University fellowships seek to promote interfaith dialogue

The Office for Religious Life (ORL) will again offer two fellowships next year in an ongoing effort to build connections between various religious and spiritual groups on campus.

According to Dean of Religious Life Reverend Scotty McLennan, teaching students how to understand others’ beliefs is critical in training students for positions of global leadership.

“We need to graduate people from Stanford—ideally it would be every Stanford student—who understand the power and role of religion in the world and are able to help people talk across differences,” McLennan emphasized.

The two fellowships aim to contribute to interfaith dialogue in different ways. The Interfaith Fellowship, which offers a $4,000 stipend, selects two students to support interfaith programming in conjunction with the ORL, while the Rathbun Fellowship for Religious Encounter (FRE), which grants a $500 stipend, creates a weekly discussion space for up to 16 students.

Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann described the FRE fellowship as an opportunity for people from different religious communities to “get to know one another, develop trust and learn about one another’s religious experiences.”

Karlin-Neumann said that the significance of religious diversity—in relation to people’s values—can often be understated or misunderstood, and the fellowship is intended to overcome that.

“Part of what we’re able to do in the fellowship is build up enough trust to have some hard conversations and to understand perspectives that, in too many settings, we either don’t hear or can disregard or discount,” Karlin-Neumann said.

Current fellow Kasiemobi Udo-okoye ’15 said that her group has discussed topics like race, religion and, in the wake of the recent Boston bombings, how violence affects people emotionally and spiritually.

Karlin-Neumann said the fellowship has helped people with diametrically opposed viewpoints develop an appreciation for one another. She recalled an occasion in which two FRE fellows participated in competing demonstrations in White Plaza and then, after the rallies were over, put down their placards and hugged.

“To me, that was a real manifestation of FRE,” Karlin-Neumann said.

Udo-okoye said that the fellowship has provided her with the opportunity to remove herself from the constant pressures of everyday life at Stanford, giving her time and space to reflect.

“It’s taught me that it’s important to step back and evaluate myself, who I am and where I’m going—especially thinking of myself within the larger community,” Udo-okoye reflected.

According to the ORL website, fellows are required to make two presentations to the campus community during the year. Karlin-Neumann also said many fellows bring the lessons learned from discussions into other areas of campus, citing a student-initiated course—RELIGST 28SI: Interfaith@Noon, sponsored by one current and two former fellows—as an example.

The Interfaith Fellowship, on the other hand, is specifically intended to facilitate events and programs that foster relationships between different communities. McLennan said that the Interfaith Fellowship was established two years ago because the ORL felt that there were inadequate connections among the 34 different Stanford Associated Religions (SAR).

“They were all understandably concerned about trying to further their own tradition,” McLennan said. “We felt by hiring these interfaith fellows, we could stimulate more programming and help people relate to each other better.”

McLennan said there is no religious affiliation needed to become a fellow as long as an applicant exhibits a passion for promoting interfaith dialogue. Programming includes collaborative community service projects, joint worship services and events that represent people from various backgrounds.

As an example, McLennan cited an event put on by the Hindu community this winter that invited people from all religious traditions to present music, poetry or speeches in Memorial Church. He noted there are often multi-faith or interfaith worship services during holidays or campus events like Parents’ Weekend.

Current fellow Chase Ishii ’13 said the position has exposed him to a wide variety of backgrounds and traditions.

“A lot of times people get too caught up in the categories and the labels of a religion and forget that there’s a universal humanity that underlies all these different things,” Ishii said.  “Getting to really learn about other religions is just another way to understand a person’s humanity.”

Applications for the 2013-2014 Interfaith Fellowship close today.

About Jana Persky