A Convergence of Efforts for Professionals
A Call to Professionalize Interfaith in Higher Education
by Cody Nielsen
In the past twenty years, the world of religious, secular, and spiritual identities (RSSIs) has grown considerably on college and university campuses across North America. Once a forgotten and at times taboo topic, higher education is slowly embracing these identities as it re-imagines itself as a force for global citizenship. With this comes a new opportunity for interfaith engagement built by the professionals whose task is to support their campus through policy and practice enhancements.
Interfaith work is growing in strength and importance throughout the American cultural landscape. No longer a pipe dream, but a tangible career path for those willing to fight for its growth, interfaith careers and practices are becoming commonplace. Higher education is often the place where young people begin to cultivate not only career paths, but identities and values. This has led to the creation of initiatives, centers, and organizations that empower student leaders towards dialogue and compassionate interactions that promote the societal shift towards normalization around RSSI.
While higher education is a dynamic space for interfaith work, involvement has frequently been incidental rather than intentional, and there is often a lack of institutional buy-in. This casual interest can be widespread among campus professionals, both religious and nonreligious, but it is particularly prominent with higher education administrators. From presidents to provosts, those able to influence campus climate from within are hesitant to engage the topic of RSSI, leaving such work to the students themselves or containing it in the often-siloed area of campus chaplaincy, thus removing it from everyday campus concerns.
This hands-off approach has left higher education more barren than one might expect when it comes to RSSI. Few universities are actively advocating for their campuses to integrate these identities into their larger mission and vision and those that are often lack the institutional policies and practices that demonstrate a firm commitment. This is where Convergence on Campus joins the discussion.
Bringing the Campus Together
Convergence is the first higher-education-based organization for religious, secular, and spiritual identities that focuses exclusively on embedding inclusive policies regarding these identities within instructional structures themselves. It works directly with professionals in both religious and nonreligious settings, particularly those in higher education positions.
Our mission is to enhance campus climates for religious, secular, and spiritual identities through policy and practice. We aim to ground a movement amongst professionals, creating holistic and practical shifts on campuses across North America that will support and enhance the work students are already doing.
Altering campus climates through policy and practice might not seem like the sexiest approach to changing campus climate, particularly when compared to the emotionally evocative work of interfaith dialogue and relationship building, but both kinds of work are necessary and, in fact, interdependent. Focusing solely on dialogue can be problematic because many of these conversations are restricted to small groups or once-a-year events; they involve only those whose interests and schedules allow for participation. Students interested in simply practicing or exploring their beliefs are left without support because these dialogues do not serve as a marker of their campus’s commitment to them.
Creating physical spaces for meditation, prayer, reflection, and gatherings is an important and perhaps obvious marker. Yet, it can be an empty gesture if not accompanied by congruent practices that reflect the needs of the campus population: Are Muslim students being asked to pray in a room with paintings of religious figures? Do Jewish students feel worried about asking for too many days off during the High Holidays? Are classes and exams scheduled on Sunday mornings when Christian students plan to be in church? Are dining facilities equipped to serve the needs of vegetarian Buddhist students? Are there sufficient staff members within the campus chaplaincy to serve the Secular Humanist population?
Campus professionals need to be better equipped to assist students and enact policies that are tangible, measurable, and replicable. Much in the way that women’s or LGBTQIA centers have become essential elements of campus life, creating structures to support RSSI on campus is one of the clearest markers of institutional commitment to programs and resources for students.
Chaplaincy and religious life offices provide many valuable resources, but they are often left out of discussions about core areas of work taking place within student affairs. The integration of religious life with these offices is necessary, as well as the creation of these offices on hundreds of public university campuses. Many professionals feel unsure of where to begin, lack the tools or relationships to start the essential conversations. Convergence offers on-site consultations for campus professionals to analyze their needs and help shape a plan of action for the implementation of new policy. By bringing key professionals together, Convergence equips them with a shared language and framework for their work. It will also be offering regional trainings so professionals from multiple campuses can create cohorts and further share resources and information.
When campuses give students the space, time, and opportunity to practice their traditions, they demonstrate a commitment not only to specific students and groups but to the entire campus. Policies and practices affect culture in a way single events cannot: when students have safe spaces to express their identity and be curious about others, engagement increases. This engagement initiates organic and grounded calls for positive growth, starting on the campus level and spreading to society as a whole.
Convergence aims to be part of a movement that drives entire campuses – and, through this, society itself – forward, institutionalizing the support of religious, secular, and spiritual students by all professionals in higher education. True to the origins of the word, Convergence measures success through practices and policies enacted by a unified campus, which is precisely what lets a diverse multitude of voices be heard. This is Convergence, bringing campuses together for everyone.
Header Photo: Public Domain Pictures