Most of the conversations I have previously had with friends and peers have been in homogenous settings. When I was growing up in Northern Wisconsin, my classmates were predominantly Caucasian. Despite moving to a much more urban environment after starting college, because of my active involvement in the South Asian community, I seldom interacted with others. Coming into this semester, I was looking forward to starting my work as a CRGC Fellow to engage in dialogue in a religiously and ethnically heterogeneous group of students, especially with those who shared my passion for increasing religious literacy. Through our weekly CRGC discussions thus far, I have been able to achieve this goal!
It was obvious from the start that our meetings were a safe space to ask questions and engage in open, meaningful conversation. A majority of the Fellows identify with the Abrahamic religions, and as the only Hindu, I was encouraged to share my practices and values. However, never having attended the Hindu equivalent of Sunday school, there were questions I was unable to answer. I am not usually one to voluntarily speak in large group settings, but to my surprise, despite my timid, sometimes insufficient attempt to explain my faith, my contributions were met with respectful nods from others. These first experiences engaging in interfaith dialogue taught me a valuable lesson — the power of silent acknowledgement and positive body language should not be underestimated. The kind smiles from other Fellows when something I explained aligned with their own beliefs, for example, is what helped a reserved person like myself become more comfortable participating in our faith discussions.
Thankfully not everyone was as shy as I was, and even within the first few weeks my religious literacy had increased. For example, I now have a better grasp of the customs and holidays of other religions. One particular conversation I enjoyed was when the Jewish Fellows shared their experiences with the Jewish High Holidays, including taking us on a mini field trip to visit Hillel to partake in a small aspect of the Jewish holiday Sukkot. Their determination to follow practices such as fasting, even though the High Holidays coincided with the first round of midterms, gave me a great appreciation for their devotion to faith. The struggles of balancing academics while fasting prompted a conversation about Ramadan, establishing a connection between Fellows, including myself, for whom fasting is an integral part of their religious traditions.
I have always believed that underlying the differences in religious doctrines and worldviews is a foundation of core values that are shared, even amongst those who do not identify with an organized religion. These similarities are what allowed me to establish a connection with other Fellows during this semester’s interfaith discussions. Looking ahead, I hope our work in the Spring Semester can help create safe spaces for other students to embrace their religious differences, facilitating the creation of meaningful relations.