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Spiritual Life strategic plan identifies three goals to make Emory more deeply interfaith
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Incoming students and peer mentors visited Kim Cang Buddhist Monastery as part of the 2022 WISE (Welcoming Interfaith and Spiritual Exploration) Pre-Orientation program.

What is the relationship between Emory’s Methodist heritage and its diverse religious life today? How much do faculty, staff and student leaders know about the spiritual lives and needs of those they teach and learn with? And how can interfaith engagement become a bridge between the university and the city of Atlanta, where faith communities have played a pivotal role in historic movements for social justice?

These questions and more bubbled up during an 18-month process of discussion and research that engaged over 150 students, faculty, staff and alumni with the goal of developing a five-year interfaith strategic plan for religious life. Emory is among the first U.S. research universities to undertake such a comprehensive interfaith strategic planning process. 

Led by the Emory University Office of Spiritual and Religious Life, the executive summary findings were welcomed at the highest leadership level. 

“Emory is home to communities with a wide range of religious and spiritual beliefs,” says Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “It is vital that each individual feel supported in practicing their tradition while building understanding and learning from those with different beliefs. We have so much to gain by sharing with one another, and this planning process is an important step towards that goal.”  

Led by the Chicago-based nonprofit Interfaith America, the leading national consultants on higher education interfaith work, the Emory community identified three interfaith strategic goals:

  1. Create an environment where people of all religious, spiritual and philosophical identities are welcomed, supported and feel they belong.
  2. Build confidence and skills among students, faculty and staff so they can engage religious diversity in a positive and meaningful way.
  3. Unite around a shared vision for interfaith engagement that connects Emory’s Methodist heritage and its diverse multifaith reality today. 

Three students of different faith traditions who were involved in the process described in personal ways why these strategic goals matter.  

Deepening faith, diversifying friendships 

For Ema Perez 23C, a neuroscience and literature double major from Winter Haven, Florida, exploring faiths at Emory has enriched her Christian beliefs and her Emory experience. Like other students who took part in the interfaith strategic planning process, she hopes that more and future Emory students will have similar opportunities to her own. 

Ema Perez 23C (middle) poses for a photo with Inter-Religious Council advisors and alumni at Al-Farooq Masjid in Atlanta as a part of the 2021 WISE Pre-Orientation program.

Perez entered Emory having met few people of other faiths, which changed when she joined the Inter-Religious Council (IRC). Now, interfaith activities have become her “intense extracurricular,” giving her unexpected friendships and important new interpersonal skills. 

“There's so much value in being comfortable in a conversation with someone who has a different belief,” says Perez, a member of the Christian student organization InterVarsity. “It’s knowing how to hold a belief, gracefully and not being dogmatic or inflammatory — you're learning about each other. In politics and other spaces, it’s when you communicate effectively with someone who's on the opposite side of an issue. Emory is a really special and powerful place if we can have these conversations.”   

Shying away from or refusing dialogues like this can be dangerous, she believes. “To have only grown up around people who are just like you, and never put yourself in a different environment — not just with your spiritual identity, but with your other identities — makes you much more susceptible to holding a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes,” she adds.  

An engine for social justice and service

Rishab Bhatt 23C, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major from Plainsboro, New Jersey, chose Emory for its premed track and commitment to multiculturalism. He joined the Hindu Students Association and is now co-president, and just as he anticipated, Emory offered opportunities for religious observances like Navaratri that are important to him. 

Rishab Bhatt 23C (right) spoke at the Navaratri Celebration in September 2022.

But beyond his own faith community, Bhatt has engaged in multiple Emory interfaith programs such as the IRC, the Faith in the Vaccine Project and the WISE Interfaith Pre-orientation program, and has made meaningful connections to other faiths that have deepened his own. 

“What's really amazing is how many times we realize values and principles that we all share, that end up being a uniting factor for all of us,” Bhatt says. “We share the importance of seeking and staying dedicated to our faith, especially when things are trying, and drawing wisdom from that.” 

This engine of interfaith learning makes him hopeful about the strategic plan’s goals.  

“I’ve found we are all very committed to social justice issues, and service is critical to all of us, improving our communities. A huge part of what we do is to talk about what's going on in the world, and how we can use faith to unite people and create more equality.”

