The busy brick sidewalks outside Numen Lumen Pavilion on Elon University’s campus immediately fall away once students step inside the building. Light streams in from all sides of the circular, open space. Students may find something different in the center of the pavilion on any given week—a Buddhist sand mandala, a Christian cross or an interfaith IQ test—thanks to the university’s efforts to make its campus more inclusive.
“Having different religious groups together in a space creates a curiosity for students about what they are doing and why they are doing it,” says University Chaplain Rev. Dr. Janet Fuller. “At Elon, we know that understanding somebody else’s religious practice helps us understand our own better.”
The private North Carolina institution is not the only university making moves on its campus from “religious” to “interfaith” spaces and events. In fact, Fuller says she gets phone calls weekly from other universities asking “how we’re doing what we’re doing.” University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, has two interfaith spaces dedicated to students’ spiritual well-being: the reflection pool and accompanying garden, and the Sacred Space. Both are both used for prayer services or meditation gatherings of all faith traditions.
Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington dedicated a new Multifaith Meditation Room in August 2015 and kicked off the program with an event series titled “3D: Diversity, Dialogue and Dignity,” a weekly campuswide gathering to promote understanding among religions.
This heightened focus on interfaith relations comes on the heels of two widespread realizations, according to Fuller. The first is that colleges are becoming increasingly diverse, and only offering Jewish, Catholic and Protestant organizations on campus leaves out a significant number of students. “The world we live in is becoming more and more multireligious,” says Fuller. “More of our students are coming from families of mixed faiths. Our communities are not separated by these opaque laws anymore.” The second realization is that an increasing number of college students do not identify with one particular religion, but use their college years to explore what faith means to them. Fuller says students are constantly asking, “How am I going to identify?” or, “What practice is going to nourish me?” By encouraging interfaith education and relations on campus and providing safe spaces to gather, every student—no matter what spirituality they do or do not ascribe to—has the chance to learn about the world’s religions while making decisions about what they believe.