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5 Reasons to Prioritize Interfaith Engagement Now

Since August, we’ve watched as colleges and universities rolled out plans for safely reopening campuses amidst an ongoing pandemic and introduced students to never-before-seen models of academic and residential life. Within weeks of reopening, spikes in positive cases of Covid-19 prompted multiple institutions to send students home again, while others, like the University of Notre Dame, pivoted quickly from in-person and hybrid classes to fully online learning. At UNC-Wilmington, students living in double rooms have been asked to move into single rooms. And determining who moves out and who gets to stay? That decision—potentially fraught with conflict—is left to the students.

During this upheaval, one might wonder how interfaith engagement could possibly be a priority right now. After all, institution leaders have to balance tightening budgets, faculty are navigating rapid shifts in how their courses are delivered, and staff are busy communicating and enforcing social distancing guidelines. Yet in addition to these weighty obligations, there are signs that prioritizing interfaith engagement on campus is critical. Here are five reasons why now is the time to prioritize interfaith engagement on campus:

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  1. We are living in divisive times, and polarization is heightening as the pandemic drives us further into insular communities. Early in the pandemic, we observed efforts across our nation to bridge divides in response to a common threat. But more recently, we’ve witnessed the politicization of mask mandates and stay-at-home orders while Black Lives Matter protests sweep the nation and counter-protesters respond—sometimes violently. A recent interfaith study known as IDEALS reveals that, for college students, interfaith friendships are instrumental in fostering the skills and attitudes necessary to bridge ideological divides. Unfortunately, the more time college students spend at home or in small communities of their choosing, the less likely they are to develop such friendships. Therefore, we must begin creatively imagining how interfaith friendships can be fostered even when students are living apart from their peers.
  2. Even before the pandemic, religion was often de-prioritized as an aspect of diversity work on campus. By failing to prepare students for encounters with religious diversity during and after college, higher education is falling short on its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). According to IDEALS—which surveyed students before the emergence of Covid-19—college students spend less time learning about people of different faiths compared to people of different races, nationalities, and other social identities. It’s possible this gap could widen further in the face of budget cuts and curtailed campus programming brought on by Covid-19. To stem the tide, institution leaders should promote the inclusion of religion in DEI initiatives and convey that learning about different worldviews is both valuable and necessary.
  3. Once COVID-19 is behind us, it’s likely that “residential learning…will be forever different.” The Director of Online Programs and Strategy at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning recently wrote an op-ed arguing that, “Post-pandemic, what we will see in higher education is a new integration of residential and online learning.” Historically, higher education has relied heavily on face-to-face programming to foster co-curricular engagement. At IFYC, we regularly promote in-person activities like interfaith dialogues as tried-and-true practices that foster appreciation for different faiths. However, the time has come to imagine ways of cultivating formal interfaith engagement in virtual spaces. We can begin by learning from institutions like Baylor University in Texas, where existing interfaith programs have successfully moved online. Bridge Builders Charlotte, an initiative at Queens University in North Carolina, offers a different path forward that involves creating entirely new programs in response to Covid-19.
  4. Students aren’t learning enough about religion in college—but classrooms offer a ripe opportunity to expand their knowledge. The IDEALS study suggests that, in their final year of college, many students’ religious literacy is tenuous at best. This is troubling given that knowledge of religious and worldview groups is linked to positive attitudes toward those groups. At a time when students may not be engaging in co-curricular programs and social activities that foster appreciation for people of other worldviews, classrooms—whether in-person or virtual—may be the only place where they can build interfaith competencies. Accordingly, faculty across disciplines should consider ways to address religious literacy in their courses and be proactive in seeking out resources that can inform their efforts.
  5. It’s clear that college students and educators alike are hungry to engage in bridge building right now. In 2019, seventy percent of college students who participated in IDEALS expressed a high commitment to bridging religious divides. A year later, it seems this commitment endures despite many distractions and stressors facing everyone on campus this fall. At  IFYC’s annual Interfaith Leadership Institute (ILI), held virtually for the first time last week, registered participants more than doubled from previous years and included 829 students, faculty, and staff representing 241 campuses across the U.S. A record-breaking 128 campuses were new to the ILI, suggesting that people at colleges and universities across the U.S. are in search of opportunities for connection and relationship building in this time of deep division.

Many of us are disoriented and anxious about the trauma higher education is undergoing right now, and it can be tempting to keep our heads down and wait out the storm until some sense of normalcy resumes. But the pandemic has laid bare issues of insularity and division—many of which are rooted in religious differences—and they require attention now. As Devorah Lieberman, President of the president of the University of La Verne, recently remarked, “I’d like us to think about our interfaith initiatives as a corollary to our PPE [personal protective equipment]. Physical PPE gives us the means to cope and be safe in the pandemic. Interfaith skills and commitment to [do] the same.”

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.