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New Emory Interfaith Center to provide much-needed gathering space

Expected to open in December 2022, the Emory Interfaith Center will provide space for students to practice their traditions and serve as a community hub for dialogue and understanding. Architects are now designing the center, which will be located in this building on North Decatur Road.

“We all have to live together, so we might as well live together happily.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory University

Living together at Emory, since 1836, has included spiritual life. And as the student body has grown and diversified to include students from all backgrounds and all around the world, Emory has sought to welcome and support the spiritual and religious lives of all.

But as the number of spiritual communities and activities has expanded and the desire for interaction has increased, where to gather has become a growing question, and a significant answer is now in preparation: a new Emory Interfaith Center at 1707 North Decatur Road.

“Interfaith centers have been established on many U.S. campuses in recent years to be homes for weekly programs, special events, holiday gatherings and ongoing interactions that encourage deep interfaith engagement by students of all faiths and none,” says the Rev. Dr. Gregory W. McGonigle, Emory’s dean of religious life and university chaplain. 

Expected to open in December 2022, the new Emory Interfaith Center will invite students “to practice their traditions and learn about one another’s, while collaborating through dialogue and service and social justice work,” he says. “When there are times of inter-religious or political tensions and challenges, the need for a space to come together has been felt, and students and alumni have expressed a strong desire for such a space at Emory for several decades.”

With the support of Emory President Gregory L. Fenves, the Interfaith Center project received funding to join donations from alumni and others in order to renovate the property for its new function.

This renovation echoes the Emory Identity Spaces Project recently undertaken in the Alumni Memorial University Center, which has improved the feel, functionality and visibility of the Emory Black Student Union, Centro Latinx, Center for Women, Center for LGBT Life and a new identity space for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American students.  

“One of Emory’s strengths is bringing students from different backgrounds together to learn from one another and share their experiences and perspectives,” Fenves says. “The Emory Interfaith Center will be a community hub for dialogue and understanding — empowering students to explore faith and religious traditions that can inspire them in their lives.” 

A need for common space

Among those voicing a need for an interfaith center was Mariam Hassoun 20C, who in her time on campus was a leader in the Muslim community and the founder of an Emory Interfaith Dinner Series. “It’s a great thing that we have such a diversity of religious organizations on campus, but they so rarely interact,” she says. “I think Emory would stand to gain a lot from having an interfaith center on campus.”

Jonna Austin 23C, a Christian student at Emory and member of the Voices of Inner Strength Gospel Choir, agrees.

“Even within the Christian community there are still divides,” she notes. “Everyone's group is kind of just doing their own thing, and there's not really any connection.” 

The need is real, says Akshar Patel 19C, a recent alumnus who was active in the Hindu Students Association and in the Emory Inter-Religious Council. “A new space will allow students of all Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist backgrounds to really be able to celebrate all the diversity in their own traditions, which may not be possible right now.”

McGonigle leads the Emory Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL), which currently has an office in Cannon Chapel — the most active religious space on the Atlanta campus. Built in 1981, the chapel has been renovated to better serve non-Christian groups, such as the addition of Muslim ablution areas and a Hindu puja cabinet. Each week the chapel hosts some 25 prayer services and gatherings of diverse religious and spiritual communities, and it is also shared for worship and academic purposes by the Candler School of Theology.

But the chapel “does not accomplish the gathering space, the study space, the eating space that is really integral to many faith traditions, and when those faith traditions gather together jointly,” explains the Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe 76T, Emory dean emerita of religious life and general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church.

The interfaith center will provide adjacent office and program space for Emory’s chaplains, who represent Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Formerly a residence, the three-story building “is like a treehouse, with beautiful sunlight in the third-floor prayer spaces,” McGonigle says.

With input gathered through a student survey and five campus listening sessions, the architects are now designing the center, which will feature a large conference room and kitchen as well as several program spaces and student lounges. The grounds will also be used for outdoor meals and gatherings, and the interior color palette of earth tones will make connections to the Living Mandala outside Cannon Chapel. 

Connecting to community

The new center will be located near the Bread Coffeehouse campus ministry and the University Catholic Center, and will also allow neighborhood connections with the Marcus Hillel Center, the Chabad House and other religious spaces. It is located behind the Goizuetta Business School and across from the School of Law, which will allow it to offer convenient prayer spaces for those schools.

“We tend to be siloed at Emory sometimes,” says David Kulp 20C, a recent Jewish alumnus and a member of Hillel International’s board of directors. The interfaith center, he says, will respond to a persistent question: “How can we de-silo all of our silos and come together?”

In addition, the center will help Emory better connect to local spiritual resources.

“We have monks and visitors from the Drepung Loseling Monastery and from the Atlanta Soto Zen Center that lead us,” says Meha Srivastava 22C, president of the Emory Buddhist Club. “I can see so much more opportunity for such connections in an interfaith center.”

The idea of an interfaith center for Emory is not new, McGonigle points out.

“This idea has been explored since the late 1990s, when the increasing religious diversity of our campus especially from traditions beyond Christianity and Judaism began to suggest that a new space might be needed for prayers and meditations for multiple traditions,” he says. 

The center signals Emory’s commitment to supporting interfaith work, according to Isam Vaid, OSRL’s Muslim Religious Scholar and co-founder of the Emory Muslim Student Association 30 years ago.

“You think about [other universities], where people have been engaging with interfaith centers and benefiting from them,” as our world needs interfaith dialogue and cooperation around so many issues, he says. “We need a space like that for our gold and our blue.”