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Campus reacts to SCF exclusionary policies

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Following campus-wide reaction to a Swarthmore Voices article detailing the Swarthmore Christian Fellowship’s (SCF) policy that members who do not view homosexuality as a sin and who affirm queer relationships cannot become leaders of the club, SCF leaders plan to continue to support and uphold the policy. However, Christian students on campus as well as other members of the Swarthmore community are calling for change and alternatives.

The Campus Reacts

Immediate reactions to the article, entitled “Swarthmore Christian Fellowship Has a Sexuality Problem,” written by Eduard Saakashvili ’17, included the writing of  queer-affirming chalk messages in front of Parrish Hall such as “God made me gay,” “Love is never a sin” and “Gay love is holy.” The Interfaith Center issued a statement on their Facebook page, writing, “The Interfaith team would like to extend compassion to all those who have been hurt. The Interfaith Center is a queer-affirming space that condemns bigotry of any kind and aspires to offer religious traditions as an avenue for healing and liberation.” Joyce Tompkins, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at the college, feels that the policy is problematic for all members of the campus community, including alumni she has spoken with since the article’s publication.

“I’m concerned about having a group on campus that discriminates, I’m concerned about the hurt that’s been caused to many, many students, both those who identify as queer and those who are allies, and also students who’ve been part of SCF and found a Christian home there,” Tompkins said.

In addition, multiple memes and contentious comment threads were posted in the Facebook group “Swarthmore Memes for Quaker teens.” Katherine Ham ’18 posted a meme along with a link to an Intervarsity web page listing literature about homosexuality, such as Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation. September Sky Porras ’20 posted two memes.

According to SCF co-president Michael Broughton ’19, who was quoted in the Voices article, students have not directly approached him to discuss their views on the policy.

“It’s a bit frustrating to only hear secondhand about a controversy that I’m supposedly at the center of,” he said. “I’d really like to engage honestly with people about the issue, but at the moment it’s hard to tell who’s ready for those kinds of conversations. The chalkings made it clear that the issue is on a lot of people’s minds, but again since I haven’t had any direct encounters about it, it’s hard to gauge how the campus is truly feeling.”

Broughton emphasized that the policy has been in effect since before any current SCF leaders were students at Swarthmore.

“To my knowledge, it was first enacted by members of SCF leadership toward the end the 2014-2015 school year, and was in full effect by the following school year,” he said. “It should be noted that everyone involved in making the policy has since graduated; subsequent leadership teams have maintained it.”

Broughton is one leader who chose to maintain the policy for the 2017-2018 school year along with fellow co-president Emily Audet ’18, as they explained in the Voices article.

Effects of the Policy

Though the campus community knew little about the policy until the publication of the Voices article, the policy has affected Christian life for a long time, according to Kyra Harvey ’19, an active member of SCF during her freshman year who chose to leave the club.

“I think part of what’s so difficult about this situation is that it hasn’t just been an issue because of this article and now people are like, ‘OMG, SCF is very conservative,’ but I think the Christian community has been split because of this issue before this even happened, since my freshman year, and that’s been really sad and difficult. I don’t think it was a good policy to begin with because it was so divisive.”

Jasmine Betancourt ’20, who was also an active member of SCF as a freshman, said that the policy influenced her decision to participate less because she supports queer pride.

“It did make me feel excluded,” she said. “It’s why I dropped my involvement this year.”

SCF leaders typically hold a meeting during which they disclosed the details of the policy in the spring of each year, during the interview process for students interested in leadership positions. For Harvey, the policy was part of the reason she chose to end her involvement with SCF, after being an active member during her freshman year.

“They have a lot of good events and things, but ever since my freshman year when they told me about that leadership policy, it hasn’t been the same,” Harvey said. “And the way that it was done too–they gave me a book that supported that idea about homosexuality and I think it looked a little too much like, ‘Oh you’re wrong and here’s the reason why,’ and that just doesn’t feel good when you’re part of a community.”

According to Betancourt, the policy has directly affected SCF membership.

“I’ve been told from upperclassmen and alumni that SCF used to be a very vibrant club, but since this new policy was put in place, active involvement has dwindled,” Betancourt said. “Most of the Christians on campus that I know are frustrated with SCF leadership policies and their conservative interpretation of the Bible. It is clear that their position on homosexuality has brought a lot of pain to the LGBTQ+ community and has made several members who celebrate queerness feel excluded from the group.”

Tara Cannon ’20, who identifies as Christian and hoped to participate in Christian life at the college when she arrived, stated that the group’s interpretation of the Bible discouraged her from joining the group.

“Overall I just didn’t feel that…I just didn’t feel welcome,” she said. “I just heard that they were a lot more conservative than the majority of the campus.”

SCF and the Voices article

Though many students have expressed feelings of hurt after learning of SCF views from the Voices article, some hope that it will positively impact the college’s religious community.

