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Keeping the faith at Brown

Interfaith groups and dialogue have taken root on College Hill

Faith on Campus: First in a series on religious life at the University.

When University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson learned that this year's Brown-Harvard football game - the first night game in Harvard Stadium's history - was scheduled to take place on the first night of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, she was disappointed. The "rude" scheduling, she said, sent a bad message to both Jewish students and the larger campus community about the importance of religion in university life.

Ten years ago, she said, it's unlikely that anything would have changed. But last fall, after Jewish alums and fans raised concerns about the scheduling, coaches from both schools agreed to move the game to the next day.

"Now, people say, 'That's right, let's fix that,' - even people who aren't religious," Cooper Nelson said. "In 1990, what I'm saying might have prompted more argument."

It is this spirit of heightened awareness and dialogue that defines the campus religious environment today.

"On some college campuses there is a lot of stigma involved in discussions about religion," said Noor Najeeb '09, president of the Muslim Students' Association. "But we are on a different level here."

Though Brown has always been religiously tolerant since she arrived here 18 years ago, Cooper Nelson said she has seen an increase in religious knowledge, understanding and interfaith dialogue among students - a trend she said is "very uneven" on college campuses across the nation. Brown's interfaith community even drew a Public Broadcasting Service camera crew to campus several weeks ago to film a segment for the show "Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly."

"Compared to when I got here, it's easier for students to identify religiously and know that, across the spectrum, you'll understand," Cooper Nelson said. "People are beginning to be more aware that there are a variety of traditions within traditions."

Even Brown students who are not religious "might understand very well the importance of being literate in religion," she said.

Indeed, more and more students are pursuing an academic approach to religion. Mark Cladis, professor of religious studies and chair of the department, said he thinks the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and intersections of religion and politics, such as the rise of the so-called Religious Right, have brought more students to religious studies classes.

"When there is a particular world event, often a crisis, that pertains to religion, I start seeing some new students in the classroom asking questions that show that in part they are trying to understand aspects of their lives and the world around them," Cladis said. "In part because of 9/11 and interest in Islamic societies, the perception at least for some of these societies is that there is not a distinction between religion and politics, and (students) extend those questions to their own society."

In recent years, interfaith activities have sprung up on campus, and several religious communities have seen growing student participation and interest.

Brown's Multi-Faith Council, which seeks to engage the broader Brown community in religious activities, includes student representatives from a number of religious traditions, and Cooper Nelson hosts an interfaith dinner - a tradition in its 41st year - every Thursday at her home. In just the first two months of this academic year, religious student groups have organized a number of interfaith events, including a dessert night at Hillel for Jewish students celebrating Sukkot and Muslim students celebrating Ramadan.

Even religious events not advertised as interfaith activities have attracted a diverse group of students. A Ramadan fast-a-thon sponsored by the MSA raised $3,200 and attracted 150 participants, at least 100 of whom were not Muslim, Najeed said.

"Even since I was a freshman, there's a renewed sense of getting to know each other better and (building) bridges," Najeeb said."I even had people coming up to me saying, 'Happy end of Ramadan.' It shows increased awareness."

Even within the Christian community, the eight Christian groups that, until recently, "have not had that much to do with each other" are increasingly working together, said Joses Ho '09, a member of the evangelical Christian group College Hill for Christ. Roughly half of those students at Brown who identify with a religious affiliation do so as Christian.

Though the various Christian groups may have theological differences, Ho said they are "all on the same page" when it comes to the role religion should play in campus life.

Associate University Chaplain for the Jewish Community Serena Eisenberg '87, who has been executive director of Hillel on campus for the past two years, said she thinks dialogue comes easily to Brown students because of the community's diversity. Though current statistics are not available, Cooper Nelson said the campus' religious demographics have remained relatively constant. Cooper Nelson estimates that 70 percent of students identify with some religious belief, whether they specify a particular religion or denomination or consider themselves atheist or agnostic.

Among those students that specify, around 20 percent are Jewish, 25 percent are Catholic and 25 percent are Protestant, Cooper Nelson said. Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims each constitute about three percent of the student body. The remaining 20 percent of students Cooper Nelson classified as "other," a category that includes atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, Sikhs and Baha'i.

Brown is also one of the only universities with a fully staffed Office of Religious Life, Cooper Nelson said. The five religious leaders who work for the office are not sponsored by religious groups, but instead are on campus"because Brown pays the bill for us to be here," she said.

Since the Office of Religious Life re-examined its structure in 1998, adding staff to expand beyond its three chaplains, religious life has become more visible on campus.For example, before Rumee Ahmed, associate University chaplain for the Muslim community, came to Brown two years ago, "We never had 70 people together for Ramadan," Cooper Nelson said.

Eisenberg said Hillel has also grown since she was a student at Brown 20 years ago, saying there were holiday programs and Israeli folk dancing, but "very little compared to what we have now."

The revitalized religious communities on campus have fed a desire to learn about different faiths, and religious groups themselves have taken more initiatives to increase dialogue, Najeeb said.

"People are interested in learning about different faiths because for a lot of people faith is a big part of life," Najeeb said, adding that the MSA has developed a number of programs giving people an opportunity to learn about Islam.

Oddly enough, real estate contributes to Brown's strong interfaith dialogue, Cooper Nelson said. Many universities have ornate chapels with endowments for organs or religious leaders, but Brown's chapel is "just a meeting place" with no iconography, making it a religious venue for no one specific faith.

"Around the country, endowments, chapels and all that make it difficult for institutions to change with the times," Cooper Nelson said. "Thank God we don't have endowments or real estate that lock universities in ways people never meant to."

For many students, that freedom and interfaith dialogue are an important part of their Brown experience. At a recent Thursday night interfaith supper, Ashley Tuccero '11, who was raised Christian but also practices Wicca, talked about her religious experience at Brown over pasta and garlic bread.

"As somebody whose faith isn't completely represented, it's nice to have a group of people I can be comfortable around with no funny looks," Tuccero said.

For Tuccero, learning from those of different faiths provides a welcome contrast to her religious experience before Brown.

"I grew up in a town where everybody was Catholic or Protestant, and I didn't have exposure to anything beyond that," Tuccero said. "Coming here is very enriching, and I'm glad I'm at a place where people can speak openly about stuff like that."

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