Cultivating cooperation

Despite any theological disagreements that GW’s religious communities may harbor, they all agree on one thing: they should get together more often.

The various religious communities do not interact with one another as much as they would like for many reasons. Therese Bermpohl, director of Newman Catholic Student Center, said she thinks the religious groups on campus are so preoccupied with satisfying the needs of their own ministries that they are often left with little time for inter-religious cooperation. “It’s not that the desire is not there,” she said.

Chief among the objectives of such cooperation is an increase in religious understanding, appreciation and tolerance. Most groups find that working with other religious communities will help break inaccurate and preconceived notions students may have about religions with which they are unfamiliar.

“We try to get a lot of non-Muslims to come to our events,” said senior Ambareen Jan, president of the Muslim Student Association. “Not because we’re trying to convert anyone, just to raise awareness and tolerance and to really portray what Islam is truly about.”

Other religious communities are also challenged with confronting stereotypes.

“(People) think Hinduism is just some mythological religion that is practiced in India and in Indiana Jones movies,” said junior Omkar Kulkarni, president of Satyam, the Hindu student organization, which aims to raise awareness and provide education about their religion. “It’s just as 21st century as any other religion. A lot of the roots and symbolism is similar to ones in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. They even have the same historical context.”

Still, broadening one’s horizons by taking advantage of GW’s diverse religious communities is the individual’s responsibility, said senior Samuel Cutler, president of the Jewish Student Association.

Rohit Mathur, a Hindu sophomore, said students often fail to do so. “At the (Satyam) meeting I went to, there were only Hindu kids,” he said.

Ironically, Satyam is one of the religious communities that works to solicit non-Hindus in their organization and events.

“A lot of (Satyam members) are religion majors who are interested in Hinduism. A lot of them are friends of Hindus who come for support during our fasts or are just interested in Hinduism,” Kulkarni said.

But not all inter-religious events on campus are commonly conceived as religious. Even popular dance events such as Raas Chaos can fall under this category.

“Raas has a lot of Hindu significance,” Kulkarni said. “Raas is dedicated to the Lord Krishna. According to mythology, he loved to dance and had people, usually girls, dance around him. In the dance, the dance moves portray Krishna dancing and the girls. There are a lot of people who don’t know that there is religious significance to these events.”

Other religious groups hold cultural activities to bring together students of different faiths.

“For the past three years (there has been) an Iftar, (the Arabic name for the meal with which Muslims break their fast), to bridge the gaps between the Muslim Student Association and the Jewish Student Association,” said Cutler. “(In an Iftar,) we just sit down and have a meal together. We have a conversation and that creates a dialogue between the two faiths.”

A representative of both religions spoke about fasting in their respective faiths.

“We had Halal and Kosher foods,” Jan said. “We went over specific rituals in the Jewish and Muslim traditions that deal with fasting. For example, when they break bread when they fast, they say a certain prayer, so we went over that certain prayer.”

The Jewish Student Association then shared their traditions.

“This created a dialogue during last semester and the beginning of this semester, and an initiative started to voice student options (regarding the Kosher and Halal situation),” Cutler said.

“We’re trying to establish a system where people can propose a meal plan and can go to the Marvin Center and eat Halal and Kosher,” Jan said.

In its attempts to reach out to a larger inter-religious audience, the Muslim Student Association discovered that laughter can transcend religious communities.

The Muslim comedian Azhar Usman has a reputation for bringing together people of many backgrounds. At his GW performance, the largest number of non-Muslim students attended than at any other Muslim Student Association event held this year, Jan said.

Last year’s fastathon was even more popular among non-Muslims.

“Every year we have a fastathon where people in the community pledge to fast, and businesses will pay us $1 (for every person that pledges). That (money) will go towards a charity. Then, they break their fast with us in the Grand Ballroom. Last year there were 200 people, most of them were non-Muslims so that they could experience fasting with us,” Jan said.

The Newman Center has found that food attracts non-Catholic students to their meetings. “(At) our Tuesday dinners, everyone’s invited,” Bermpohl said. “It’s good for the campus to get the religious communities together.”

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