“This isn’t a new issue, and each time we try to have a conversation about it, it kind of goes back under the rug,” Tompkins said. “And what I’m hoping is this time, it won’t go back under the rug and we’ll actually all talk about this and especially address some of the hurt that’s been caused over the years.”

Betancourt expressed a similar desire for dialogue surrounding the club’s position on homosexuality and their implementation of the policy.

“The Voices article made me really happy,” Betancourt said. “In the time I was there, there was very limited conversation. I hope that it pushes the leadership to be more open and engaged.”

During the week following the article’s publication, SCF leadership set aside time during the weekly Bible study to take questions and inform students and about the leadership policy, similarly to the meeting that typically takes place in the spring.

“After the article was written, SCF had an opportunity to discuss leadership policies earlier in the year with students who wish to apply or fill out a form for leadership,” Sawyer Lake ’20, part of SCF as a leader of Tuesday night Bible study, as well as an officer of Swatties in Service, said.

The purpose of the meeting was to make sure students within the group were clear about the policy. According to Broughton, the article has prompted internal discussion about the function of the SCF at the college as well as its leadership.

“We will also continue to strive to be a community that serves God, studies his word, and expresses biblical love in every way possible – that has always been our mission, which we have no plans to ever change,” Broughton said.

However, Lake indicated that these discussions may not be related to possible changes in the leadership policy or SCF’s affiliation with Intervarsity. Intervarsity is a national Christian college group that shares the group’s views on homosexuality and that provides resources such as connection with their area coordinator, retreats with other schools, and conferences.

“I have not heard anything where SCF is planning to change leadership policies or change relationships with Intervarsity,” Lake said. “As far as I know, everything related to Intervarsity with SCF and leadership policies will remain the same.”

What’s next?

The varied and emotional responses to the policy and the history of the club include varied opinions from students like Betancourt and Harvey on how best to move forward towards their ideal Christian community.

“We should have a very interconnected faith community across religions,” Harvey said.

“I really hope that this can be a catalyst for growth in the Christian community and the greater community in terms of dialogue…I hope that it’ll make the faith community stronger in terms of diversity.”

According to Betancourt, the allocation of resources and funds (outlined further in the Voices article) complicates possible changes in the relationship between Intervarsity and SCF.

“I think that being associated with the organization that opposes the celebration of queerness is definitely very bad and it’s problematic and people shouldn’t have to be associated with that organization but at the same time…they have a lot of resources and people who come in and staff from Intervarsity that you can talk to,” Betancourt said.

However, Harvey feels that given the theological positions of SCF leadership and the timing, redacting the policy is not the best course of action at the moment.

“I don’t actually think that right now, in this environment, that changing anything would be good for SCF,” Harvey said. “I think the policy probably should have never been implemented in the first place, but as a leader I don’t know what I would do. I think that it’s a really difficult place that these people are in, trying to make these decisions.”

Harvey also feels that the damage done by the policy cannot be easily reversed.

“I don’t know what changing the policy would do, I don’t know if it would bring those people back,” she said. “There’s already something broken and I don’t think pretending it didn’t happen would fix anything.”

In contrast, Betancourt feels strongly that SCF can and should revisit the leadership policy.

“Because SCF has genuine, loving, compassionate people in their fellowship, I think the group has a lot of potential for becoming a truly welcoming, safe space for all students,” she said. “But in order to do so, they must change their leadership policies to be reflective of the essential Christian values that encourage fostering love, peace, and respect in the community.”

Another option on the table for Christians at Swarthmore is revitalizing the Progressive Christians group, which recently merged into the Swatties in Service group. Tompkins supports student-led change in this respect, asserting that neither administration nor the Interfaith Center can rectify the damage she feels that the policy has caused to the community.

“So the Progressive Christian group has kind of ebbed and flowed over the years,” Tompkins said. “Right now it’s mostly a service group, but I would love to see it revived with student interest. [We need] a more neutral space for students to talk about these challenging issues and look at how we can move forward and have a space for students who want to be more theologically progressive, but I do think the impetus has to come from students.”

The role of administration has been minimal with the Christian Fellowship because there is no hired Christian advisor, though Tompkins helps organize some events, especially with Swatties in Service. The Muslim Student Advisor and Jewish Student Advisor positions are new to the Interfaith Center this year.

“The administration is aware of the stir that the article caused, and we have been in regular contact with them since its publication,” Broughton said in an email.

Swarthmore Christian Fellowship  is funded in part by the college. As of publication, it remains uncertain what action the college will take in response to the content of the Voices article; the Phoenix will publish a follow-up article in the spring.

 

 

***This article was edited at 9:12 a.m. on Dec. 7 to include the link to the Voices article.

Eboo Patel visit creates dialogue around religious diversity

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On Nov. 1, Eboo Patel, who founded the Interfaith Youth Core and served on Obama’s inaugural Faith Council, arrived at Swarthmore. During the roughly 24 hours he stayed, he led four workshops, participated in a world religions class, attended a dinner with President Valerie Smith and other faculty members, and delivered a keynote speech, “Building a Healthy Religiously Diverse Democracy: America’s Promise in a Time of Crisis.” The events focused on the benefits of understanding and acknowledging religious diversity, even in secular spaces.

