This Saturday, students attended the TU Interfaith Dinner, which kicked off TU’s Enlightenment week. The dinner was the spring follow-up to last semester’s Interfaith Tour. Several organizations were involved in organizing the event: the Malaysian Student Association (MASA), Student Association, Sharp Chapel, University United Methodist Church, TU Catholic Students, Muslim Student Association and Hillel of Northeastern Oklahoma.
Reeza Redzuan, president of MASA, said his experiences this summer inspired these two interfaith events. Over the summer, he attended a vigil for the Orlando nightclub shooting in Tulsa. “Something really triggered in my mind,” he said, because “if Tulsa can do it, why not the TU community?” A few weeks later, the shooting of an innocent priest in France in the name of ISIS motivated him and MASA to visit with the Newman Center on campus in solidarity.
For Redzuan, the event inspired him: “Why do we need to wait for tragedy to do something like this?” Redzuan resolved to hold an event to create conversation among this community. “We are very lucky [at TU],” he noted. “TU is one of the few universities in the US that has houses of worship next to each other.”
From there, organizing the events was a matter of “networking and some bureaucracy that shouldn’t have even been there.” Redzuan is friends with Lilly Kopitar, president of the Hillel Association on campus, and regularly attends the Hillel dinners. Natalie Santa-Pinter, a student minister with the Newman Center, reached out to Redzuan after learning about his initiative. With other groups, he sent an email and received an enthusiastic response. According to Santa-Pinter, “that’s a really good sign of how open the community is to this sort of idea. It was just waiting for it to happen.”
Through past discussions with Dr. Francis, Redzuan learned a similar event had been planned around eight years ago. “But it was not really successful,” he said, “because it was not run by students….From the faculty side, it’s different.” The special aspect of this event was that “we focus on students. Everything must be students,” which is why organizations like TU Catholic Students and Muslim Student Association were involved.
Kopitar emphasized the attractiveness of a student-run event, saying “when it’s put on by faculty or when you’re forced to go to it, it almost feels like, ‘I don’t want to do this because I’m being told I have to,’ whereas if it’s run by students, I have a choice in what I do and how it’s run.” Such an event won’t “feel like it’s a faculty agenda, like ‘Oh they’re trying to make the school look better or force us into something. We’re coming together on our own.’”
Santa-Pinter said “there’s a lot of people, a lot of voices that want to advocate understanding each other, just really looking at each other’s faith and backgrounds, but it takes an initiation and Reeza here has really done that for TU.”
With the dinner, the organizers hoped to attract a different crowd of students than those who attended the Interfaith Tour. Those who attended the tour had to be interested in walking to several houses of faith on campus, while the dinner was more social and casual, with cultural elements to create understanding. With a dinner, Redzuan hoped to “attract some people who aren’t even religious, don’t even want religion, they just want to have a talk and a good meal.“
“This kind of event is a good approach for those people not even interested in religion. Because this is dinner and performances and during the prayers, they would probably say ‘this is bullshit who cares.’” With the tour, Redzuan said, “they have to go to the church, the mosque, they have to walk. But here it’s very open, even the performances are very open-minded and not even preaching something.”
Along with performances and prayers, the dinner also allowed time for discussion amongst the attendees. Redzuan hoped splitting people up according to their faith would prevent domination of a table by one religion, to encourage more learning and conversation. Kopitar hoped the discussion would focus not on conversion, but on conversation. “You cannot change something someone believes. And religion is religion. You can’t say that this is fact and this is fiction…we’re just here to talk about what we believe rather than hurt each other.”
The rest of TU’s Enlightenment week had “welcome houses” at various on-campus houses of worship, to allow those more interested to attend.
The dinner also offered additional religions and cultures to explore. While last semester’s tour focused on houses of worship on campus, student interest in other cultures meant Redzuan included Buddhism, Hinduism and Native American beliefs at the dinner.
Experiencing other cultures, Kopitar said, was an “awesome” side effect of studying at TU. But, she said, “I think it’s easy to stay within your comfort zone with your one religion, and not go to other people’s things. Because I don’t believe what you believe in, so it’s better if I just stay in my own thing. But it’s not about agreeing with each other, it’s about more understanding each other. It’s about saying we might not agree on everything, but we can still be together and be friends and show tolerance to one another, even friendship.”
“I think a lot of people think each religion is so different,” she continued, “But at the end of the day, we all have a core belief in doing good and helping each other and helping make the world a better place.”
The recent political climate, Kopitar said, demonstrated the need for these kind of conversations. “I think everybody needs the ability to try to understand each other because of everything that’s happened. It’s really divided people. And religion has been brought into it.”
“If religion has been used as a tool to disunite people, I think religion also can be used as a perfect tool to unite people,” Redzuan said, “But I think this specific event is the perfect tool to unite those from the conservative side ideologically, and those who accept people ideologically as well.”
While Redzuan, Santa-Pinter and Kopitar are all graduating this year, Redzuan believes these two events will continue. “Under MASA, I want to make this a brand. Even though MASA is not a religious organization, we want to be a forefront advocate for social justice and equality,” he said, mentioning that he already has a successor who he invites to many organizational events. To continue this interfaith mission, Santa-Pinter said religious groups need to “keep those doors open and those windows and avenues for conversation to flow through… Hopefully it continues and gets better in the future.”