A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Wiccan, a mythologist, an atheist, and a conversation about perceptions of the divine sounds like ‘throwing cat/dog in a bag.' But for the Keene State College Interfaith Voices Club, this is no blasphemy; this is just another Monday night.
General membership of the club has grown exponentially since the organization was renamed and adopted an all-inclusive multifaith mission last year in hopes of broadening and diversifying its membership. Once exclusively a Christian fellowship, the Interfaith Voices Club (IFV) now seeks to create a comfortable and respectful atmosphere for students of all faith types to talk about religion, according to the club's mission statement.
Advisor to the club Reed Loy said when the United Campus Ministry first employed him at the KSC chapter of IFV a year and a half ago, student participation was sustained only by the club's four active E-board members. Loy said it was from the desire of these four students to reinvigorate student participation that the club's transformation birthed an initiative paved with humility.
"It took a lot of courage on their part," Loy said. "It's not easy to voluntarily agree to share something like this with people of faiths different from your own."
KSC junior and IFV President Kelsey Whittemore was one of the students who opted to move away from a Christian-based curriculum. "Instead of singing hymns throughout the meeting, now we're talking about the conflict in Egypt, the controversial building of the mosque near Ground Zero, and religion in the media," Whittemore said.
"We listen to what students want to talk about and we provide the resources to facilitate it," she said. The club currently has 18 general members who attend the club's three featured weekly events. Beginning on Monday nights, the club hosts a homemade dinner at 7:30 p.m. and a discussion at 8 p.m. IFV also holds an alcohol alternative party every Saturday night at 9 p.m., offering students who wish to abstain from college's more typical alcoholic weekend activities a place for events like improv entertainment, fake frat parties, and snowball fights.
Amassing the most consistent attendance, however, the weekly discussion features an open forum for students to compare perspectives and share their voice about topics pertaining to religion. Topic titles range from "Pleasure is Sin?" to "Atheism 101" and "Animal Portrayals in Native American Faith."
KSC senior Anna Mansager and general member of IFV calls Buddhism her religion of choice. Mansager said these ‘101' sessions have been her favorite IFV events thus far and recalled sessions featuring two atheist professors, a local rabbi, and a group of Quakers as standout presentations.
Mansager said the Monday night discussions offer her a tension-free learning environment.
"I can feel comfortable talking about religion and faith without worrying about someone of an opposing belief ranting and arguing with me," Mansager said. "There are plenty of people in the club that don't have a defined faith but they're open to hearing about new ideas and perspectives." Besides the club's three weekly meetings, like any other campus organization IFV also subscribes to resources off-campus to facilitate the club's objectives of opening dialogue. Most recently, the club hosted the peace walkers of the New England Peace Pagoda, a Japanese Buddhist order native to Massachusetts.
The group walked over 60 miles to reach KSC's L.P. Young Student Center in order to speak about solutions concerning war violence, sustainable living, peace among nations, and deviating human well-being from financial success.
As the club looks to continue expanding, Whittemore said she hopes the club's presence on campus will help dissolve stigmas surrounding the often sensitive subject of faith. Loy agreed and said the buffet of viewpoints IFV provides is an extension of the liberal arts mission that often goes overlooked.
"Some people take separation of church and state as separation of spiritual exploration and state, but it doesn't need to be seen that way," Loy said.
Amidst many other KSC clubs whose membership favors a generally homogenous consensus, the Interfaith Voices Club accrues a spectrum of perspectives, united by the common goal of spiritual discovery.
"Everyone who comes has to be able to enter into that," Loy said. "There will be moments of terrific irony and vast difference. It's more of a spiritual broadening experience."
Tara Nathan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org