The new Emory Interfaith Center, located in a renovated house at 1707 North Decatur Road, held a celebration on Oct. 21 to commemorate the grand opening of the center, which is meant to create a gathering place for Emory’s diverse spiritual communities.
Emory University President Gregory Fenves, Dean of Religious Life Rev. Gregory McGonigle, Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL) chaplains and students involved in OSRL gave brief remarks at the program.
OSRL manages the Emory Interfaith Center, which features a student lounge, library, shrine room, prayer/lecture room, meditation room and conference room.
McGonigle, who is also the university chaplain, kicked off the ceremony by welcoming a crowd of approximately 170 attendees on the lawn outside of the center.
“This day opens a new chapter in the history of Emory University, a chapter in our religious diversity, in our interfaith work, that builds on decades of efforts, but that now has a center and a home where we say we are committed to this,” McGonigle said.
The center was first envisioned 25 years ago with the goal of promoting dialogue and planting seeds of peace and social justice that can grow at Emory and spread around the world, Fenves said. McGonigle shared a similar belief.
“If we build understanding and interfaith friendships here, then it gives me hope that we can do that as a country and as a wider world,” McGonigle said.
Dean of Religious Life Emerita Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe (76T) echoed Fenves’ sentiments and shared that one of the center’s original goals was to “meet the global moment.”
“I cannot imagine a more important week than this week for this center to be opened,” Henry-Crowe said. “The need has never been greater for this kind of center, and globalization is bringing the world’s religions together so that religion can, in fact, help bring about peace when we know that politics is not working so well.”
Christian Chaplain Rev. Maddie Henderson Herlong subsequently discussed the interfaith center’s unique role in higher education.
“It shows Emory’s commitment to supporting a pluralistic campus culture,” Herlong said. “To see it come to fruition and see students already learning together, supporting each other, studying and so much more in this space shows that spiritual life and religious life at Emory will be active for decades to come.”
Hindu Chaplain Brahmacharini Shweta Chaitanya noted that the new center has custom altars that both Emory’s Hindu and Buddhist communities can access all year, which she said is “imperative” for religious holidays. Chaitanya added that the altars can serve as teaching tools for religious traditions.
While the University boasts long-standing faith communities, Sikh and Jain communities in particular are historically underrepresented at Emory, according to Chaitanya. She added that Sikh and Jain students are “eager to finally have a space for worship and gathering.”
“Our Sikh and Jain communities offered us incredible insights into what they would like to see in the center,” Chaitanya said. “The beautiful Jain altar and Sikh cabinet … are products of their incredible advocacy and support.”
Student spiritual leaders from the Muscogee Nation, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Buddhist traditions emphasized the importance of viewing the center as a place of peace, compassion and dialogue.
“My prayer for this building is that it is a place of peace, regardless of where you come from, that people are able to leave everything outside and come inside with a new understanding,” Deven Allen (26C), the representative for the Christian tradition, said.
At the end of the opening program, Buddhist Chaplain Venerable Priya Rakkhit Sraman spread soil around the doorway of the center. The container of soil has been preserved for several years and was blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama during one of his visits to teach on campus as a presidential distinguished professor at Emory. The Dalai Lama intended for the soil to be spread at the site of a new Emory Interfaith Center, according to Sraman.
“At that time, it was yet to be established,” Sraman said. “Now, over a decade later, we can together fulfill this intention of His Holiness to spread this earth here as a blessing to symbolize our interfaith interdependence.”
OSRL Chief of Staff Zachary Cole commended student initiative and collaboration in fostering interfaith understanding. He cited the Welcoming Interfaith and Spiritual Exploration pre-orientation program as an example, explaining that two students led the initiative to form the program.
“We really try to listen to students and other offices to see what kind of ideas they have and what they want to plan,” Cole said.
Likewise, McGonigle told the Wheel that he believes the celebration was a success, adding that he was excited to see what the future holds for the center.
“This celebration has really shown what a beautiful interdependent community we have here at Emory that is just full of spirituality, compassion and desire for peace in the world,” McGonigle said. “We just hope that all students, faculty and staff feel like they’re welcome here, and that they come here often and join us on this journey that we’re on.”
Lauren Yee (she/her, 25Ox) is from Hong Kong and plans on majoring in philosophy and religion. In her free time, you can find her playing the alto saxophone, watching musicals or drinking an iced oat milk latte.