In his keynote speech, Patel said that hatred of immigrants and other people with different beliefs creates a barrier against their contributions that inhibits societal progression. He then spoke on the history of religious prejudice in America, beginning with the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s and the movement that pushed against it.

“What is Judeo-Christian?” Patel asked. “It is a genius civic invention. It is a new narrative for America that allows us to imagine Jews and Catholics as equal participants in American civilization. I want to say this again — a group of civic activists, as a way of responding to anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudice in the 1920s, invent a new narrative for America that becomes so deeply woven into American DNA that we believe it was present from the beginning. That’s genius.”

Patel, a Muslim, applied this idea of a national narrative to the modern issue of Islamophobia and fear of Muslim immigrants.

“What new civic initiatives do we need now in this moment of Islamophobia?” he said.
“There’s a new chapter that needs to be written.”

Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life at the college, planned Patel’s visit with pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church Joyce Shin and religion professor Mark Wallace, all of whom are members of the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County.  They aimed to bring together leaders of different faith groups and to strengthen relationships between the Interfaith Center and the Borough.

“When I first heard Eboo Patel speak on the need for interfaith cooperation in our society, I was struck by two things: first, his ability to speak across many different audiences, by which I mean audiences that consist of different religious backgrounds, different generations, different points of view, and different assumptions; and second, Eboo’s consistently constructive approach to making interfaith cooperation a social norm,” Shin said.

When Shin first pitched the idea over a year ago, Tompkins was doubtful that Patel, a prominent figure in interfaith leadership, would want to come to Swarthmore. However, Tompkins feels that Patel saw an opportunity for expanding interfaith collaboration to secular campuses.

“Swarthmore’s well known in higher-ed circles; it’s also a pretty secular school,” she said. “[Patel] and his colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core are particularly interested in broadening the interfaith conversation so that it’s not just faith groups talking to each other, but talking across the faith-secular divide, which seems to really be dividing our country.”

According to Shin, Patel touched on the significance of religious tolerance and sensitivity to religious issues, even for those who do not practice religion themselves.

“My hope is that Eboo’s constructive approach will draw out and make room for other constructive approaches in building cooperation among different religious communities as well as show the significance of interreligious cooperation in the civic sphere,” she said.

During the student workshop before his talk, Patel gave student leaders case studies of religion-related conflicts that have occurred in secular places such as schools and workplaces and asked them to discuss possible approaches. One situation involved an Orthodox Jewish man who refused to sit at his assigned seat on an airplane because it was next to a woman; one was the difference in power if it were a Muslim woman refusing to sit next to a man.

“We had some pretty interesting conversation,” Tompkins said. “Some people said, ‘Kick him off the plane,’ some people said, ‘Try to persuade someone to change seats.’ It was interesting.”

Another case study was a group of Muslim women who requested an hour of time at the public pool reserved for women only; another involved Hindu students that protested the dining hall serving beef in the only eating facility on campus as being offensive to them.

“What he said, what actually turned out to be true, was we never actually resolved the question of what should we do,” Tompkins said. “What was important was that we were practicing having this kind of conversation with some sensitivity to the issues that are raised by these different groups.”

Abha Lal ’18, an intern for the Interfaith Center, attended the workshop Patel gave for student leaders. According to Lal, religious literacy and interfaith dialogue can give us insight into everyday interactions.

“I think at Swat and a lot of college campuses religion is treated as a purely private matter, but the fact is that it is really important to how many people understand themselves and conduct public life,” she said. “I think Patel’s workshop encouraged us to see this not as a problem to be dealt with, but a fact of living in heterogenous societies that needs to be engaged with in meaningful ways.”

Though Lal feels that Patel’s message about interfaith discourse has crucial implications, she stated that she and other Swarthmore students would disagree with Patel’s claims about American excellence.

“My main qualm was that as important as his approach is, it seems to base itself a little bit uncritically on American exceptionalism, something that is hard to be fully on board with for people here for good reason,” Lal said.

Patel also led a workshop on sensitivity to religious differences for Swarthmore faculty, a workshop for students at Strath Haven high school and a workshop for leaders of local congregations.

Cielo de Dios ’21 attended Patel’s keynote speech with her classmates from “Religion and the Meaning of Life,” taught by professor Ellen Ross. The class is currently reading Patel’s book “Acts of Faith,” a memoir about the struggles of being a Muslim in America. She feels that her experience at the college has been in accord with Patel’s ideal for democratic discourse.

“A lot of what he said applies in my religions class specifically because in my religions class, we’re not all from one faith,” she said. “Most of us are Christians, but there’s a Jew and then there’s a Buddhist who was an atheist. We come from a lot of different backgrounds, and even before the talk, we were all open to talking about our experiences and our faith, which is what I think Patel is advocating for.”

