Across Religious Differences: Interfaith Expression Thrives in Chapman

One by one, visitors enter the peaceful, sky-lit chapel of Chapman University’s Fish Interfaith Center. Some arrive to worship, some in search of a quiet space, and some in search of answers.

Rabbi Corie Yutkin, director of Jewish life and Chapman’s chaplain, remembers a student who entered the chapel looking for Chapman. Although the student identified as Jewish, she struggled to find a connection to her faith. Yutkin recalls advising the student for a while before granting her a moment to herself.

When Yutkin returned to see her, she was stopped short when she saw the student engaged in conversation with Shaykh Jibreel Speight, director of Muslim life and Chapman’s chaplain. The conversation with Speight was so impactful that the student later in the week felt compelled to bring her father to the center to meet with Speight.

For Yutkin, this experience encapsulates the essence of the Fish Interfaith Center.

“It doesn’t matter what religious tradition you identify with. When you walk through those doors, there will always be someone to listen to you with unconditional love and support,” says Yutkin.

“That’s what interfaith expression is – celebrating shared commonalities in religious or non-religious practices and appreciating differences, all under one roof.”

A neglected element of DEI work

Creating spaces on campus that actively engage religious diversity is, according to Speight, a central, though often overlooked, component of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work.

“When people talk about DEI, I rarely hear about religion. I hear about gender. I hear about race. I hear about age and physical ability, but I don’t often hear about religion.

But embracing a diversity of spiritual and religious practices is essential to being sensitive and respectful of the diverse identities that make up the university, according to Speight and Yutkin.

Chapman students celebrate Hanukkah with a menorah lighting ceremony held at the Fish Interfaith Center.

“I don’t live in a Jewish world. I live in a predominantly Christian world,” Yutkin says. “So to help others be sensitive to issues that may arise for me or for students of different faiths, it’s important to have a place like Fish that crosses borders and works to ensure that the university has things like kosher food options available or can support students during the month of Ramadan.

Speight adds, “Genuine recognition and respect for people who try to adhere to their religious and moral values ​​is essential. Students should be given the opportunity to express their faith without fear of being judged or ridiculed for their beliefs.

Members of the Chapman Muslim Student Association gather for Iftar, the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast.
Members of the Chapman Muslim Student Association gather for Iftar, the meal served at the end of the day during Ramadan, to break the day’s fast.

Fearless Journeys of Faith

Anais Padilla ’23, who serves as president of the Chapman Interfaith Council, has experienced first-hand the kind of freedom of religious expression that Speight refers to. Although she was raised Catholic, when Padilla arrived at college, she found herself struggling with her faith. “I couldn’t reconnect with a lot of religious practices and values ​​that I grew up with,” Padilla says. Frustrated, she ends up confiding in her friends and colleagues at Fish about her spiritual battle. “They told me that it was okay to question my faith and that I should question it in order to learn more about religion and about myself,” she says.

While Padilla’s spiritual journey ultimately led her away from Catholicism, it sparked in her a stronger sense of spirituality and a deeper appreciation for interfaith work.

“Ultimately, I concluded that I’m happier being more spiritual than religious,” says Padilla. “I learned to see beauty in all religions and in interreligious dialogue. What I believe now is that there is one God and all religions worship this God in their own way.

Wherever students are on their spiritual journey, Chapman’s interfaith community provides a safe space to seek spiritual grounding in the face of challenges.

Ash Wednesday Mass at the Fish Interfaith Center
The Newman Catholic Club of Chapman held Ash Wednesday Mass to mark the start of the Lenten season.

As a transfer student from the Midwest, Reagan Cisar ’24, who engages in Dharma practice and is president of Chapman’s Inner Peace group, recalls struggling with feelings of loneliness and anxiety at the start of her journey. at Chapman.

“I didn’t meet my best friend in the first week of class like you’d expect,” Cisar said. “Being able to visit the Interfaith Center has allowed me to foster better relationships and overcome my anxieties.”

These types of external pressures are common among college students, according to Speight.

“We are constantly bombarded with so much information, and students need to be able to tune out the noise. Having a place like Fish gives students the opportunity to do just that – channel the noise, maybe even mute it for a while so they can try to make sense of it, then get back to work. .

Cizar agrees. She says her journey into practicing Dharma and mindfulness has been fueled by a desire to make sense of a world that is so often messy.

“As a student of political science, I learn all day about horrible things happening in the world. Being able to ground myself in spiritual practice allows me to see these realities and be okay. To coexist with them.

Strengthening cultural and community ties

For other students, religion and culture go hand in hand. Psychology major Riya Mody ’22, who identifies as a Hindu, says religion helps her stay connected to her Indian culture.

She recalls her first semester at Chapman when an on-campus Diwali celebration honoring Hindu tradition helped plant the seeds for the start of what would become Chapman’s first South Asian Student Association (SASA).

“While I would normally have celebrated Diwali at home with my family, for the first time I had the chance to meet students who also identified as South Asian and celebrate Diwali with them,” says Mody. . “Fish was really a big part of me, I felt like I had a place here, and that’s how we were inspired to start SASA.”

SASA members celebrate Diwali at the Fish Interfaith Center.
SASA members celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, at the Fish Interfaith Center.

And while Hinduism is the religion practiced by some members of the group, Mody points out that the group is not defined by a single religion.

“We are united by our South Asian identity and celebrate all religions and practices that are part of the South Asian community – Ramadan, Holi, Diwali, we celebrate it all.”

She also rejoices when members of the campus community show up to celebrate with them. “Faith is such a personal thing for people,” she says. “When we share it, it’s to help others better understand who we are, so it’s always encouraging to see allies show up to support events like our Diwali celebration.”

This gracious embrace for all is what keeps students like Mody and Cisar, among many others, coming back to the center.

“That’s what makes Chapman’s interfaith community so amazing,” Cisar says. “You have all these different people practicing different religions. But, at the end of the day, we are all so similar. We all aspire to the same thing. We just have different ways to get there.