Keeping the Faith | NU Intel

Northwestern’s most recent attempt to unite a diverse yet fragmented religious community is led by an unlikely leader: an atheist. As she and others crusade for a more inclusive campus, they’re grappling with clique- ish groups and trying to figure out what buzzwords like “interfaith” even mean. 

Published May 12, 2011, on NU Intel (campus media, site no longer active).

 

Haircuts shouldn’t be this difficult. Kelsey Sheridan stands in a beauty parlor in the Devon area of Chicago, clutching a picture of Roxanne Ritchi, the quick-witted cartoon reporter from the film “Megamind.” Sheridan wants the character’s pixie hairstyle, but her attempts to explain this to an Urdu-speaking beautician are met with nothing but confusion. So she resorts to gestures. Yes, I realize it’s a cartoon and, yes, I do still want the make-believe character’s hairstyle. She repeatedly points at the picture and then back to her hair. The beautician still doesn’t understand.

Her roommate, Shireen Mirza — a hijab-wearing Muslim and regular at the beauty parlor — is attempting to act as the translator between the two. Eventually, miraculously, the explanations, gestures, and back-and-forth translations end, and Sheridan finally sits down and gets the hairstyle she wants from a now frustrated and defeated hairstylist.

Sheridan, a Medill junior, insisted on going to the Muslim-run beauty parlor that her roommate frequents due to Islamic edicts stating that men cannot view a woman’s hair. Sheridan is not Muslim. In fact, she’s an atheist. Her curiosity regarding other faiths not only shaped her short hair, but much of her undergraduate career—from where she lives and her choice of roommates, to her desire to be a radio journalist reporting religious happenings in the world.

This inquisitiveness also led Sheridan to the Northwestern University Interfaith Initiative, a student group organized by the chaplain’s office that seeks to bridge the gaps between religious organizations on campus. While NUii has no formal structure, Kelsey serves as its de facto leader, planning meetings and events alongside the chaplain’s office. But her efforts are hindered by a compartmentalized faith community on campus, busy schedules, and sporadic interest among students. This past year, she has worked to expand interfaith at Northwestern by transitioning NUii away from discussion-based firesides and panels to action-based projects like volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and The Night Ministry. As this happens, more and more students are drawn in to a slow-moving—yet far-reaching— international interfaith phenomenon that University Chaplain Tim Stevens describes as important as the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. Here at Northwestern, we’re just at the shores of whatever interfaith is or can be. Due to the effort of a handful of individuals acting separately but with a common purpose, we’re moving forward at a quicker pace than ever before. 

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I first meet Sheridan one rare sunny Winter Quarter morning in Parkes Hall at an event flyers describe as an “Interfaith Retreat,” although it’s really just a discussion panel on the theme “Agreeing faith with college.” Sheridan’s panel bio compares her to Chris Steadman—the interfaith-embracing atheist— rather than Christopher Hitchens. “I think I fit in better with religious people,” she tells me. “There’s a love and an optimism and a lot of things that I relate to.”

The Interfaith Retreat occurs on the eve of Islam Awareness Week, a fact impossible to ignore as flyers line the back of the room and announcements endorse the series of cultural and informational events. Noreen Nasir, co-president of the Muslim Cultural Student Association, is one of the panel speakers and uses her time to tell the story of how she came to wear the hijab. But besides Nasir, members of McSA or the Muslim community are noticeably absent.

While all faith groups encourage members to show up to interfaith events, McSA in particular has become the focus of concentrated efforts. The push comes from student leaders and recently appointed Muslim Associated Chaplain Tahera Ahmad, who actively encourages Muslim students to show up and participate in interfaith events. But this objective is hindered by a historically tight-knit community and the difficulty of defining what “interfaith” even means in the context of Northwestern.

Every weekday in Norris, a tight-knit group of Muslim sophomores meets to dine together. During a bustling Friday afternoon on the ground floor, I join four McSA members to talk about the Muslim community and interfaith on campus.

They all come from conservative households with recently immigrated parents. There’s comfort and familiarity in the community, and they naturally tend to gravitate to each other. “For some people, this is a home away from home,” Ahmad says. “The tendency when you’re away is to be with people that you’re closest to in your traditional background.”

While this isn’t unique to Muslims, the need for similarly minded friends is compounded for them because of Islam’s restrictions against common pressures of college life such as drinking and dating. “When we have fun, there are certain boundaries we stick with,” Comm sophomore Omar Uddin says.