Patel mentioned a “circle of dialogue” multiple times, which is the range of people with whom someone is willing to converse about differing beliefs. While Ryan Arazi ’21 agreed with Patel’s concept of a religiously diverse democracy, he found the notion of a “circle of dialogue” idealistic.

“I agreed with the very broad circle of opinions and allowing that circle to exist, and I’m someone who’s advocated for that a lot,” he said. “But in hearing someone else say it, I can understand why that can be too optimistic, especially in a society that’s as polarized as ours and especially with a topic like religion, which goes to your core beliefs, like who you are as a person.”

 

According to Arazi, Swarthmore students tend to be like-minded and therefore not particularly open to interfaith dialogue.

“This is exactly the type of place where that optimism might fail because you have people of very like-minded beliefs and it’s easy to forget about … the outside world and forget that it’s important to listen to everyone,” Arazi said. “I don’t think that it’s a reflection of the people here or the open-mindedness of the people, but that it’s just a natural product of putting like-minded people in the same place.”

According to Patel, religious diversity is a central tenet of social change.

“What else is it?” he said. “What else is social change but dealing with people with whom you disagree and engaging in a conversation in which sometimes, you will change your mind and sometimes they will change their minds?”

De Dios agreed with Patel’s emphasis on willingness to engage others with opposing opinions in conversation, but she felt that Swarthmore students generally identify more with the type of social change represented in the Desmond Tutu quote “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” which a Swarthmore student brought up during the 30-minute question-and-answer session after the keynote speech.

“I do think, though, that the first step is in dialogue,” she said. “Not that they have to be mutually exclusive, but the dialogue comes first, more than anything, than the action. I don’t think that people would agree with me that you can be tolerant and not act. I do think that the most important acts of tolerance and respect end up anyway leading to protests and action-based causes.”

Tompkins was very satisfied with the attendance at the workshops and at the keynote speech. She felt that this event is representative of recent changes that she has worked to enact as director of religious and spiritual life at the college regarding dialogue around religious differences.

“I absolutely resonate with what he had to say, because I’ve been here 14 years [and] we’ve made huge, huge progress as far as recognizing religious and spiritual identity as important parts of diversity and inclusion,” she said. “When I first came it was … really, nobody talked about religion; it was very marginalized, there was very little support. I see [the event] just as a continuation of the momentum we’ve been working on, but I feel like it gave us kind of a big push.”

For Tompkins, Shin and the Interfaith Council, the  success of the event bodes well for similar collaborations between the college and the Swarthmore community in the future.

“I am excited to work with the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County, Partners in Ministry, different groups at Swarthmore College, and members of the community in developing ways to cooperate inter-religiously,” Shin said. “By seeing who showed up, we have a better idea of who is interested in this work and with whom we can build more sustainable relationships.”

President Valerie Smith, who introduced Patel’s speech, delivered similar sentiments about religious diversity.

“During these tumultuous times when democratic values are being challenged, by engaging with difference, particularly religious difference, we acknowledge our shared humanity,” Smith said.

New advisor for Muslim students seeks funding as role expands

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Umar Abdul Rahman, the new Muslim Student Adviser, seeks to find permanent funding for the position.

Interim Muslim Student Advisor Ailya Vajid left at the end of last semester after serving for a year and a half. Umar Abdul Rahman, a former attorney in Philadelphia, was hired prior to this school year to fill the role. Despite the growing presence of interfaith life on campus, the Swarthmore Muslim community has not yet found permanent funding to support a Muslim Student Advisor. Part of Rahman’s new role will be searching for long-term financial sustainability, as well as facilitating and organizing Islamic religious life on campus.

The college’s religious advisors are not paid staff members, in part because of the school’s non-sectarian position. advisors often jointly serve at nearby schools; for example, Father Jaehwa Lee, the Catholic student advisor, also works at Bryn Mawr and Haverford. Religious advisors are considered part-time positions and are all funded by outside, non-Swarthmore-affiliated groups. These include the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Hillel International, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and Partners in Ministry. An equivalent organization does not currently exist for Muslim life, and no permanent source of funding has been found yet. Joyce Tompkins, head of religious and spiritual life at the college, said in an email that the Muslim position is currently funded by the discretionary budget of the president, as they have been in past years. Funding for the Muslim advisor role has been ad-hoc and temporary, with advisors working on semester-long and yearlong contracts.

In recent years, the presence of religious student advisors have been expanding. “The role of religious advisors at Swarthmore has grown over the 12 years I’ve been on campus,” Tompkins said.

“Besides adding a Muslim advisor, my own position has expanded to include work with other traditions as well as more interfaith work. We work with many other areas of campus life, including the IC, BCC, WRC, dining, Admissions, Wellness, CAPS, HR, the Lang Center, the Friends Meeting, and with a number of outside community organizations and congregations,” she added.

The college formed a search committee to hire the new Muslim Student Advisor, composed of three students from the Muslim Student Association and representatives from the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and the college administration. All students from the Muslim Students Association, however, were invited to take part in interviews and give feedback throughout the search. Representatives from the Muslim Student Association declined to comment for this article.

