Embracing Islam in Dahlgren Chapel
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 00:10
I’ll admit it: I didn’t do much research about Georgetown before I got here. In fact, when I first arrived at New Student Orientation and learned about our 200-year-old Catholic-Jesuit heritage, I had two questions: What was a Jesuit? And would they try to convert me to Christianity?
I use the term “convert” loosely. I knew no one would really try to force any religious beliefs on me, but I also knew that simply stating religious acceptance also didn’t mean much. At my nominally secular public high school in Atlanta, social acceptance depended on prayer before Friday football games and attending church on Sundays. I didn’t partake in either, but I did live near a church. My family stopped attending community block party barbecues when the proselytizing began.
It wasn’t that my family didn’t believe in God: It was quite the opposite case. We didn’t feel the need to join my neighborhood’s religious community because we already belonged to one 15 minutes away. The Ummah, the Arabic word for community, represents the culmination of over 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, and there are 15 million followers of my specific sect, known as Ismailis, across the globe. I’ve grown up in this religious community since birth and held steadfast to its traditions and beliefs. Coming to college with this background in faith, I wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret Georgetown’s Catholic heritage.
During my first days here, I remember hearing people say, “All religions are embraced on this campus with open arms” or “We love for you to become a part of interreligious dialogue on campus.” With my experience in Atlanta in the back of my mind, all I heard was, “We’re trying to convert you.” The idea of wishing that peace be with someone, however, intrigued me, and I decided to defy all norms of my religious adherence, attending Hindu puja services and Catholic Mass — although never letting my attendance at these services conflict with my own Friday evening prayers in East Falls Church, Va. It was the first time I had ever been out of my religious comfort zone, and these explorations came with hesitation. Did attending Sunday puja make me a Hindu? Was getting advice from a rabbi a form of implicit conversion?
Luckily, I soon found out about the Interfaith Student Association, an organization whose mission is to promote interreligious dialogue on campus. The first ISA meeting I attended the spring semester of my freshman year was eye opening. I was blown away by the level of engagement shown by the students in the organization. Each of them had a personal project, ranging from community service to leadership retreats. Their passion made me want to do more, and I have been committed to interfaith efforts ever since.
So many traditions fill the Georgetown campus, from Mask & Bauble to the Blue and Gray Society, all of which embody Jesuit values in their own ways. For the most part, people don’t come to Georgetown knowing what they want to be a part of, instead leaping into things with the hope of finding passion in the causes they discover. In the same way, interreligious dialogue is an age-old Georgetown tradition that I believe furthers our Jesuit values. Often times, people forget that interreligious dialogue is an active process and prefer to sit on the sidelines while others engage their faiths in conversation.
It is a challenge to be a part of the dialogue. It takes thought, effort and an open mind. But each of us not only has the potential but also the obligation to be men and women for and with each other in conversations about faith. Yes, it’s a challenge for some of us. But then again, when has a challenge ever stopped a Georgetown student?
Noreen Sajwani is a junior in the School of Nursing and Health Studies. She is chair of the Interfaith Student Association.