Evansville students learn to engage other religions

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Rachael McGill admits she “knew pretty much next to nothing” about other religions before enrolling at the United Methodist-related University of Evansville.

Raised in a Roman Catholic family and educated at a Catholic high school in nearby Newburgh, Ind., she had little exposure to other major faith groups, including Protestants.

But an introductory class on world religion at Evansville changed her perspective and life. “I’m really big into other religions,” she told United Methodist News Service. “The one thing I love doing most is learning what they believe.”

That’s the kind of opportunity the Rev. Tamara K. Gieselman, university chaplain and director of religious life since 2009, hopes that undergraduate students at the University of Evansville will have. She is a clergy member of the United Methodist Indiana Annual (regional) Conference.

Gieselman said she and her husband, the Rev. Mitchell Gieselman, lead pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church and a 1978 graduate of the University of Evansville, have discussed the fact that people “in the pews” often don’t have the chance “to engage with other world religions.”

Many students are or will be members of local congregations so providing interfaith experiences, Gieselman noted, will make them more open to others. The increasing presence of international students at the University of Evansville also “creates a richness on our campus.”

She witnessed the effect of such interactions while pastoring at a small church in southern Indiana for six years. When she invited a group of Muslims to come to the church after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “it totally changed their (the congregation’s) attitude, just this one small dialogue,” she explained.

University-wide support

Support for the interfaith initiatives starts with University President Thomas Kazee and filters through faculty and staff, students and the wider Evansville community. “Given all the collaborative efforts over the last three years, it is clear to see that the university as a whole supports our interfaith initiative,” Gieselman said.

Interfaith activities over the past few years include

  • A panel discussion on Islam in September 2010, in response to the controversy over a planned Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, which drew hundreds.
  • Religious forums on Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, with invited members of those faith groups, during the 2011-2012 academic year, followed the next year with forums on specific rituals and practices.
  • Interfaith worship services each fall semester since 2011, including the commissioning of the university’s newly formed interfaith council in 2012.
  • Informal monthly forums allowing faculty to reflect on their own faith traditions during the 2013-2014 academic year.

The bread connection

Another initiative, the International Bread Festival, grew out of a conversation with Jennie Ebeling, an archeology professor who has participated in digs in Israel and Jordan. “A lot of her emphasis is around the history of bread-making in Jordan and the Middle East,” Gieselman explained. “For all cultures and many religions, bread is a staple.”

Connecting with religious communities in Evansville resulted in the participation of two vendors, a local bread company and a Middle Eastern restaurant, in the festival, part of homecoming activities last fall.

“All the religious cultures who came each had a table,” she added. “Even individual faculty members came and brought the bread they make weekly as a tradition passed down in their own families. We heard a lot of great stories out of these traditions.”

Another recent interfaith and hospitality-related effort is a new dining option for Islamic and other students. The “Harmony” food station offers the Halal food options that are permissible under Islamic law. 

“Our international students and many domestic students are thrilled with this new dining option which has invited them to the table at UE,” Gieselman said. “Even students who have no dietary restrictions because of their religious tradition are choosing the halal food.”

Interfaith pilgrimage in England

Last year, Gieselman and Douglas Reed, professor emeritus of music and the university organist, used a small grant from the Indiana United Methodist Foundation to develop an interfaith pilgrimage experience for students planning to go to Harlaxton College, the university’s British campus.

They took 11 students and several faculty members to Leicester, one of the most religiously diverse cities in the United Kingdom, where Imam Ibrahim Mogra arranged for them to visit a synagogue, cathedral, mosque and religious cemetery. The connection with the imam, who also spoke to the students on the Harlaxton campus, was facilitated through a mutual friend, the Rev. Leslie Griffiths of Wesley’s Chapel in London.

Nik Fahrer, a junior and double major in accounting and management information systems, had never had contact with Islam or Judaism before his visit to Leicester. He was struck by the camaraderie of their Muslim tour guide and the rabbi at the synagogue.

But the Evansville native did have an inkling of how a religious divide can be bridged. With a mother who is United Methodist and a father who is Roman Catholic, he has been immersed in both traditions.

“On Sundays, I would go to mass with my dad at 8:30 and, at 9:45, I would travel 5 minutes down the road and go to my mom’s church,” explained Fahrer, who now considers himself nondenominational but still attends the Methodist Temple United Methodist Church. “It’s been kind of a blessing to understand both sides of the Christian church.”

Three days before their visit, a killing in London was blamed on Islamic extremists. But their guide, he said, “really showed me and several of the other students what Islam is all about. It’s not what you hear on the news every day about people taking it to the extreme and killing people. It’s just like any other religion.”

Fahrer said he returned to the United States with “a much deeper respect for people who practice Islam.” Now, when he meets persons of different religions, he added, he simply wants to know more to understand what they believe.

Now a junior majoring in theological studies and creative writing, McGill also studied at Harlexton, has become a member of the interfaith council and served as a worship leader during last November’s interfaith service on campus.

Interfaith dialogue offers a way “to understand each other and understand the world around us,” McGill said. Active engagement in dialogue, she believes, can prevent fear of the unknown and, perhaps, lessen possible acts of terrorism.

*Bloom is a writer and editor for United Methodist News Service based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].

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