I've seen so many ways that organized religion and religious organizations divide people, even causing conflict between nations, that I'm always surprised and pleased whenever I discover an example of something related to religion that brings people together for the public good.
An effort at Chapman University is an example. I read about the private university in the March 13 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. With an undergraduate population of a little more than 4,000, Chapman is in Orange County, California, one of the nation's most conservative regions. It is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. And although the number of Disciples students has fallen during the last two decades — down to 2.5 percent this term — the school maintains special scholarships for students of the denomination.
How did the school bring different faiths together for the public good? Officials began by constructing a physical place, the Fish Interfaith Center, where disparate souls could commingle, where genuine fellowship is possible. Until 2004, Chapman had an off-campus chapel that didn't encourage non-Disciples students to worship there.
The Chronicle captures the center's essence: "The Fish Interfaith Center — a modern structure with almost no right angles — lies at the heart of campus … and is open to anyone, day or night. … The center's architecture is based on four 'universal' elements of the sacred: water, light, nature, and features that bring a person up or bring the heavens down.
"The building is almost devoid of religious symbols. The smaller chapel has a cross, but the top beam is removable and can be interchanged with a crescent or a Star of David. A table beside it is decorated with a pattern based on the chalice that serves as the symbol of the Disciples of Christ, but it is covered with a white cloth during Shabbat services. The rest of the center's imagery either mingles elements from different religions' traditions or has no direct connection to any of them."
James L. Doti, the university's president since 1991, his staff and board members came to realize that many of today's students come from different faiths and want to make spirituality integral to campus life. Officials wanted to find ways to affirm students' religious heritages without being exclusive. At the same time, however, they had to affirm the importance of faith to Chapman.
As such, according to the Chronicle, the university attempts to offer its self-styled "four pillars of education: intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual." The big task was expanding the meaning of spirituality in campus life. Merely being ecumenical — bridging gaps among fellow Christians — wasn't enough. The Rev. Nancy E. Brink, the new director of church relations, explains: "What I have seen in my 30 years of working with Disciples is we're expanding beyond (ecumenism) to a vision of interfaith learning, cooperation, and respect."
About a dozen different faiths use the center. One strict rule is that each group's meetings must be open to everyone. The Rev. Ronald L. Farmer, who directs a chapel in the Fish Center, told the Chronicle that students come to campus thinking that "interfaith" means tossing all religions into a blender, making them all the same.
"We help them see that pluralism, the way we understand it, is a person can be deeply rooted in their own spiritual tradition and yet be open to learning from people outside their own faith tradition," he said. "It's not a threat to expose yourself and to participate in worship; it may actually strengthen your faith."
The overwhelming majority of the student groups cooperate, but conservative Christians are the most resistant to mixing with others. Farmer said these students, who have lived by absolutes before coming to Chapman, may find exposure to other viewpoints to be extremely threatening.
"At Chapman," according to the Chronicle, "the new center is accomplishing its purpose. Buddhist, Bahai, Catholic, Jewish, Latter-day Saints, and Muslim groups will meet there this semester, and special events are scheduled for religious holidays like Purim, but also for Founders' Day, Take Back the Night, and a conference on religion and animals."
Chapman's interfaith center is a welcoming, safe place. Most recently, a Wiccan group organized and is planning its own rituals. Anyone can attend the meetings and participate. This kind of pluralism is for the public good.