When Interfaith Work On Campus Goes Virtual
October 5, 2020
Sable Manson was scrolling through Instagram on a leisurely summer afternoon when she came across MoonBox – a quarterly subscription box that includes healing crystals, cosmic tapestries, custom guided rituals per zodiac season, and other spiritual self-care items. As she scrolled through their page, she appreciated, the meaningful way MoonBox connected with spirituality and nature at a time when so much of our lives are online. And it gave her an idea.
Manson, program director of the Interfaith Scholars program at the University of Southern California (USC), jumped on a Zoom call with her colleagues, Vanessa Gomez Brake, the associate dean of religious life, and Liz Murphy, program manager of the Interfaith Scholars program, to discuss an idea for a multimedia interfaith engagement retreat. They called it – A Retreat in a Box. Each participant will receive a box that includes spiritual items from diverse faiths, like a candle, prayer beads, prayer mats, crystals, along with a booklet that describes how each item is important in their respective faith. Over a Zoom call, the participants will be asked to unbox their items together to learn and discuss them, and then create a sacred space for prayer and meditation in their homes using the items.
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“The idea was centered around questions on how to build community and conversations around religion online. We wanted to create a space where we could have a meaningful communal experience,” says Manson.
Campuses across the U.S have had to navigate a new world of higher education during the pandemic — shifting to online classes, virtual activities, rethinking traditional campus and faith gatherings, and innovating ways to advance civic engagement and interfaith work virtually.
“Students are always so excited to come back to campus, and right now, that excitement has in some ways been taken away from them,” says Marian Broida, interfaith program coordinator and visiting assistant professor in religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. “But in place of that,” Broida adds, “there is this urgency, passion, and fragility that they’re bringing to campus during the pandemic. We are working to build spaces where they can process those emotions.”
Before the pandemic, Broida planned to roll out a program to engage students in interfaith work through their residence halls as a part of the Multifaith Leadership Council, where trained student leaders, called Interfaith Ambassadors, would use various training modules to educate the community on interfaith engagement. Now, Interfaith Ambassadors have begun developing virtual modules that will be offered as a part of their enrollment in religious courses that meet the theology distribution requirement – which all students must meet before they graduate.
“Technology today is such that we have been able to attain our short-term goals, which was to spread awareness of our presence and our work on campus,” says Navnit Guckhool, a Hindu Interfaith Ambassador, and a sophomore double majoring in economics and environmental studies at Gustavus. “One thing that stood out to me is the interactive sessions that we had where the participants were engaged and participated actively in voicing out ideas and opinions. I was quite skeptical about holding everyone’s attention online, but it ended up being a great experience.”
Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, is designing virtual modules that focus on the intersection of racial equity and interfaith work to prepare their students for work beyond campus life.
“Our campus is not very diverse; there isn’t a big mix of faith communities in our campus or a diverse population of students,” says Gail Cantor, Director of Spiritual Life at Endicott College. “A lot of our students have never been exposed to interfaith work or diverse faith traditions, and I think it’s important for us to have these conversations, especially in the current moment.”
Cantor explains that to avoid Zoom fatigue, which refers to people feeling exhausted and emotionally drained after working virtually all day, they are planning to train student leaders to facilitate module discussions in breakout rooms over Zoom – breaking up the participants into small groups to create an informal relaxed environment to have more engaging conversations.
She adds, “Our module will include work on implicit bias, work on communicating with people of different backgrounds, and work on cultural competence, understanding people with different cultures and faiths. We’ll also train the leaders to host meditative and check-in activities before starting the conversations and offer them the option to meet in-person sometimes for a change in the environment.”
While some campuses have begun implementing innovative virtual programs to see how they perform, others are navigating technological and financial challenges brought around by the pandemic and engaging in the ongoing discourse on how to build and sustain communities in a virtual space.
“One of the biggest negative impacts of the pandemic has been on our finances. We’ve had to freeze a lot of activities and programs that were being financed by the university directly, we can’t have big public gatherings on campuses, we don’t have the finances to pay for public speakers,” says Dr. Marinus Chijioke Iwuchukwu, associate professor at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh.
Iwuchukwu asserts that the debate on whether campuses should remain virtual or hybrid is not the only important conversation, campuses also need to worry about having sufficient resources, financial and technological capabilities, staff capacities, to create engaging and meaningful conversations and content for students.
“Instead of focusing on creating new programs and activities, I’d like to focus on strengthening our newly established Interfaith Student Organization (IFSO). I hope to empower our students to promote a society where the religious difference is not considered a negative feature in any society, especially not in the United States.”
Iwuchukwu says that the silver lining to the setbacks from the pandemic has been witnessing the community, especially students, being excited to try new things and their willingness to be adaptable and innovative.
“I see these young people in my classroom, and I see that they are better. They are better situated to do interfaith work than the people of my generation. They are more open to diversity and accepting of differences than my generation. So, it’s only proper that you empower them because you can’t say how far they can go. There’s always going to be oddities in life like the pandemic, but we’ve to prepare them to be able to hold their ground and do what they need to during this time.”