My introduction to interfaith work began as a student of Quaker education; I was taught that God is in all of us. Being inclusive and welcoming was our ethos. When I learned about Interfaith America’s interfaith leadership curriculum, I recognized its potential to help people broaden their perspectives, which would be particularly useful to the work of counselors-in-training. I began exploring ways to share the curriculum with my students at Bowie State University.
In spring 2021, I taught an optional extracurricular course to introduce the interfaith leadership curriculum to my counseling graduate students, including interfaith concepts and how to apply them to life, both personally and professionally. Interfaith concepts include storytelling to share beliefs, dialogue between people of different beliefs, social action to address community needs, appreciative knowledge of other religious and philosophical worldviews, and social capital, or the social resources, like trust, available to people through their religious communities. The discussion-based virtual sessions became a welcome point of connection during the pandemic, and students said the curriculum helped them become more aware of religious traditions other than their own. One student began watching documentaries to learn more about different beliefs, explaining: “I want to know more about Buddhism and Voodoo. I have heard myths about both. I know there is cultural strength in those traditions.”
Simultaneously, another Bowie faculty member was integrating information and ideas from the interfaith curriculum into his undergraduate sports management course. When we connected, we considered how we might bring interfaith cooperation to our entire campus, a historically Black public university in Maryland serving approximately five thousand undergraduate and one thousand graduate students, many of whom are first-generation college students. We assembled an interdisciplinary interfaith team consisting of faculty in counseling, sports management, and nursing, as well as staff, including student life administrators. Then we learned that our president had convened a group of local clergy from various faiths, and the two groups began to collaborate on how to support the spiritual development of Bowie students.
There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This emphasis on the longevity, productivity, and communal nature of life also reflects the power of interfaith leadership and cooperation to solve societal problems. By introducing our students to interfaith concepts, we can prepare them to be active global citizens. We can also improve our campuses one conversation or event at a time.
With support from an interfaith excellence grant we received from Interfaith America (then known as Interfaith Youth Core), our interfaith team at Bowie developed an action plan to provide ongoing interfaith training for our students, faculty, and staff. We also attended the 2021 virtual Institute on Teaching and Learning for Campus-Wide Interfaith Excellence cohosted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities and Interfaith Youth Core.
We initiated the training by identifying student government officers, Greek life leaders, resident assistants, new-student orientation advisors, and others who might help spread interfaith knowledge to the rest of the student body. I facilitated the training for these students with the help of one of the graduate students who completed the interfaith leadership curriculum with me. During the training, participants
→ explored how religion and spirituality interact with other dimensions of identity;
→ demonstrated an understanding of interfaith concepts—such as diversity, pluralism, storytelling, and social action—and the relevance of interfaith leadership;
→ identified their source of motivation to be an interfaith leader; and
→ learned how to incorporate interfaith practices into planning
We have found that most Bowie students identify as Christian or Muslim, according to their family traditions. During the training, several students said it was the first time they were able to talk openly about their spirituality on campus. As students were exposed to different belief systems, they began to explore what they believed for themselves and became equipped to have conversations about faith with their peers. Several students wanted to learn more about African religions and spirituality. At a historically Black university, this was significant as we hold dear our connection to Black people across the African diaspora.
To introduce interfaith concepts and begin the conversation about interfaith work on our campus, our interfaith team hosted a session titled “What Is Interfaith Literacy? Why Should We Care?” at Bowie’s August 2021 faculty training. One barrier we encountered during the session was unfamiliarity with interfaith concepts. Faculty expressed discomfort, explaining that they wanted to be careful not to be seen as proselytizing students or forcing their beliefs on others for fear of being sanctioned by their peers or supervisors and potentially endangering their employment.
I had not anticipated these concerns, and addressing them was one of the first challenges of our interfaith work. In October 2021, we hosted a faculty and staff lunch-and-learn, where attendees explored how they perceive interfaith work and how their own backgrounds shape their religious or nonreligious identities.
In January 2022, more than twenty faculty attended a half-day training session titled “Interfaith: A Key to Global Awareness and Bowie Boldness.” Two staff members from Interfaith America presented virtually, and our Bowie interfaith team provided in-person support. Faculty were encouraged to understand how faith affects students’ learning, campus experiences, and overall success academically, personally, and professionally. Faculty also identified how interfaith literacy applies to their specific disciplines and brainstormed ways to integrate interfaith concepts into existing syllabi.
In addition to faculty and student training, our team has held events to generate interest in and increase awareness of interfaith concepts. At one talk, a speaker discussed the basic principles and practices of African spirituality. In a workshop, students learned about natural African healing techniques and observed and/or experienced acupuncture. During a laughing yoga, meditation, and sound bath workshop, students explored their senses in an hourlong mindfulness experience. Lunch-and-learn events with area clergy of various faith traditions offered a safe space for students to share their faith journeys and ask questions. Bowie librarians also purchased several books from the interfaith leadership curriculum, displaying them for a month in a case near the library entrance.
While event attendance provides a quantitative measure of the success of our interfaith efforts, qualitative outcomes demonstrate the impact of our work, including the ways faculty have implemented interfaith concepts into their courses. Nursing students now wrestle with ethical dilemmas involving patients with diverse belief systems, and counseling students improve their interfaith literacy as a strategy for building positive rapport with clients. Additionally, students who participated in the interfaith trainings can now articulate three strategies for acquiring appreciative knowledge: removing labels, being open to change, and being ready to take risks.
At Bowie, we continue to generate ideas for increasing interfaith cooperation with sustained efforts. It is our desire to build an interfaith chapel to serve as a place for interfaith learning, expression, and events open to the campus and local community. Like every other category of identity, religious or spiritual faith can be a source of personal pride and social connection. And enhanced interfaith understanding and cooperation can bridge differences and create more inclusive communities—on campus and beyond.
Illustration by Diana Ejaita