you’re kind of all over the place, because you are trying to figure out a lot of things about life and about yourself.”
Ibrahim was born in Ethiopia, but has lived in Maryland since she was five. She didn’t grow up with a Muslim community around her, but has been trying to create one at Goucher, starting a study and prayer group on campus. It’s the kind of faith community that religious leaders at the college have been trying to encourage, and one they hope will find a home at a planned addition to the Haebler Memorial Chapel.
The expansion will create an interfaith center, combining the existing chapel with space for Goucher Hillel, as well as rooms dedicated to other faiths, which students can use for prayer and study. Members of Goucher’s religious communities also hope that a central space will create opportunities for students of different faiths to come together. Construction on the addition is expected to begin later this year.
“To me there are two different things we’re trying to get accomplished with the interfaith center,” says Goucher Chaplain Cynthia Terry. “Creating spaces for students, particularly from religious minorities, to have what they need to practice, both individually and in community. The other piece is the interaction. Trying to really create in one place those opportunities for engagement, for curiosity.”
“We certainly have a depth of different Christians and Jews on this campus,” says Rabbi Josh Snyder, the executive director of Goucher Hillel, “and we also now are realizing the needs of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and other students.
“We live in a multi-faith world,” he says. “There are all kinds of faith identities that may play into who we are and who we come across in our lives. To have some understanding of those identities, and relationships with people who are in those faiths, is going to serve our students well as they go out into the world.”
The conventional wisdom has long been that students going away to college abandon the religious traditions of their youth. While it’s true that, according to studies by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA and others, the number of college students who check “none” in the religion box has been on the rise, there’s a growing interfaith movement focusing on religious diversity on college campuses. On Goucher’s campus, where students skew slightly more secular than the average, according to a survey conducted in 2015, they are more likely than the average to have grown up in a multi-faith household, and much more likely to have friends with different religious views.
Snyder says Goucher students do a lot of questioning, and that includes matters of faith. He cites recent school surveys that show “our students have a higher degree of self-authorship of their own identity and faith identity than the students at peer institutions, meaning students think through and expose themselves to different ideas and faiths before they really finally settle.”
He and Terry hope that bringing students of different faiths under the same roof will facilitate conversations across religious traditions, and even outside them. “We’ve started sometimes to use the term ‘worldview’ to encompass agnostics, atheists, humanists, and other philosophical world views that often are left aside when we talk about faith,” he says. “And when you can expand to that, I think you find that everybody has some viewpoint, some lens through which they look at the world.”
“In today’s world,” Terry says, “religion continues to be important. And it is such a player politically, that colleges have a unique opportunity to help people get to know each other.”
For Ibrahim, growing up as a Muslim with mostly Christian friends, having discussions about her faith is familiar territory.
“I think when people feel comfortable enough to ask questions,” she says, “when someone does have that the courage to ask, rather than make assumptions, it’s a great moment.”
She tries to let her behavior serve as an example, to fight the negative assumptions about Islam she sees around her.
“Religion can be a very touchy subject, and very personal,” she says. “But I think that being Muslim, and wearing the hijab, I mean, it’s basically written on my forehead. So I’ve learned to be comfortable with people knowing this personal part of me. That opens up a lot of interesting conversations.”
For more information about the planned interfaith center, including the upcoming announcement of the naming and ground-breaking, please visit www.goucher. edu/communitymatters.