“No matter what situation we’re in, what pressures we’re facing, there’s always a back door, always an outlet,” says Comm sophomore Rayyan Najeeb. “And the outlet is the Muslim community.”

Of course, this tight-knit group of friends goes far beyond religion— Najeeb says that he likes to “ignore the fact that they’re Muslim and be like, these people are my homies, they’re my bros”— but with this also comes the negative effect of isolating Muslims on campus.

“This is a weakness of the Muslim community in general. We tend to be a little cliquish,” Ahmad says. “We do like to integrate, but there has to be an impetus that’s created.” Ahmad is well-versed in dealing with Muslim youth through a career as a teacher at Islamic schools, and she was even featured in “The Calling,” a PBS documentary.

But she’s not just an advisor, Ahmad is also a friend. “In the beginning they were calling me Sister Tahera,” she says, laughing. “Now it’s ‘Hey, Big T!’ They’ve invited me to play basketball with them since I played varsity in high school.”

This is why Ahmad is well-placed to help Muslim students branch out of a cultural bubble to interact with students of other faiths, past the everyday interactions that come from simply coexisting. One of her main goals, she explains, is to boost interfaith dialogue among Muslims and other faith groups on campus. Although she’ll be the first to admit this isn’t easy. “It has been a slow process. When we have interfaith initiative meetings, there shouldn’t just be one Muslim there. There should be several Muslims there.”

At the urging of Ahmad, more McSA members are beginning to show up to interfaith discussions and events, although sometimes that creates more problems. “We go to interfaith events, and because there are so many of us there, we always end up sitting together,” says Weinberg freshman Mariam Gomaa. “But that’s because we’ve all become so close, it’s the same with everyone.”

This doesn’t deter Tahera’s plan to promote interfaith, something she and the rest of the chaplain’s office regard as one of the most important goals they can help achieve.

“Interfaith dialogue is—I know it’s like a buzzword right now—but we’re really at the shores of it,” she says. “We think that we’re really far and that we’ve done a lot of engagement with people, but we haven’t. We’re only beginning to know each other as a community.” 

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Interfaith at Northwestern might be a buzzword now, but its roots can be traced back to a late night meeting sixteen years ago in a second-floor classroom in Parkes Hall. A history of faith at Northwestern cannot be written without the inclusion of Parkes, the two-story, ivy covered building connected to Alice Millar Chapel that serves as the focal point of student faith on campus. It contains the office of University Chaplain Tim Stevens. While many students may not recognize the white-haired, bespectacled Stevens walking down Sheridan Road, he is a huge proponent of collaborating with undergrads on student-driven projects. Stevens arrived in 1985, and his knowledge of Northwestern goes back further than most on campus. “People actually think that I knew John Evans,” he jokes, referencing Evanston’s namesake.

Stevens says that NU’s first inter-religious group, the Northwestern University Council of Religions (NUCOR), was founded in 1995 in an upstairs classroom of Parkes. Before then, there “was a lot of everybody doing their own thing,” he says. “Interfaith wasn’t something anyone had embraced.” Only 10 to 15 students showed up to the first meeting, but Stevens says that they ended up discussing faith for hours after they intended to leave.

NUCOR faded in and out for several years, although it did begin its hallmark event, Religious Awareness Week, as well as hosted various speakers and panels. Two years ago the group, stuck in a receding spell, changed its name to the Northwestern University Interfaith Initiative to better reflect its mission and goals.

“NUCOR was more set up as a delegation,” Sheridan explains. “Groups were asked to send representatives to the Council of Religions. That was NUCOR in theory, but in practice it was whoever wants to show up for dinner Tuesday night could come.” NUii, still in the midst of “revamping itself,” as Sheridan says, flourishes on an informal structure of students steered by Sheridan and the chaplain’s office. 

Since renaming itself, the advancement of interfaith on campus has accelerated with two momentous events: the appointment of Ahmad, and a national conference in 2009 sponsored by the Chicago service-based non-profit Interfaith Youth Core, of which Sheridan is a fellow.

