By Claire Smith
This year’s Convocation was a unique experience for students, not the least of which because new members of the Order of the Gown gown themselves for the first time. Convocation, which is normally hosted in All Saints’ Chapel to induct honor students into the Order of the Gown and confer academic awards, was instead held on the quad to allow for social distancing. Attendees, however, experienced another important first in the Convocation service, as Marjan Ata (C’21) was invited to read a Qur’anic verse on stage, making her the first Muslim student in Sewanee’s history to share their faith at an official University event.
Ata, a Muslim student leader who serves as head proctor, chose Qur’an 4:135, which focuses on the importance of justice. Speaking on her choice of reading, Ata said, “I want people to understand how Sewanee traditions and their values are actually quite universal. When we get gowned we become a part of the Order, it’s not just about us anymore. It’s about holding ourselves, others, and our community to a higher standard.”
Ata called this event “one of my most cherished moments at Sewanee,” saying, “Never would I have ever imagined, since my gowning sophomore year that a text from the Qur’an would be read at Convocation.”
Ata’s address signals growing efforts for religious inclusion and representation on campus, with the Interfaith Advisory Council, University Chaplain Peter Gray, and various student religious organizations offering a variety of creative initiatives.
The Interfaith Advisory Council was established in fall of 2019 and is led by Cassie Meyer, the director of Dialogue Across Difference. The group was created to address the lack of space on campus for people of diverse religious beliefs, and now includes faculty, staff, and students of thirteen religious traditions. This year, the Council introduced a Multifaith Calendar that highlights the most religiously and culturally relevant holidays of the Sewanee community.
After several all-campus events were scheduled in recent years on major religious holidays, students expressed their disappointment and feelings of isolation over the lack of religious inclusion in the University’s calendar. Around this time last year, a large all-campus event was held during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement and the holiest day of the year for many Jewish people.
Meyer said that this disappointment led the Interfaith Advisory Council to create an inclusive calendar. “One of the things that we identified was trying to come up with ways to elevate and lift up our religiously diverse communities,” Meyer said. “A lot of people just assume that most people here are Christian, and don’t realize that there are so many religious traditions on campus. One of the ways we thought to do that was creating the Interfaith Calendar.”
Planning and research for a religious calendar began in spring of 2020, and took shape over the summer as Mandy Tu (C’21) researched major holidays for the various religious groups represented on campus. Sambhav Bansal (C’23), the Interfaith Advisory Council’s intern and a follower of Sanatan Dharma, met with students of underrepresented faith backgrounds in the fall, especially meeting with those of Dharmic religions to find holidays important to them.
Bansal noted that the holidays included on the calendar are dependent on the personal and cultural particularities of those who live in Sewanee. Rather than creating an “exhaustive list,” he said, “we wanted to highlight the things that mattered to the people at Sewanee.” This approach of “crowdsourcing”, as Meyer called it, makes the calendar a useful, Sewanee-specific tool for planning events and understanding the diversity of the community more.
Meyer, who is Christian, believes that, “There doesn’t need to be a tension between the Episcopal identity and welcoming people of other faiths.” She advocates for Sewanee to use the resources that already exist in its Episcopal identity to “find and articulate a theology of interfaith cooperation.” Gray expresses a similar interest in using his position as the University Chaplain to create connections across campus and amplify the voices of all religious traditions.
Gray articulated three key responsibilities All Saints’ Chapel has to the Sewanee community: worship, welcome, and partner. “I do understand myself to be a chaplain of the entire university,” Gray said, “and in order to do that, I’ve got to have strong partnerships across the university.” These partnerships have included planning with the Jewish Student Association to celebrate the High Holidays, inviting a Roman Catholic Priest to deliver mass, and working with students of Dharmic faiths to plan a celebration for Diwali. “It all comes down to the care of our students,” Gray said.
At his installation as Chaplain of the University, Gray was presented with a series of symbols to welcome him to his new position. One such symbol was a key presented by Mandy Tu, who serves as Order of the Gown President, is a member of the Interfaith Advisory Council, and is a Theravada Buddhist. As she handed Gray the key to the chapel, she recited a salient reminder for the obligations of both the Chaplain and the Sewanee community at large: “Receive these keys and let the doors of this place be open to all people.”