At the beginning of every calendar year, students at the University of Indianapolis have the opportunity to apply to be an interfaith scholar. The program is one of the ministries of the Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Programs and is overseen by Associate Chaplain Arionne Williams, who designs the program, recruits students and faculty mentors and works closely with the group. Students who participate in the program receive a $500 stipend and can attend events and retreats focused on interfaith.
According to Williams, interfaith is a movement focused on bringing people of different religious, non-religious and philosophical backgrounds together. Interfaith scholars have an interest in that mission.
“The interfaith scholar here at UIndy is a student who has been selected amongst a group of their peers to participate in a program that really is about leadership development for those interested in interfaith work,” she said. “So really the program is focused on developing students as interfaith leaders, because you have a lot of people who are interested in interfaith work…. They’re interested in learning about a variety of faith traditions and passionate—and our current interfaith scholars certainly are that. They want to see a world where people from all different faith traditions and non-faith and philosophical traditions can get along and hear each other and live together peaceably, learn how to have dialogue.”
Williams said that the interfaith scholars program is a way for the EIP office to go above and beyond simply accommodating other religious groups by creating opportunities for conversation.
“One of the things … in our office, EIP, it’s part of our mission to … have to sort of set the standard in terms of being accommodating for all religious groups,” Williams said. “But it’s not enough, I don’t think, to just sort of accommodate, but we have to also be leaders in terms of creating opportunities for dialogue amongst people from different religious groups.”
According to Willams, the program is also a response to two parts of the university’s mission statement. The first is “to prepare its graduates for effective, responsible and articulate membership in the complex societies in which they live and serve.”
“So first of all, in order for any of us to be able to produce students or graduates that are able to really function well in a very complex society, there has to be exposure to people who are different than you, some respect and some appreciation for those that are different than you,” Williams said.
The second piece of the mission statement that the program responds to is “to gain a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Christian faith and an appreciation and respect for other religions.”
“Why we do it [the interfaith scholar program] is because we feel like that’s our response to the university’s mission. It’s our responsibility,” she said. “We could just host the events ourselves … but it doesn’t help our students to really begin to take leadership with some of that because what can they do when they leave here if we just did all of that ourselves?”
One of the current interfaith scholars is sophomore human biology major Auy Rueangnopphasit, who is in her second year of the program. She was invited to join by former Associate Chaplain Lang Brownlee, who was leading the program at the time. She decided to join because of previous experiences she had with interfaith.
“I came from a Buddhist perspective, and I went to a Christian school back in Thailand, so I kind of have those experiences of interfaith since back then,” she said. “I think it would be cool if my experience can be something that can be an example for others.”
Within the program, the interfaith scholars attend events pertaining to different religions and how to promote discussion and understanding. They also work together to create three interfaith events for the campus per semester. This year’s group also has worked on putting together a registered student organization. Better Together received approval to be an RSO in April and will begin putting on interfaith events in the 2017-2018 school year. Williams and Rueangnopphasit encourage all students to attend. They said that the RSO is not just for interfaith scholars to be involved in. Attending and planning the events is open to all students.
Of all the events the interfaith scholars have hosted thus far, Rueangnopphasit said that the winter festival was her favorite.
“I liked the winter festival. When we think about winter holidays, we only think of Christmas and like winter things,” she said. “But [at] winter festival, we talked more [about] other faiths and other beliefs too, like what happened [during] that time [in] their traditions or their religions. People came to talk about their festival or holiday, not just Christians.”
In addition to the winter festival, the interfaith scholars also hosted a 9/11 peace vigil and a fast-a-thon, to help students learn more about the practice of fasting in various faiths. The scholars also went on a retreat to learn more about Islam, according to Williams.
“The main thing is [that] they participate in some, what I would call, leadership development activities. But it is really about exposing them to various religious and interfaith leaders in the city [and] some outside,” Williams said. “So they’ll go to conferences. They’ll go to lectures and hear various speakers that talk about different interfaith issues—specifically dialogue, cooperation, service, etc.—but also who just talk about their tradition.”
Williams said that she tailors the program each year to meet the needs and interests of the group of interfaith scholars. Her primary role is not only to work with them but also to help create an experience that will be meaningful for them.
“My role is to create an experience for them in the Interfaith Scholars Program that is enlightening. The idea is to create the experience and to be adaptable … to make it meaningful for them….” she said. “My role is to also just ensure that they have a quality experience, that we’re not just slapping stuff together but [that] it’s something that makes a difference for them. And in that way, hopefully, what we do also helps other groups … feel more comfortable on campus because of the conversations we’re creating.”
While the application process will not open until January of 2018, Williams encourages any student interested in becoming an interfaith scholar to begin attending the events put on by the interfaith scholars and the Better Together RSO. She also said that interested students can email her or stop by her office with any questions they may have or to find out more about the program.
For Rueangnopphasit, one of the most meaningful parts of participating in the Interfaith Scholar Program is the hope that seeing friendships form despite different religious beliefs.
“I hope a group like us will spread more about this information,” she said, “that even though we came from different religious backgrounds, we can still come to talk together … can still be able to be friends.”