October 06, 2004

Faith Week promotes diversity, tolerance

by Paula M. Davenport

CARBONDALE, Ill. - - Forget the fire and brimstone. And don't even think about reviving redemptive sackcloth. That's sooooo Middle Ages.

When today's college kids talk about their spirituality, they're more likely to espouse tolerance, acceptance, and diversity - - while listening to upbeat, religious rock.

That's evident during Southern Illinois University Carbondale's first-ever Faith Week, which continues through Friday, Oct. 8.

During opening day on Monday, students from some of the 26 faith-based registered student organizations set up displays in the Student Center on their respective religious groups.

Think of it as a sort of theological trade show. Methodists, Baptists, Pagans, Muslims, Jews, members of the Church of Christ of the Latter Days Saints and representatives of many other faiths, mostly Christian, were all there. Each booth let visitors explore varied religious items, such as The Holy Qur'an, prayer beads, crystals and religious writings, and to ask questions about various spiritual practices, beliefs and upcoming student-oriented social events.

Teresa Garrison, a sophomore in music business, greeted visitors to the bright red Church of Christ booth. Sprinkled among its free candies were signs to "Balance faith and university life," and to "Serve the Lord while you earn your degree" alongside listings for the local church's Sunday worship services and its college singles class.

With a wide smile, Garrison warmly welcomed visitors to a free, upcoming ice cream social and to special devotional services on campus every morning this week.

This Faith Fair, she and others said, provided a forum for mature religious expression - - without arguments or being perceived as weirdoes.

Muslim Anaz Kolabpah, a native of India pursing a doctoral degree in environmental resources and policy here, sat quietly across the room and talked openly about his faith, which has been sullied by some self-avowed practitioners in deadly Iraqi uprisings.

He would like Americans to understand these zealots raise religion as a shield to mask longstanding political, territorial and other hurtful conflicts. In actuality - - despite what Americans may have heard - - Muslims and Christians "worship the same God," he says. "Allah is Arabic for God and appears jointly in the earliest writings of both Arab Jews and Arab Christians." And the religious similarities don't stop there, he added.

"We also believe in the Virgin birth (by Mary, Christ's mother). We believe Christ was a prophet whose words were sacred and appropriate in his time. And we believe in most of the Biblical prophets, like Moses and John the Baptist," he said, a white Kufi prayer cap covering his dark hair.

Throughout the week, students have the opportunity to learn as much as possible about every religion in the rainbow.

Among the scheduled events are worship services at the Wesley Foundation and the Temple Beth Jacob; brown bag lunch discussions on such topics as science and Christianity; screenings and discussions of pop films with possible spiritual underpinnings, including 'The Matrix" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"; and a free, progressive Friday night dinner offering appetizers with the Mormons, entrees with the Presbyterians, desserts with the Pagans and coffee at Uncle Andy's (Christian) Coffeehouse.

Exhibitors at the Faith Fair were pleased the University welcomed this inaugural Faith Week.

"I think it's a great idea," said Minta Elsman, a senior majoring in linguistics and Spanish and the public relations officer of the Collegiate Association of Pagan Students.

"It's great to encourage interfaith dialogue. Many students are looking for community and don't know what's out there. Yeah, diversity!" she said. Matt DeBackere joined a couple of other guys at the Baptist Collegiate Ministries display. A senior from Springfield, Ill., DeBackere transferred from the University's Edwardsville campus to study film production at Carbondale. Now in his 20s, he said he decided to follow his faith in eighth grade and has done so ever since.

"I had a lot of role models (from whom) I learned what it is to be a Christian and to live that in my life. I've been able to maintain my faith and the Baptist student group gives me great support and camaraderie," he said. "Obviously we don't throw keggers," he said, laughing. "But we all get together and hang out, we go for pizza, go to the movies, cook and hang out at each others houses. We're really close and we have a lot of fun."

Embracing diversity is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.