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Student Assembly of Interfaith Leaders Highlights Importance of Interfaith Collaboration
Conversations about faith and religion are often avoided. In the midst of polarized times such topics can be especially daunting. However, as shared by Rev. Brian E. Konkol, dean of Hendricks Chapel, a key to understanding others lies in having these serious conversations.
“For years far too many have been told to not discuss religion in public life, yet in recent times we have witnessed the consequences,” says Konkol. “So we should not avoid such conversations but instead find ways to have them, and have them in ways that are both safe and brave.”
“The Student Assembly of Interfaith Leaders is one of the ways that we are trying to spark and sustain spaces that allow for our students to share their beliefs and learn about the beliefs of others,” he says.
The Student Assembly of Interfaith Leaders (SAIL) at Syracuse University is a student organization centered around fostering interfaith conversations. The organization is open to all students. Additionally, representatives from each of the student religious and spiritual groups on campus are invited to attend SAIL meetings.
Originally known as the Spiritual Life Council, SAIL was restructured in 2019. It now acts as a formal advisory body to Konkol and offers an important student perspective on critical matters facing Hendricks Chapel. The organization also seeks to develop leaders, serve as a model for interfaith cooperation and develops programs and services that strengthen all religious and spiritual life groups at Syracuse University.
“SAIL is an amazing group of individuals committed to learning more about their own and others’ religious and spiritual life traditions, beliefs and practices,” says Rebecca Reed Kantrowitz, associate dean of Hendricks Chapel. “Now, more than ever, our global community is in need of dialogue that informs and nourishes, and commitment that deepens understanding and brings people together. I am proud of our students for their candor, their openness and their commitment to interfaith work.”
Ethan Smith G’22, is currently pursuing a master of social work degree in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. He is the convener of SAIL and leads the group in meetings. SAIL meets twice a month and the second meeting of each month is usually centered around religious and spiritual topics. The group is exploring topics including religious and spiritual texts, connections with nature and traditions during this spring semester.
“My time in SAIL has allowed me to meet people from various faiths other than my own, and to learn and grow from these interactions,” says Smith. “These experiences have helped shape me into understanding my place in the world and how to interact with people of different faiths.”
Interfaith collaboration can be described using a variety of theoretical concepts, and according to Konkol, SAIL provides a powerful and concrete example of how these concepts can work when successfully applied.
“Interfaith engagement helps us to examine the religious and spiritual lenses we employ to make sense of the world. When we learn about others we ultimately learn about ourselves, and in doing so we can ensure that our lives are connected in ways that serve our common good,” says Konkol.
Traditions are one of many different “lenses” through which people see the world. The actions and beliefs tied to different traditions are often also tied to people’s identities. Therefore, conflict often emerges when different traditions are seen as contradictory to each other. Konkol suggests that internal reflection is key to a better self-understanding, which ultimately leads to a better understanding of others.
Konkol explains this concept by relating interfaith collaboration to a tree. A tree must be grounded with its roots to provide nourishment in order for the branches to grow. Branches provide strength to the rest of the tree. Without the roots, the “reach” of the tree is limited. Konkol says that his own Lutheran background, traditions and history are his “roots,” and his “reach” is the conversations that he has with people of different faiths.
“If my traditions are important to me, it helps me to appreciate the traditions of others. And the deeper I go into those traditions and the roots of those traditions, the deeper my appreciation grows for the traditions of others,” says Konkol.
Different traditions are also tied to personal values. Focusing on personal values acts as a tool to keep grounded when engaging with different people with other values. Konkol uses the example of Christian traditions that rely on the teachings of Jesus. For example, Jesus taught to love others as you wish to be loved yourself. Therefore, this is a value that Christians can reflect on when engaging with those of different faiths.
SAIL meetings provide students opportunities to develop programs and services, but also to learn about the values that are fundamental to different faith traditions in a safe and welcoming environment.
In the midst of polarized times, SAIL is seeking to do its part in fostering and supporting a campus community of opportunity for a richly diverse student body. Led by students that are willing and able to discuss topics that are often avoided, SAIL hopes it can empower students–one conversation at a time– to embrace the matters of spirit and soul and lead in service to a common good.
This story was written by Whitney Welbaum ’23.