The final selection, Rahman was born in the United States and grew up in the greater Philadelphia area. His family is Pakistani-American and are practicing Muslims. After graduating from Lehigh University with a degree in economics and international relations, Rahman spent a year in Yemen as a Fulbright Scholar, studying the impact of Marxism on Islamic thought in the capital city of Sanaa. Rahman attended Temple University Beasley School of Law and went on to practice law at Hogan & Vandenberg, an immigration and human rights private law practice. Rahman mostly represented immigrants who had come to the United States seeking asylum to escape persecution or conflict.

During this time, Rahman also began working for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group. After working on cases for the group in Michigan, Rahman returned to Philadelphia and helped found the local Philadelphia chapter of the group. To fulfill a lifelong interest in religion, Rahman decided to change career paths. While he thought at first about completing a PhD in religion and pursuing a career in academia, Rahman changed his mind after finding himself more compelled by chaplaincy. In addition to holding the position at Swarthmore, Rahman is pursuing a master’s degree in Islam and American-Islamic relations at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

Rahman sees a significant part of his role as Muslim Student Advisor as expanding interfaith cooperation and dialogue, as well as administering to Muslim students’ religious needs.

“In general, all of us [religious advisors] are concerned with spiritual well being in all students. A big part of my role is working with the other religious communities on campus,” he said.

Rahman also says he is open to talking with any student, Muslim or not, about Islam. He has begun working with the Muslim Student Association to hold regular activities like Friday prayers and celebrations of Islamic holidays.

Rahman joins Tompkins as well as Muslim students on campus in trying to establish permanent funding for the student advisor solution. Rahman is examining peer schools’ solutions to the problem of funding muslim student advisors. Rahman specifically mentioned Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which created a school-funded position for a Muslim Religious Advisor. Rahman said that ideally the school would fund the position, but this would require a change in college policy as none of the other religious advisors, including Tompkins, receive funding from the college.

Rahman also thinks that it might be possible to create an endowment to support the position through alumni donations. He said this approach has worked well at larger schools, so he thinks that, to succeed, Bryn Mawr and Haverford — which also do not have permanent positions — would have to pool their resources and share an advisor with Swarthmore. Tompkins also suggested that foundations and other outside organizations might be identified to support the position, as other religious groups have.

“It is very difficult to do that much in one year,” he said. “I would like to stay around for at least a few years to try to accomplish some of our goals.”

Interim Muslim student advisor hired as school considers permanent position

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Muslim Student Advisor_IanHolloway
Photo by Ian Holloway

Ailya Vajid is only a few months into her job as religious advisor for Muslims on campus. But the tenuous status of this brand-new position may force her to leave when this semester ends. The job is an interim one, approved for just one year and fulfilled with one-semester contracts.

The college’s religious advisers are not paid faculty members and never have been, in part because of the school’s Quaker heritage. This creates a difficult disconnect for advisers, who are not employees in the same way that faculty and staff are. Many students and faculty alike within the school’s faith life community feel that advisers should be paid by the school, and that not doing so shows an administrative underappreciation for faith on campus.

The system in place has religious advisers serve in part-time, affiliate positions, funded by outside, non-school-affiliated groups: the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Hillel International, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Partners in Ministry. An equivalent organization does not currently exist for Muslim life, so proponents of the Muslim adviser position have been designing alternatives for funding after this semester.

The current proposal seeks to create an endowment of at least $1 million, enough to pay for a half-time employee. Joyce Tompkins, the religious and spiritual life adviser and the de facto head of campus faith life, says the goal is to raise the target amount within the next two academic years, from both the school endowment and outside groups.

Last semester, college officials agreed to begin the process of establishing a Muslim advisor position. Then-President Rebecca Chopp chose to fund an interim job on a temporary basis, through the 2014-15 academic year, using presidential discretionary funds. The administration may eventually choose to continue funding the position past 2015. However, contracts for the job — officially labeled as a “consultant” position — last only one semester, affording little security for Vajid and any future prospective workers.

Vajid’s current role as consultant for Muslim student life is to “work on developing a model for a religious adviser for Muslim students that will be similar to the other [advisors],” according to Tompkins. But there are concerns that because the position is not guaranteed after the spring semester, there may be too little time to prove that a Muslim advisor on campus would be valuable and worthwhile. Vajid also worries that her interim capacity makes it difficult to have an impact on student life.

“In order to provide support for students, you have to understand what’s going on on campus,” she said. “I can’t really provide that support if I’m not a part of campus.”

Vajid became involved on campus in January of this year, hired by the Muslim Student Association to support the organization and help establish a school-supported advisory position. According to Vajid, who graduated from Swarthmore in 2009, student support for a Muslim faith advisor became nascent in the mid-2000s.

Although one significant push was made by the student body later in the decade, it wasn’t until last semester that a campaign succeeded. A petition to the college administration garnered over 300 signatures from students, alumni and faculty.