Listening and learning to respect

Karyn Lisker 24C, a psychology and music major from St. Louis, Missouri, aims to “show up every day as a Jewish person” at Emory. She joined Hillel and Chabad and took part in the strategic plan through the Jewish Life Working Group, because “when you're in a supportive community, you can feel comfortable to be who you are,” she says. 

Karyn Lisker 24C addressed the Emory Chanukah celebration in 2021, which was sponsored by OSRL in conjunction with the Bayit, Chabad, Hillel and Meor.

She expressed gratitude for how the interfaith strategic planning process has surfaced some ways that Emory could become more inclusive, such as through the new university Religious Accommodation Policy, which was a need identified by the working group. Other goals identified in the planning process, such as added religious literacy education, will also further the goal of a more inclusive community.

“As we find ways to educate our different communities, we are coming together on what values we all hold similarly, and just as important, we learn about our differences,” she says. “I think that this fits in an educational setting. Just like in any class, I would hope that people at Emory could at the very least listen and learn to respect each other’s values and their personal stories.”

Hope fuels our better angels

As senior director of the Emory Center for Civic and Community Engagement, James Roland builds bridges between people at Emory and metro Atlanta. His foundation in this work rests on his family’s many generations of Pentecostal ministers who demonstrated what love looks like in action. 

As a member of the 18-member steering committee of the interfaith strategic plan, he emphasized how more and stronger interfaith connections will benefit Emory and communities in Atlanta. Implicit in such relationships and shared action is the idea of building communities of hope.

“If people lose hope, it’s really hard to accomplish anything,” Roland says, referencing a conversation with the late civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. “No matter what tradition you come from, we all hope for a good today and a better tomorrow. For many, one’s faith provides hope and serves as a reminder that there’s something bigger than you. It can give you a strong moral compass that I think is important to navigating the terrain of life and being human. Hope is essential to helping us get to a solution between our differences.”

Higher education, he believes, is a social institution with the potential and capacity to bring together people of different faiths — including no faith — to find common ground and respect. The inclusive process of the strategic plan, which involved the steering committee, interviews, working groups, listening sessions and surveys, itself put this engagement into action, he said. 

“It included the board and the highest parts of university leadership, all the way to various students, faculty and staff members,” he says. “The collaborative nature of the process made a lot of space for suggestions and a willingness to wrestle with ideas, to share in a way that was not judgmental, but supportive and inclusive and respectful of everyone. When we all support, listen and learn from each other, we are our better angels.” 

Getting to a new place

A new home for mobilizing the goals of the strategic plan as well as its priorities and recommendations will be the Emory Interfaith Center, which is expected to open by Fall Semester 2023, and which recently launched a new website. Concurrent with the strategic planning process, Bhatt and other students and stakeholders were invited to advise the architects on designing its sacred spaces.

The Interfaith Center, shown here in artist renderings, is scheduled to open in fall 2023.

“We’re creating an environment where people of all religious, spiritual and philosophical identities are welcomed,” Bhatt said. “Certainly Emory is very inclusive, but I think the interfaith center is going to offer an opportunity to enhance and really bolster that.” 

The center will be an important symbol of the goals of the strategic plan, building on Emory’s religious heritage — and the university’s interfaith engagement over the past 30 years — to make dynamic space for what is most important now and in the years to come.  

“This process was really about reaching out to the Emory community and getting people talking with one another,” says the Rev. Gregory W. McGonigle, dean of religious life and university chaplain. “It was important that it be broadly inclusive and that it give everyone a chance to identify shared goals. We want to be led by the community’s shared priorities for deepening our spiritual and interfaith work.” 

McGonigle, who joined Emory in 2019, was recruited to help advance the university’s multifaith engagement through enhanced staffing, spaces and programs. As dean, he has hired staff of multiple faith traditions to help serve Emory’s diverse campus, led the design of the Emory Interfaith Center, and championed new programming such as the WISE pre-orientation.

“Emory has a deep foundation in spirituality and values, and today we are a microcosm of our spiritually diverse world,” he says. “We can therefore be an incubator for the ways that people of all worldviews can grow in our deepest commitments and learn to inspire each other.”

McGonigle expresses gratitude to the strategic plan co-chair Vice Provost Carol Henderson and to all those who contributed to the process. “We are so grateful to all who participated in this process of creating a shared vision, and I believe if we engage these recommendations, we will have profound opportunities to learn from and with one another,” he says. “I know that we will both advance on our own paths and enrich the journeys of one another.”

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