On Dec. 2, 2015, a shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino killed 14 people and wounded 21 others. In the aftermath of grief, shock, and disbelief, the University of Redlands held an interfaith religious forum on violence. Representatives of many religious traditions—Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist—discussed religious tolerance, radicalization, Islamophobia, and the role of religious leaders in education.
Professor of Religious Studies Lillian Larsen, who organized the student-led forum, found it “a balm for the soul.” Attended by more than 200 people, the gathering inspired students to extend the initiative by building the Multi-Faith Student Association (MFSA), a space for interfaith conversations on campus. By spring 2018, however, many of the students involved had graduated.
An urgent need
With the rising tide of intolerance across the country and violence at temples, synagogues, and churches around the world, there was still an urgent need to sustain interfaith dialogue. So Larsen and Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Sana Tayyen organized a core group of faculty and administrative colleagues to address this need.
Last fall, drawing on a generous grant from the national Interfaith Youth Corps (IFYC), the group set out to cultivate a new generation of students and re-invigorate the MFSA. (Their secret weapon for recruiting members? Breakfast.)
Victoria Randall-Hallard ’21, a double major in music and religion with a minor in business, admits she was lured by the food, but “fell in love with the potential that this club has. It’s a need for us.”
Larsen notes the MFSA was not a hard sell: “Students wanted a place where it was safe to be an observant, religious person on campus.”
Empowered to explore
At the same time, Randall-Hallard conceptualized a series of events aimed at promoting interfaith dialogue. Over the course of the spring term, MFSA members interviewed religious leaders and Redlands students from various faith traditions to develop a “Day in the Life” of Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu practice. In April, the group put the days into action during Better Together Days, a week broadly organized by Interfaith Youth Corps aimed at celebrating religious diversity. In close collaboration with the Office of Student Affairs, Chaplain’s Office, and Campus Diversity and Inclusion, campus and community members were invited to take part in different religious practices each day—from participating in a Passover Seder (Judaism), to praying five times a day (Islam).
“On YouTube, there used to be videos called ‘Day in the Life of a Ballerina’ or ‘Day in the Life of a Juggler,’ where you walked through a day with different people,” Randall-Hallard says. “I thought, how cool would that be if we could try a day in the life of someone that we view as ‘other’?”
Larsen adds, “For our students, the process of researching each day’s ‘practice’ was as educational and important as the results. They felt empowered to explore a cross-section of faith traditions and talk to different community members.”
To kick the week off, the students hosted a Better Together Ball with support from Student Affairs, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, Community Service Learning, the Religious Studies Department, the Chaplain’s Office, the Meditation Room, and the Redlands Area Interfaith Council.
“Better Together gave me hope for humanity,” says Romina Marie Baronia ’22, a creative writing major. “Seeing everybody willing and interested in learning different religions and creating that interfaith community made me think that maybe, with that small spark, things could change for the better.”
Thanks to the event, Gabriel Olivares ’22, a religious studies major, realized that the world’s religions had many of the same tenets. “I grew up in a very strong Latino community in San Bernardino, which is not always super accepting of people of different cultures and religions,” he says. “I also went to a secular public school where we never talked about religion, so I had never really discovered people of different faiths. The overarching theme of each religion’s ‘Day in the Life’ was to do good things, be a good person.”
Olivares eventually wants to become a priest within the Catholic Church. “When I’m a priest, I want to make sure that my community has a strong interfaith relationship,” he says. “I want to host a big picnic, for example, where we have the local mosque and synagogue come for a peaceful get-together, so everyone can realize we’re not so different.”
The MFSA’s work on Better Together Days was recognized nationally. Tayyen was one of only 25 professors selected to participate in a seminar in Chicago by the Council of Independent Colleges and IFYC. In addition, Randall-Hallard and Olivares will attend an IFYC summer program to receive additional training as interfaith leaders. They’ll be working with similarly invested Redlands students Ihab Hamideh ’21 of the Middle Eastern Students Association and Luke Rothschild ’22 of Christian group Young Life.
Next year, the group’s plans include partnering with a wider variety of religious and diversity organizations on campus and in the community. “I’d like everyone to start working together,” says Randall-Hallard, “and be truthful supporters of each other.”