But another, almost equally important event quickened the rise of the interfaith movement on campus: the arrival of Kelsey Sheridan almost three years ago. Raised in a home that was somewhere “between ambiguous and ambivalent to religion,” Sheridan’s introduction to faith on campus began with a root beer float. During Wildcat Welcome her freshman year, while passing the University Christian Ministry, someone she had met once at an a cappella festival shouted out to her: “Hey! You! Freshman! Come in, have a root beer float!” That was when Kelsey first admitted—out loud and to herself—that she is an atheist. “I really wanted to make it clear that this root beer float had no strings attached. Like, I was not accepting vanilla ice cream and Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”

She expected backlash to her comment but was surprised instead. “They invited me back, and they made it clear that they just wanted to hear my views and weren’t trying to push any sort of agenda.” And she did come back several times, eventually moving in to the residences provided by the University Christian Ministry. She jokingly points out that she’s “an atheist living in a church.” 

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Sheridan pauses when she tries to describe what interfaith means. Especially in the context of Northwestern, it’s a seemingly indefinite idea that has changed and grown over the years. She jokes, “I had brunch with my Muslim roommate today: Interfaith brunch!” Laughing, she continues, “That’s totally mocking the idea of interfaith.”

For NUCOR, interfaith was a chance for students of different faith backgrounds to gather, discuss their differences, and realize commonalities. For international interfaith promoters such as the Interfaith Youth Core, it’s a movement to unite different faiths through acts of service. NUii has become a mixture of both these ideas, balancing education with service, firesides with volunteering.

Sheridan describes her role in NUii as “student liaison slash community organizer.” She spends much of her time reaching out to different faith groups and organizing service days for their members to attend and collaborate. “I have a lot of fun picking which groups are going to be paired together. Like, I want the Mormons, the Baha’is, and the Hindus doing the Night Ministry.”

The Muslim sophomores I sit with in Norris may not know Sheridan or her beliefs personally, but they unknowingly share the same desire. “I think by this point I know what Christianity is or what Islam is,” Medill sophomore Heba Hasan says. “Let’s do a service project together, anything that allows us to actually become friends —which is more the point of interfaith than learning about each other’s religions.”

What Hasan wants may not be too far off. Thanks to the efforts of Sheridan, McSA is organizing a Habitat for Humanity project with Campus Crusade for Christ to take place later this quarter or early next year. Stevens says, “These are two groups that you would not expect to see in the same room, in many ways, yet they have been persuaded that this would be a good thing to do.” 

NUii might be in a period of reformation —with attendance jumping from 30 students at one week’s meeting to 10 students the next —but all the elements to catalyze interfaith at Northwestern are already present and ready to be harnessed. With students’ desire for interfaith service, a chaplain’s office vigorously supportive of the initiative, and a student leader with the passion and voice to spearhead projects, Northwestern may be at the precipice of an interfaith renaissance without anyone realizing.

But for all the support, is interfaith just a feel-good movement without practical benefits?

“I don’t know if I’m quite so naïve to think that there will be a time when everyone is a religious pluralist instead of a religious totalitarian,” Sheridan says as I pose this question to her. “I also think that the point of Interfaith is to model what good interfaith relationships look like.”

When asked why interfaith is necessary, Chaplain Stevens furrows his brow and pauses for a few seconds. Then, of the many interfaith events held on campus, one particular memory comes to the surface.

“When September 11th happened, it happened before students even came back to campus,” he begins, slowly. “We knew that as soon as classes started we needed to do something.” Stevens phoned then- University President Henry Bienen and several other administrators and — in a rare example of quick administrative approval — was given the green light and funding to host an event to remember the fallen.

Stevens says that such an event had to be student-led, or else it would mean little to the new and returning Wildcats. A gathering of this size could take months to plan, but the student network Stevens required to pull it together in one week was already in place in the form of NUCOR. “I knew the leader at McSA, I knew the leader at Hillel, I called them and I said we need to come together to plan this event and it needs to be next week,” he says. “So, they all came and it occurred to me that they knew each other in part because we had been doing this interfaith work. People just pitched in.”

The day of the event, students packed Cahn Auditorium, and it quickly became standing room only. Bienen made a short speech, followed by Stevens. Then, one after another, faith group leaders from NUCOR took to the stage and said a few words on the tragedy. The last to speak was the president of McSA. “You could have heard a pin drop,” Stevens says.

In Stevens’ mind, this is an example of the tangible effects of interfaith. When they first started meeting in 1995, the students and the chaplain’s office knew they were doing something good and important, but they didn’t know why. Looking back on it, September 11th showed them the value of interfaith. When a crisis arrived, they were ready to confront it together. “I think there is an element of that in any interfaith work,” he explains. “You don’t know what’s coming around the corner, but you’re preparing so that you’ll be ready for whatever it is.” And this, at least, is something everyone can understand.