When Interfaith Work On Campus Goes Virtual

A white man's hands are gesturing in mid conversation at the laptop in front of him, which has a blurred website screen. Photo by Headway on Unsplash.

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 BoxEach 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. 

“The idea was centered around questions on how to build community and conversations around religion onlineWe 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 gatheringsand 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.” 

Subscribe now

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 engagementNow, 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 Guckhoola Hindu Interfaith Ambassador, and a sophomore double majoring in economics and environmental studies at GustavusOne 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.” 

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with ReligionAndPublicLife.org.

 

more from IFYC

Lessons from Thich Nhat Hanh, the person who nominated Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize and encouraged King to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
What Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh taught me about the power of mindful breathing through art.
A scholar of democratic virtues explains why Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on hope are relevant today.
From covering spirituality in Silicon Valley to writing an online newsletter about her own journey to Judaism, reporter Nellie Bowles keeps finding innovative ways to reflect on religion and technology.
Six ways religious and spiritual leaders can help the internet serve their communities right now.
At the request of his editors at Religion News Service, Omar Suleiman writes about waiting with hostages’ families.
Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill, the PNBC leaders said they plan to lobby Congress in March and register voters weekly in their congregations and communities.
King’s exasperation at self-satisfied white Christians holds up a mirror that is still painfully accurate today.
A day before the U.S. Senate was expected to take up significant legislation on voting rights that is looking likely to fail, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eldest son condemned federal lawmakers over their inaction.
The congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, is particularly well connected to the larger interfaith community and on good terms with many Muslim leaders.
For Martin Luther King Day, an interfaith panel reflects on the sacredness of the vote and the legacy of Reverend King.
In his new book, Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer reexamines the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel and finds lessons for interfaith political activism today.
King drew criticism from Billy Graham, who told journalists that he thought King was wrong to link anti-war efforts with the civil rights movement.
Some are calling out historical injustices the church has carried out against Native Americans, even as others find their faith empowering.
IFYC’s Vote is Sacred campaign launched on January 13. Faith leaders, public intellectuals, activists, and organizers are joining to advocate for an inclusive, nonpartisan interfaith approach to restoring and protecting our democracy.
One out of five Muslims is in an interfaith relationship, surveys suggest. But few imams are willing to conform the traditional Muslim wedding ceremony to their needs, couples say.
In her popular podcast series, Corrigan invites guests to wonder about 'the elephant in America's living room': belief and religion. 'I hope I have a hundred more conversations like these in 2022 and beyond,' she says.
In his annual address to the Vatican's diplomatic corps, the pope stressed the individual's responsibility 'to care for ourself and our health, and this translates into respect for the health of those around us.'
The very people who have been subject to the worst of the United States have embodied its best.
The Jan. 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol drew recent attention to the phenomenon of Christian nationalism, but religious and spiritual leaders acknowledge its existence long before that.
A new interfaith curriculum designed for Christian universities and seminaries recently got a test run. One professor who tried it says it's opened hearts and minds: "The desire is very much there."

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.