At the start of 2013, I was a second-semester freshman still trying to figure out what it meant to be a Georgetown student and how I was supposed to fill my new role as the Interfaith Chair of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas. The Daughters had decided to expand our interfaith efforts but I had no idea what that would look like on campus. I was entirely thrilled, therefore, when the Hindu Students Association reached out in early January to gauge the Daughters' interest in holding an interfaith dialogue about Catholic and Hindu perspectives on women and faith.
As we worked through the process of planning the event, we came to realize that although there has been a major push for interfaith dialogue on campus, much of it has centered on the Abrahamic traditions. Thus, while there has been dialogue between Catholics and Hindus on campus, not much of it has been formalized. This presented another exciting but daunting challenge: how to organize a program that provided opportunities for learning the basics of each religion while also allowing for comprehensive small group discussions.
Throughout our preparations, we had many supportive faculty, sponsors, and chaplains to encourage our efforts and lend many a helping hand on the logistics end. The accommodating and genuinely interested Campus Ministry community at Georgetown struck me time and time again as I fumbled through OCAF accounts and brainstormed discussion questions. Each planning meeting was a new opportunity to engage the vast intellectual and spiritual resources on campus. It was rejuvenating to discover all that Georgetown has to offer, but I was still focused on the “end goal”: putting on a successful event in a neat little 2 hour package, catered dinner and enlightening dialogue included!
How very blind I was.
By any account, however, that original “end goal” came into fruition the evening of the dialogue. Members of the Catholic Daughters and Hindu Students Association flocked through McShain’s doors until our large group comfortably broke down into groups of about eight at smaller tables. We opened with a brief overview of the key points of Catholicism and Hinduism before opening up for small group discussions, facilitated by members of faculty. The evening held many pleasant surprises: everyone in attendance was eager to help set up, easily and evenly distributed table groups so that no faith group was overrepresented, and were quick to offer praise for our efforts. The greatest gift, however, and one that shouldn’t have surprised me, was the students’ readiness to share their own perspectives and listen attentively to learn from their peers.
This spirit of engagement made for some incredibly insightful conversations. There are certain facts about religion you memorize for class – e.g. how old it is, the basic structure of religion, the role of God – but this small-group setting allowed for a deeper understanding of the practices and culture built around the religion. My group found that while religion and culture were inseparable in India (in contrast to the US), women played a key role in both faith traditions as the bearers of culture. Additionally, it seems that in Catholicism women play more of a behind-the-scenes role than in Hinduism, where women can lead prayer.
In the time since our dialogue, I’ve come to realize that interfaith dialogue is not about an event, but a way of life at Georgetown: one of constantly engaging those around you and listening to new perspectives with an open mind. The small group discussions that took place in McShain Lounge a few weeks ago can easily be transferred to the group hangout in the common room, the picnic on Healy Lawn, or the table at the Corp. The spiritual and intellectual growth that thrives here on campus doesn’t need a pretty package – it just needs an opportunity.