“The role that religious advisers play in students’ lives can’t be understated,” said Zac Arestad* ’17, an interfaith intern.

Faith leaders found that what was most impressive was not merely the size of the campaign, but also the amount of support and involvement it received from people who are not active in faith organizations.

“Students who aren’t of faith background seem to really enjoy the types of conversations they have with students of faith,” Vajid said. “Meaning-making, philosophy, these are the kinds of questions that we can think about in this space.”

The diversity of petition signers played a key role in convincing college officials to create the position.

“It really kind of surprised the administration as to how much support there really was, even from students who aren’t a part of religious life,” Tompkins said. “It was another reminder to the administration that religious life matters.”

School support for religious life is “better than it was,” noted Tompkins, who has been at Swarthmore for ten years. She listed several signs of increased support, such as a recently-created stipend to an external organization to fund interfaith activities on campus. A key addition has been better integration of religious advisors with campus events, including Orientation, diversity workshops, faculty search committees and staff meetings — all of which previously lacked a religious presence. The number of religious advisors has increased over the last decade as well.

“The college supports our presence on the campus,” Tompkins said.

Those involved in campus faith life believe there are still many improvements that can be made. A crucial goal is to develop more connections to other diversity-based organizations. Tompkins and Vajid believe second-year Dean of Diversity and Inclusion and Community Development Lili Rodriguez has been instrumental in adding religion to the umbrella of students’ diversity.

Tompkins said one difficulty of expanding the reach of faith life has been encouraging members of certain religious groups to actually attend Swarthmore. For example, there are few conservative Jewish students because Sharples does not have a kosher kitchen. The religious advisers have collectively been trying to work with Admissions to find better methods to attract applicants of broader religious backgrounds.

Other objectives include a separate building for an official Interfaith Center, rather than the upper floors of Bond Hall, where advisers’ offices are currently stationed, and more representation and activities for students who follow non-Western religions.

Arestad, Vajid and Tompkins all agree that religious advisers should be school-funded and treated as faculty employees,. Those involved said that their primary reason was to ensure that religious life is respected and appreciated by the administration, and to continue promoting faith ideas to the school.

“Religious advisors are not here just to serve students who identify as religious,” Tompkins said. “We help the entire campus come to terms with the role that religion plays in the world.”


*Arestad is a columnist for the Phoenix. He had no role in the production of this article.

The case for a secular group on campus

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The Acts of the Apostles, a.k.a. Acts, is the fifth book in the Christian New Testament. It’s one of my favorites because it reads a lot like a buddy-cop movie starring Peter and Paul, two early Christian missionaries — Paul is famous for writing a bunch of letters and Peter was the first Pope. Perhaps the most important part of the book of Acts is that it tells the story of how Christianity spread from ‘Jewish Christians’ — that is, ethnically Jewish individuals in Judea who were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah — to Gentiles, people who were never Jewish and converted directly to Christianity. Today, the Christian Church is comprised almost entirely of non-Jews, though a few Messianic Jews, like Jews for Jesus, are still around and have trouble fitting in with both Jews and Christians.

The spread of Christianity to people outside the tight circle of ethnic Jews counts as an interesting interfaith effort, but the part of Acts that sticks out to me most is the following passage, an interaction between the missionary Paul & a group of atheistic Athenian thinkers, from the Acts of the Apostles 17:16.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”

Then, in Acts 17:32, after Paul has said his piece:

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Some may read this passage as a one-sided affair — given the opportunity, the zealous Paul jumps at the chance to preach at a great crowd. To me, however, that reading isn’t particularly kind to the gathered thinkers of the Areopagus. These are learned individuals, philosophers, members of the high court of Athens. I don’t presume they would just let some kook harangue them for hours and then leave. On the contrary, it seems much more likely that what happened at Areopagus was a thrilling back-and-forth discourse between people of foundationally different philosophies.

Stoics and Epicureans were Hellenistic philosophers who, more or less, rejected the kind of God that Christians believed in. While many paid service to state gods, they were foundationally atheistic and secular thinkers. The dialogue between these two disparate factions illustrates a kind of group learning and collective sharing to the benefit and edification of everyone involved. While not everyone in the Areopagus agreed with Paul — many sneered — others, like Dionysius and Damaris, did. Most important were those who said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” They didn’t convert, and probably wouldn’t no matter how much they spoke with Paul. Certainly, nothing would convince Paul to abandon Christ and become a Stoic. But they opened the door for more dialogue. Their earnest interest in ideas allows them to embrace Paul, not only as an intellectual, but as a whole individual worthy of being addressed. I like to think that had Paul’s mission not called him out of Athens and into Corinth, he would have grown his ministry in the city and continued to cooperate and dialogue with the Areopagus. Maybe that’s not a realistic goal for ancient Greece, but what about Swarthmore College?

