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Graduating students say interfaith relationships are ones they'll keep

Before the 4,200 Emory graduates and their families depart the university's quad on the morning of commencement May 13, among the last voices they will hear are those of Emory students from various faith traditions, lifted up in a benedictory prayer.

Prayers by students of different faiths are an Emory tradition at commencement and other milestone campus events, as is the interfaith dialogue undertaken by the Inter-Religious Council (IRC), a group of student representatives from 28 faith organizations on campus.

"Students tell me that the IRC provides them with a way to have interactions that become the most important relationships they have with people who are 'other,'" says the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, dean of the chapel and religious life at Emory, which sponsors the IRC.

Tumultuous year

The past year, which has witnessed terrible violence on the national scene, has been a particularly challenging one in terms of helping students deal with the horror and sorrow  that such events create, says Henry-Crowe. She lists the tragic shootings in Aurora, Colo., at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Then Sandy Hook. Then Boston.

"Those are the ones that got press," says Henry-Crowe, adding that thousands of young people are killed by gun violence each year. "In many of these cases, we have heard a pretty clear voice of a deep sense of isolation and alienation from the perpetrators."

"What is our culture doing that fosters and does not offer support to communities and to young people who perpetrate this kind of violence?" asks Henry-Crowe. "Religious communities have tried to bring about a voice of examination and healing of the way we live together."

For students in IRC, that voice of examination and healing — and connection — comes on Monday nights, the group's regular meeting time. "This space we have together as a group is a space like no other," says Michal David, a senior graduating with a degree in cultural anthropology and psychology.

"It's kind of a cliché to call it a sacred space," says David, "but I do feel it's a place where people who didn't know each other before can sit down together and talk about not only really big issues of religious practice, but also just big issues that we as college students are dealing with."

Forming relationships

David, who was born in Jerusalem but raised in Northern California, has taken trips to Israel and engaged in interfaith dialogue there as well. "Especially as an Israeli Jew it's so important for me to break those boundaries," she says.

When David became involved with IRC, she met Rebecca Nocharli, a Lebanese American who was born in Georgia but spent much of her childhood in Kuwait. The IRC sparked Nocharli's interest because as a Christian in the Middle East, she grew up as a member of a religious minority, among people of other faiths.

"We have similar feelings about many things," says Nocharli of David, who echoes those sentiments.

"There's always the perception that there will be this initial discomfort when you say you're from Lebanon, or you're from Israel, but you realize when you're sitting around the table it just really doesn't matter," says David. "Those relationships can happen."

At Emory Nocharli also is in a religious minority. She was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church, but currently identifies with the Maronite Catholic Church, a church founded in Lebanon that is part of the Holy Roman See. She attends a local Maronite church but says she hasn't found others of her faith on campus.

"The IRC is a safe space to talk about things that are important to me," says Nocharli, a graduating senior majoring in economics and interdisciplinary studies. "It also gave me a chance to explore my own faith background more."

When fellow IRC members asked her questions she couldn't respond to fully, she would discuss them with her priest, with family members, or reflect on the answers. "I learned to articulate why I believe what I believe. That's always good," she says.

"It's comforting to be with people dealing with the same struggles, regardless of their faith background," says Nocharli. Both she and David say they discovered how much they have in common through IRC.

"It's amazing," says David. "You don't feel that so often with people, I think."

"The IRC is one of Emory's best-kept secrets," adds Nocharli.

David agrees. "One of the things we joke about in IRC is that although we don't actually see each other outside of the IRC setting, in many ways we feel our friends in IRC are closer to us and we have deeper relationships with them even though we don't see each other on a daily basis. That depth makes us feel like, wherever we are, we will find each other and keep in touch."

A stronger faith

Before the IRC seniors leave campus, Henry-Crowe asks them to talk about what legacy they would hope to leave the younger students. Their stories are powerful, and their respective faiths are strengthened, she says.

"I've never in my 22 years here had somebody who gave up their tradition in favor of another," says Henry-Crowe. "Students have come to appreciate other traditions and have left Emory understanding their own faith traditions more profoundly."

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