Rabbi Danielle Stillman addresses students at the Multi-Faith Initiatives event on Tuesday Nov. 15, 2016. The event was focused on talking about ways that people from different faiths can come together. (Gracie Chavers/B&W Staff)

Lehigh Multi-Faith Initiative encourages unity


Rabbi Danielle Stillman began Lehigh’s Multi-Faith Initiative dinner with an icebreaker.

First, students were asked to line up across the room to form a timeline, one side representing their birth date and the other side representing the present day. The students lined up according to their first memory of a religious or spiritual experience. During this exercise, there were people spread out all over the room.

The second timeline exercise was based on the age each student either accepted or rejected the faith, worldview or religion in which they were brought up. Many students gravitated toward the later part of the timeline.

The dinner and discussion, held last Tuesday, provided a space for students to examine the goal of promoting unity among different religious groups on campus.

At the dinner, everyone was encouraged to learn more about one another. Zara Ahmad, a graduate student, said she thinks the Multi-Faith Initiative is important to the Lehigh community.

“We focus on race, gender and culture,” Ahmad said. “But not enough on religion, even though (religion) can be a huge part of someone’s identity.”

Stillman, the club’s adviser, stressed there is a crossover between many faiths on campus, and the Multi-Faith Initiative is a safe space for all of them to come together.

Sam Evers, ’19, reminded all dinner-goers that this is a time to “bridge divides and promote inclusion.”

During the first exercise, one student on the early end of the timeline said her first religious experience occurred when she heard the choir singing “Jesus Loves You.” Another student toward the middle of the timeline said his first religious memory was at his bar mitzvah when he thought about what the moment meant.

A common theme during the second timeline exercise was many students began to explore and question their beliefs more deeply once they came to Lehigh.

Here, students are able to pick where and when they want to practice their faith. One student, Angie Rizzo, ’19, said taking a religious dialogue class at Lehigh showed her she has a lot in common with people of different backgrounds.

After these timeline icebreakers, students were encouraged to get dinner and sit with other students they would not typically sit with. At each table, there was a discussion facilitator who helped make sure everyone was engaged in the conversation.

At one table, students debriefed timeline exercise and gave in-depth descriptions about the times they were first accepting their faiths. Another table discussed the similarities between different religions and their experiences with fasting. Students compared Ramadan and Yom Kippur and the ways that fasting encourages them to think about their personal, religious and cultural values.

Another student, who had traveled abroad, spoke about how she was able to see the good in other religions and take it and add it to her own beliefs.

A third table spoke about stereotypes and how they have been discriminated against. A Christian student spoke about the varying interpretations within Christianity and the times she has felt judged by people who practice her same religion.

As a reaction to the election earlier this month, many students chose to talk about how religion was portrayed by each of the candidates. This was one of the primary discussion topics, and the students agreed it is unfair to group religious backgrounds with politics.

“It was really awesome to be with people who can all be together and share part of their life and their faith and have an open discussion where you’re not really scared to talk about your religion or who you are or really what you believe,” Dominic Falcon, ’19, said. “Because you know that people are open-minded about it and they’re accepting and you can be, I guess, vulnerable and see other peoples’ vulnerability.”

David Kroll, ’20, said that he thought the dinner and discussion went well. He was surprised about how receptive and talkative everyone was, and he was happy the discussion wasn’t awkward or filled with people simply agreeing.

Michelle Roskosch, an exchange student from Germany, said she thinks the Multi-Faith Initiative gives Lehigh the opportunity to recognize diversity.

“There are more religions and cultures than we think there are,” she said. “Sometimes they are hidden because you don’t see what religion people have.”

Stillman said the Multi-Faith Initiative plans to hold an event later this semester to simultaneously “make a space for people to talk about religion” and do community service.

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