Certainly, the dominant culture at Swat is a secular one. No matter how much I wrap myself up in Christian life, most of the conversations I have are with people whose faith is different from mine and don’t worship the same God as I do. Interacting with these people is critical, but it’s often challenging to talk about foundational issues — issues of belonging, meaning-making, and the end of things — with secular thinkers. How can I figure myself as Paul when there’s no Areopagus to encounter? To that end, I’d like to propose and promote the formation of a secular students’ group on campus. In my imagination, it would serve as a hub for the discussion of atheist and humanist thought, a support system for people who want to talk about the lived experience of atheism/secularism in a country dominated by Christian discourse, and — my own selfish motive — to serve as an outlet for Swarthmore’s Interfaith Center.

Any students interested in working such a group into their lives at Swarthmore should know that they have the full backing and support of the Swarthmore Interfaith Center. Your Interfaith Interns, Zachary Arestad and Sanaa Ali-Virani, and Joyce Tompkins are very interested in this initiative, and we hope that someone will take us up on this offer.

Working out with God

in A Still Small Voice/Columns/Opinions by

Hello friends, and welcome back to another semester at Swarthmore College, another semester of the Phoenix, and another semester of my column, A Still Small Voice. I use my space here to comment on my religion and on spirituality on campus, in the media and in our culture at large, as well as to document and reflect on some of my personal religious experiences. This week’s column is mostly the latter.

As some of you may know, I come from a basically secular family. We don’t go to church and my parents and grandparents are deeply skeptical about “organized religion”. This wasn’t a problem for me at all until I got back from Swarthmore and found myself facing a roughly three-month void in my spiritual schedule. Here at Swat, I’m inundated with religious life. Last semester, for example, I found myself at two Bible studies, a large fellowship meeting, a worship band practice and a meeting for worship at the Friends Meetinghouse almost every week. Additionally, I attended nearly every interfaith event I possibly had time for, as well as occasional lectures sponsored by the Religion Department. Clearly, I was a fanatic. My life revolved around exploring my faith, pushing the boundaries of understanding divinity, and opening my heart to God’s wisdom.

Back in the Boro, there were none of these events. I have no home church, and only one of my hometown friends is religiously convicted. As I busied myself with the work of summer — chasing summer camp kids around the playground, wandering through the woods, and playing music with friends — I found myself focused less and less on my developing spirituality. Late one night in mid-August, I tossed and turned in bed until midnight. At that point I realized that I’d not taken time to pray seriously or read Scripture all summer! I got out of bed, wandered into the living room, and read from the Bible and prayed for nearly two hours.

It might have just been the late hour, but I found myself struggling to digest any of the material. Verses I’d delighted in dissecting just weeks prior now seemed more like reading code. Eventually, I felt like I couldn’t do any more work. I went back to bed and finally fell asleep.

At that moment, I realized something pretty profound: I was way out of shape! Spiritually, I’d atrophied to the point where I could barely pick through a verse. I realized how disconnected I’d felt from divinity and how God’s voice — the still small voice this column’s named after — had grown quieter until its once steady hum was now a barely audible scratching. It seems to me that, like muscles in the physical body, the spiritual muscles that we work out when we pray, study texts or participate in worship activities can also stiffen and shrink if they aren’t regularly and rigorously stretched. These activities might be called “spiritual practices” for a reason.

Since my experience on that August night, I’ve turned up the intensity of my private devotion, committing myself to pray at least daily, spend more time in the Word and absorb sermons or messages from preachers in diverse denominations. I’m back on campus now, and I look forward to taking advantage of the myriad spiritual experiences that my tradition has to offer. As a Christian, I have access to small group Bible studies and large group fellowship meetings courtesy of Swarthmore Christian Fellowship: InterVarsity, Pizza and Parable Bible study with Swarthmore Progressive Christians, weekly Mass with Newman Catholic Fellowship and plenty of local Sunday morning services to choose from.

Now, I won’t sugarcoat it. My spiritual life is way easier because I’m a Christian. It’s easy to be a Christian in the United States, and the College does not support the spiritual growth of students of subordinated faiths to the extent it should. It’s hard to be Muslim in the United States, hard to be Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Sikh or Jewish or Wiccan or of any faith less popular than Christianity. However, I would encourage all students, regardless of their faith or philosophy, to seek out individuals who think like you or that might be interested in learning more about your tradition. That community, that fellowship, is absolutely critical to working out your spiritual muscles — I felt the cost of that solitude this summer. As the saying goes, “you can’t be a Christian on your own”.

