Reflecting on Faith and Religion

Over Spring Break, the Office of Religious Life held its annual New York Seminar trip. Every year the program seeks to raise awareness about issues the nation is facing and their pertinence to faith and religious tradition. In the past, themes have included immigration policy, education disparity and healthcare. This year the focus was “Sacred Sites on the Margins of NYC,” and the Emory group traveled to neighborhoods around New York City to explore religious traditions and gain a new perspective on faith.

The program this year had 25 Emory attendees, including faculty, Inter-Religious Council members, theology students and alumni. Although New York City is a tourist hotspot, the group strayed away from popular attractions and instead explored a different side of NY, one that most people don’t see beyond the surface.

Among the items in the agenda were trips to religious sites including a Sikh Gurdwarda, a Ganesh Hindu Temple, a United Methodist Church and the Jewish Institute of Religion Gallery. The group also made special visits to marginalized communities in the Bronx, and spoke to health professionals at the South Bronx Health Center and Bronx Psychiatric Center.

At each site, students were informed on the basics of a practice, and then guided through the site and roundtable discussion. At the end, a dedicated leader of the community would share his/her history in NYC and a personal story of faith. These visits encouraged interreligious dialogue by giving students new insight into religious practice and one’s experience within it. After each visit, the group was curiously asking questions and later engaging in their own conversations about the issues raised at hand.

What was beautiful about the communities was how each found a way to integrate faith into urban lifestyle without compromising parts of their identity. You can be a forensic psychiatrist in the Bronx, for example, and incorporate prayer into your practice. Better yet, an ambitious middle school student by day and full practicing Sikh by night. Although the urban lifestyle can seem intimidating, listening to one’s religious journey certainty made NYC feel warmer.

Each minority group had a reoccurring theme that resonated with the Emory group, such as hospitality, love, hope or just plain respect. Striking to most students was how similar the struggles of each of these minority sites were. At the United Methodist Church, the group discussed how clergy should ‘market’ religion to make it more appealing to the youth. At the mosque, they discussed how to portray religion in a good light and combat stereotypes. And similarly at the Jewish institute, how to ensure equality and maintain sacred religious tradition. These are questions not specific to one group but important for every person to consider regardless of their religious beliefs. From Canal to Broadway Street, students were intrigued by these communities and inspired by their pride.

The trip ended with a visit to the 9/11 memorial and a reflection at the Park 51 Community Center, otherwise dubbed “ground zero mosque.” The group considered a-day-in-the-life scenarios and gained a new perspective on sensitive issues by listening to leaders of the respective communities.

Although time was limited in New York, the trip shed light on our own precious hometowns and how we can make the most of what we have while we can. For Emory students, we need not look further than the mini communities of our own campus and what insight we can glean by having similar discussions. Appreciating diversity is one act, but challenging it through a trip like this is a whole different experience. We hope to pass on these reflections and encourage students to ask questions, discuss struggle, discover their own themes and ultimately balance the interconnected identifies we have as college students. For a campus that never sleeps, it seems more than fitting.

Sahar Rahim is a College junior from Cumming, Ga