If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I was ridiculously involved with the Episcopal Church community when I was in high school. I went to seven Happenings, was Rector of Happening 63, a member of the Happening Steering Committee, I was on the Youth Commission, I went to every single Reunion, I was heavily involved with EYC at my church, I was a member of my church choir, and I was at Camp Mikell for multiple weeks every summer since 2006. Diocesan kickball tournament? I was there, every year. Tubing trip? You bet. I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself if I hadn’t been surrounded by Episcopalians my age at least once a week.
Flash forward a few years, and I’m a sophomore at Emory now. I’m still highly involved in Episcopal life – I’m in a church choir, attend church every Sunday, and I was on the Planning Team for the recent Campus Ministries retreat. And I’m very involved with the Emory Canterbury Club, but there’s a catch to that one. I am currently the only undergraduate member of Canterbury.
Now, that’s not to say that Emory Canterbury doesn’t exist. Two incredible graduate students, plus our wonderful chaplain, meet with me once a week at various restaurants around Emory to eat and chat about theology and the church today. The graduate student program which also meets separately once a week is healthy and even growing. And we also have programming, believe it or not – successful programming, at that. We’ve been hosting, in partnership with Fearless Dialogues, an event called the Round Table every month where we discuss the deep questions of life. Our most successful event had around 70 people attend, and I’m really proud of that.
But being the only undergraduate member of Canterbury has definitely not been ideal. It’s been really alienating to not be able to talk with other people about my faith very often. I look at my friends who call their 10- or 15-person clubs “super small,” and then I look at my little club and can’t help but feel like I’m doing something wrong, like maybe if I had sent out one more email or talked to that uninterested student one more time, Emory Canterbury would somehow magically be successful. It is, in a word, incredibly frustrating.
So this year, when I got an email telling me that I had been nominated to be the Episcopal representative on Emory’s Inter-Religious Council, I had to laugh a little. Of course I had been nominated. Who else was there to be on the council? I was excited, sure, but pretty apprehensive when I showed up to the first IRC meeting. I was already used to being the only Christian among my friends, to being asked over and over “Why do you have to wear that cross every day?” and “Wow, you’re really into that Jesus stuff, aren’t you?” I was expecting more of the same alienation, feeling a little like I was adrift in a little Episcopal boat in a huge sea.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. IRC has been the most incredible experience that I could have asked for as a person of faith. It’s not just a free dinner every Monday, and it’s not just a group of people who sit around a table and chat idly about our religions. It is an incredibly enriching and lively group that changes my life, my worldview, and my way of thinking every time I step into the room.
IRC is a handpicked group of undergraduate students from almost every religious student organization on campus. There are Christians of every denomination – Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian, Mormon, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Non-Denominational, and, yes, Episcopalian – and Jewish people of Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox backgrounds. There are Hindus from every region and country, Muslims of many sects, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, deists, and agnostics. And all of us love each other, support each other, and always, always listen. Every week, we discuss how our faiths view different topics, such as art, immigration, outsiders, or history. We learn how to greater accept, make space for, and defend each other’s faiths. We support the events of the groups represented in the council, and attend each other’s religious services to learn even more about the faiths we represent together.
IRC has become my main faith community at Emory, now. I have learned so much about both my faith and the faiths of the people around me. And hearing that the tenets of so many other faiths coincide with ours – values like unconditional love, acceptance, living a life dedicated to God, giving to charity, and helping people in need – gives me more and more faith in the idea of a higher power every time we discuss it. And the fact that we keep coming back to each other every week, despite our busy schedules and the fact that we all come from so many different backgrounds, is pretty affirming as well.
Every year, during Spring Break, IRC takes a trip together, and this year, I decided to go along. Just like everything else that IRC does, the trip was incredibly eye-opening, relationship-strengthening, and, most of all, fun. Our topic for the trip was immigration, and throughout the four days we spent in New York City, we visited Ellis Island, toured the United Nations, walked through the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and attended workshops at the United Nations Church Center. We heard from refugee and immigration advocates and lawyers, and learned more about immigration history and current law than I had ever learned in any history class.
Of course, that isn’t to say that we didn’t also have fun. We visited the Met, saw a comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade, took pictures in Times Square, went to Compline at Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church, and, of course, ate our way through just about every neighborhood in Manhattan – all the while, making an absurd amount of religion-related jokes. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to have a group of people with you that finally think it’s hilarious when someone cracks a joke about incense. At one point, we quite literally danced through the Upper East Side singing our favorite hymns. I’m sure people thought we were off our rockers when we were laughing on the subway about our various holidays, from Hanukkah to Diwali to Eid al-Fitr to Easter, and the ridiculousness that ensues at each and every one of them. Being with people who love their faiths with a passion, no matter what faiths they’re from, is so unbelievably refreshing.
When we got home from New York, all of us sat down on the following Monday at IRC for dinner again, like usual. It felt like a little family, cracking jokes about how much one of our advisors loves eating chocolate and how it makes Ramadan especially hard for him, or how the priest in charge is so ridiculously proud of the fact that she’s from Mississippi. It really feels like home, being with these people and sharing this sacred time that we have with them. And when two Jewish representatives and I had a huge a cappella performance the other night, the Catholic representative and the Presbyterian representative were sitting right in the front to cheer us on and give us a huge hug after the show. That’s what religion is all about, isn’t it? Loving the people around you unconditionally, and celebrating and supporting them in every aspect of their lives? I think so.
It’s so easy for us to sit tight in our little Episcopal bubble – or any other bubble of faith, to be honest. It’s so easy to consider religious time to be only when we are with people of our same faith. But I have to tell you, inter-religious work has quickly become one of the most important facets of my life both on campus and off. It has enriched and educated me in so many unimaginable ways. If there’s one thing I can tell people to do, it’s to get out and learn from people with faiths that are different from your own. It will change your life. Spend holy time with them. Worship with them. Be their friend. It will strengthen and fulfill your faith in so many new ways, and it is absolutely the easiest way to make just about any group of people into a sacred community. “When two are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” doesn’t just have to refer to Episcopalians. It can refer to anyone who has faith and is glad to share their joy for religion with you. So go forth and share it.