The University of Redlands interfaith community seeks to welcome and celebrate the many religious traditions that flourish among faculty, staff, and students. Recently, religious studies major and Campus Diversity and Inclusion interfaith intern Gabriel Olivares ’22 has been utilizing lessons he has learned on his personal journey to expand religious literacy on campus, allowing for different student populations to better understand one another.
“Religion isn’t a monolith,” says Olivares. “Everyone believes differently, and it’s all about individual experiences.”
Having been raised in a Catholic family in Fontana, California, he enrolled at the University of Redlands with the intention of studying physics and religion and the desire to become a Catholic priest.
“When I was studying physics and religion at the same time, a lot of people asked me how I dealt with them simultaneously, due to the cognitive dissonance,” he says. “But the way I look at it is that a mathematical equation helps us understand, in our human minds, the magical and godly world.”
As part of his journey over the past several years, Olivares converted to Islam as a Sufi Muslim, decided to pursue a religious studies major full-time, and became interested in interfaith hospice chaplaincy. “I want to be there for people who are passing away and their families, just to give them peace,” he says.
As an interfaith intern, Olivares focuses on building awareness of different religious faiths on campus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he created an Instagram account where he posts facts about different practices and holidays. Anticipating students’ arrival in the fall, he is planning a calendar of events that will invite various religious leaders and thinkers to campus for speaking engagements and discussions.
One of Olivares’s proudest accomplishments is creating a talking circle for students in the LGBTQ+ community who have experienced religious trauma. The talking circle served as a place for students to feel accepted and process their experiences—topics of conversation have ranged from overcoming internalized homophobia to finding peace with growing up in religiously extreme households.
Olivares attributes much of his success and growth to the faculty members and administrators who have guided him. CDI Assistant Director Peter Tupou, Professor of Religious Studies Lillian Larsen, and Emeritus Chaplain John Walsh provided him with important advice and perspective.
“To me, interfaith means having a pure understanding of where your neighbor comes from,” he says. “There are going to be points where people of different faiths are going to be at odds with each other. Through my work, I want people to understand each other and, in our case here on campus, my hope is that it will naturally lead to others to want to work together.”