Religious Pluralism at Georgetown
Published: Friday, September 7, 2012
Updated: Sunday, September 9, 2012 22:09
It is 3:30 a.m., and Erva Khan (COL ’15) struggles out of bed to silence her alarm. In the murky darkness of predawn, Khan wraps a headscarf around her hair and stands facing east, preparing to begin her fajr, the dawn prayer.
Khan is a devout Muslim and a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association. She is also one of the many non-Christian students studying, socializing and praying at one of the nation’s best-known Catholic universities.
Georgetown’s student body comprises students from a variety of faith traditions. They range from Catholics, who make up the vast majority of undergraduates, according to the Registrar’s Office, to Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Mormons, Baha’is and atheists. Life as a non-Christian student at a Catholic, Jesuit university comes with a unique set of challenges and benefits.
Often the most pressing issues confronted by non-Christian students has to do with resources. On a small campus already pressed for space, it is difficult for diverse religious groups to carve out their own areas for living and worshiping.
Many Jewish students, for example, struggle to adhere to their religion’s dietary constraints while living on campus. Last year, the university established Makóm: A Jewish Gathering Space in the Leavey Center to replace an off-campus Hillel House — which featured a full kitchen — that previously served as the center of Jewish student life. While students appreciate how much closer the space is to the center of campus, Makóm lacks a kitchen to prepare kosher food.
Storage is also a logistical difficulty, and catering for weekly Shabbat meals is difficult to organize.
“Catering food is expensive, and we no longer have a kitchen to make food. … It can be hard to keep kosher. You run out of options at Leo’s. So it can be very tedious and hard work for the students who do [keep kosher],” Sapir Yarden (SFS ’15), co-president of the Jewish Student Association, said.
Quarters became even more cramped later in the semester, when Jewish students decided to share Makóm with the Hindu Students Association, which had outgrown its home in McSherry Hall.
“JSA was really nice to share their space with us, but we’d definitely like our own place,” HSA Vice President Neha Jejurikar (NHS ’13) said.
This situation is set to change soon, according to a Sept. 5 email sent by Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry, to the campus community. The Office of Campus Ministry is currently planning an interfaith prayer center to be housed in the Leavey Center, featuring specific spaces for the Jewish and Muslim communities as well as kitchens in which students will be able to cook meals according to their religious customs. The space will also house an interfaith chapel.
Even so, resources remain strained, especially for groups who are not part of the three Abrahamic faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Georgetown does not have a Hindu chaplain or a designated Hindu prayer space, though the number of students at HSA’s weekly puja prayers is about 35, according to HSA secretary Abhilasha Banerjee (COL ’13). By comparison, about 40 students attend JSA’s Shabbat every Friday, and 50 students are active members of MSA.
“We definitely have a voice here, as part of those three big Abrahamic faiths. But the Buddhist and Hindu groups don’t have that, which is probably very frustrating,” Khan said.
Issues of representation spill over into the theology department as well.
“Being at a Catholic institution, there is an emphasis on Abrahamic faiths in general. … People giving speeches often just talk about Christianity, Islam and Judaism,” HSA president Anwesha Banerjee (COL ’13) said. “[Hindu students] would like to be on that list, too. … Even in ‘Problem of God,’ the texts we pulled from are from Western authors and faiths.”
This semester, two courses focusing on non-Abrahamic faiths — “Introduction to Buddhism” and “Hindu Religious Tradition” — are offered to nonmajors in the theology department. The department includes three full-time faculty teaching courses on Judaism and two teaching about Islam. Both of the professors of Islam are Catholic.