If you’re interested in finding Swatties who believe like you do, or at least have a similar background if not similar beliefs, please contact one of your Interfaith Interns — Zachary Arestad (zaresta1@swarthmore.edu) or Sanaa Ali-Virani (salivir1@swarthmore.edu), or Swarthmore’s Religious and Spiritual Life Adviser, Joyce Tompkins (jtompki1@swarthmore.edu). The Swarthmore Interfaith Center is committed to promoting and supporting religious practice and dialogue between people of every faith and philosophy. Check out our Facebook page for information on all existing groups and contact us for support chartering a new one.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” — 1 Corinthians 12:12

A significant loss for student quality of life

in A Still Small Voice/Columns/Opinions by

At the end of this semester, our campus stands to lose one of its greatest blessings. Ailya Vajid has served as a religious life advisor for Muslim students since January. In this capacity, Ailya has proved absolutely invaluable to Muslims on campus serving as a counselor and mentor. She leads weekly text studies, holds prayer and discussion meetings every Friday. And hers made efforts to build a Muslim community that extends beyond Swarthmore’s campus. She also reaches out to Muslim Students’ Associations at the other Tri-Co schools as well as to schools in Philadelphia in an effort to build a large and interconnected Muslim community. Ailya is exceptionally qualified, having graduated from Harvard Divinity School and worked at a counseling center for Muslim women in DC, and is deeply committed to Swarthmore College (she herself is an alum). According to Muslim student and classmate Asma Noray ‘17, “Having Ailya as a mentor on campus has been instrumental in providing me with the support I need in terms of practicing my faith comfortably in an environment where religion is often marginalized.” Ailya was hired with a President’s Office seed grant for this semester. Unfortunately, this grant has run out and the College does not plan to renew it.

Just last week Ailya, along with Religious and Spiritual Life Advisor the Rev. Joyce Tompkins and Jewish Advisor Rabbi Kelilah Miller, facilitated an interfaith text study called Scriptural Reasoning. Over a collegial dinner in the warm Common Worship Room of Bond Memorial Hall, we discussed selections from holy texts about our relationship with holy texts (very meta) from the Judaic, Muslim and Christian traditions. This meeting truly engaged a group of almost 20 students from those three traditions in interfaith dialogue and helped us all to grow in our personal faiths, as well as to develop a more indepth understanding of the other traditions. Frankly, this event would have been impossible without Ailya. She compiled the Quranic scripture used in the discussion and provided a nuanced, chaplain’s perspective on the texts in question.  Additionally, Ailya’s contributions were an essential part of the Interfaith Conference attended by Swatties early this semester. Without Ailya, our delegation would have been more limited in scope and the lessons pulled from that conference would have been more clumsily applied to life at Swarthmore. Including more religious advisors from more diverse traditions gives religious life here a more global scope, it makes our interfaith program more vibrant, and provides more opportunity for dialogue and understanding between people of different faiths.

Currently, none of the campus religious advisors are paid by Swarthmore College despite the enormous value they add to campus life. They provide a fantastic service to students of all faiths and students of no faith at all. While this system is unfair to all of our religious advisors, only one currently faces the loss of her position and her livelihood; only one group of students currently faces a potentially lethal blow to their ministry. Because Christianity (and to a lesser extent Judaism) are privileged religions in the United States, Christians and Jews on campus can tap into large networks (InterVarsity, Partners in Ministry, Hillel International) to secure funding for their advisors and ministries. Muslims aren’t as lucky. Islam is a much subordinated faith in the West and Muslims face serious discrimination in the United States and abroad. It is much more challenging for an Islamic student group to acquire funding for a ministry than it is for a Christian group.

Losing Ailya would significantly impact the quality of life of several Swarthmore students. Another Swarthmore Islamic Society member, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that “During the first semester, I often felt lonely. I was experiencing a lot of difficulty transitioning to Swarthmore last semester; however, being able to talk to Ailya and having her as a resource helped me deal with a lot of problems I was facing. Ailya’s presence has had an enormous effect on my life and happiness and losing her would negatively impact my ability to stay strong and connected with my faith.” Intercultural Center Intern and Swarthmore Islamic Society member Salman Safir ‘16 shared that “Ailya’s presence has given Muslim students someone to look up. This is especially important given the troublesome time for Muslims in post 9/11 America. Further, she has presented a strong voice for Islamic issues that are relevant to the entire campus. For the first time in my life I have had someone to go to discuss issues related to religious struggles, someone who understands what it is like to be Muslim in college. With Ailya here, I have been able to further my faith in a way that had previously not been possible.”

For an institution that prides itself on embracing diversity and promoting the sincere exploration of personal identities, it’s amazing that the college refuses to truly support the development of religious identity, especially in the case of Islam, with its historic lack of support. Swarthmore’s attitude toward a personal, rather than academic, exploration of faith seems at best distant and cold; at worst openly hostile. In this situation, the refusal of the college to support Muslim students demonstrates not only the danger of Swarthmore’s hegemonic secularism but also the hypocrisy in its “commitment to inclusion.” Outside of Swarthmore, religion is a big deal; the refusal to acknowledge the importance of religious identity and support diversity in the religious sphere directly contradicts our ideal of global citizenship. For the sake of interfaith dialogue and for the support of Muslim students it is critical that Ailya’s position be funded until a permanent solution can be found. If you are willing to support the effort to keep Ailya on campus, and in so doing stand up for free religious expression and the inclusion of religious identities in the palette of intersectional discourse, please contact Campus Religious and Spiritual Life Advisor the Rev. Joyce Tompkins.

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