Interfaith Spaces and Conversation: Translating Ideals of Religious Pluralism Into Community
In many ways, Tufts students have come to appreciate the diverse and vibrant opportunities for exploring questions of spirituality and building faith-based communities. The Interfaith Center, with its large windows that invite sunlight into its neutrally-colored interiors, is the product of a concerted effort by Tufts University to create a space that functions as a hub for community meetings, spiritual curiosity, and the sharing of ideas.
This building is the physical manifestation of longstanding ideals of civic engagement and religious pluralism at Tufts. This tradition spawned Conversation Action Faith and Communication (CAFE), a Pre-Orientation program that offers an opportunity for students to engage with these ideals at the very beginning of their time at Tufts. Community of Faith Exploration and Engagement (COFFEE), a year round extension of CAFE, encourages students to continue their engagement once their lives at Tufts are underway.
Freshman Romy Arie, the student affairs coordinator for COFFEE, said that she was drawn to CAFE due to “the community organizing aspect. I think a lot of people don’t realize that a really big goal of CAFE is to learn about community organizing… It’s not necessarily a faith [centered] Pre-O.”
The intersection between faith and community engagement is not new to Tufts. In Senior John Lazur’s directed research project that seeks to explore the evolution of faith and spirituality at Tufts, they found that the university has been interested in ideals of religious pluralism since its founding. Admittedly, “Tufts was founded as a Universalist institution by Universalists, and in a lot of senses, for Universalists. But, also, when it was founded as a college there was an immediate commitment to a nonsectarian education,” said Lazur. “This immediate commitment to nonsectarian education—if not secular education—[ran] in counter to other colleges and universities, especially in New England,” they continued.
Lazur’s research expounds on Tufts’ commitment to social engagement as intertwined with the religious identities of its students. Crane Theological School, Tufts’ divinity school, opened in 1869 and closed a century later. The school “always struggled financially, it always struggled academically, [and] it was never accredited,” Lazur said. By 1915 to 1920, the Universalist presence had become somewhat of a minority. Because of this, the Crane Theological School “shifted the focus. It was no longer about any relation to Universalist theology. [Instead it asked,] how do we prepare in terms of practical skills? How do we prepare these students to be religious leaders for social and moral improvement in the world?”
Within this context, Tufts’ emphasis on interfaith spaces and explorations of faith as it relates to civic engagement appears to descend from a broader legacy of religious pluralism and social outreach.
Speaking to her experience in COFFEE, sophomore Grace Rotermund expressed her belief that COFFEE can be thought of as a community space before a religious space. Framing a purportedly faith-centered university program as a space that primarily fosters an exploration of personal and community values speaks to the evolution of experiences of faith on campus.
In a statement to the Tufts Observer, Malvika Wadhawan, a sophomore involved in CAFE and the South Asian Political Action Committee (SAPAC), stressed her profound appreciation for the way in which “people [in CAFE] want to engage and learn from each other.” For Wadhawan, as “a space that strives to be interfaith,” SAPAC has also facilitated meaningful experiences centered on “unpacking Hinduism and talking about the difficult, hypocritical, and uncomfortable parts of a religion and cultural community that has a lot of power and privilege.” Wadhawan also emphasized a point echoed by other students involved in interfaith communities at Tufts: as an interfaith community, SAPAC offers opportunities to “learn from other people and challenge [her] own views on how faith connects to the broader world.”
Similarly, Freshman Rebecca Krauss has found fulfillment in her experience within the Jewish community at Tufts Hillel. Prior to arriving at Tufts, she wrote in a statement to the Observer that she “wasn’t really sure what [she] expected or wanted from the Jewish community.” Regardless of pre-college expectations, her experience in Hillel has “showed how comforting it was to… have this support system and group of people who shared [her] love for Judaism.” Now, a semester and a half in, Krauss finds herself as first-year programming chair and a Hillel social intern. Similarly, Owen Thomas, a freshman also involved in Hillel, expressed his appreciation for casual Jewish-specific spaces on campus. Thomas said, “Having random conversations about how we’ve experienced faith… you hear about the way that other people have participated in traditions throughout their lives… in more unstructured ways that you don’t necessarily get in a more formal space.”
The desire for casual spaces for exploration and conversation is shared by those who are eager to engage in meaningful conversations in a non-religious setting. In this vein, Lazur stressed the significance of the creation and implementation of a Humanist Chaplaincy at Tufts. Establishing a Humanist Chaplaincy, Lazur said, “marked a shift in the interfaith community at Tufts… There was this acknowledgement that the University Chaplaincy was not only serving traditionally religious students… so, whether students are atheist, agnostic, questioning, seeking, spiritual but not religious… [they] aren’t outsiders to the University Chaplaincy.” Humanist Chaplain Anthony Cruz Pantojas offered a similar idea. In a statement to the Observer they expressed their belief that “[h]aving big questions about life, meaning, purpose, and how to live on this planet is a universal conversation, not owned by religion; we are here foremost for those conversations” and stressed that the “University Chaplaincy is willing to hold space for the messiness.”
The university’s stress on community and connection that is recognized and appreciated by Lazur and others involved in the Humanist Chaplaincy has remained pervasive in campus culture across contexts. Junior Nishita Gaba reflected on her enriching experiences within Tufts’ interfaith spaces. Her time in CAFE, for instance, inspired her to become a peer leader years later. “I think what fulfills me now as a peer leader is seeing a community grow every year—it’s always so surprising to me the connections people can make in six days.”
The widespread appreciation of communities students find and participate in within Tufts’ mainly chaplaincies and interfaith groups reflects the dedication and open-minded quality of the students who comprise them. As Lazur said, “The question of belonging is not centered around ‘What tradition are you from?’ It’s ‘Do you want to be here? And are you curious enough to connect with other people?’”