Exploring interfaith communities on campus at 'Coming Together 7’

More than 100 students from 42 universities and colleges around the country — and Saskatchewan, Canada — braved the frigid February temperatures to gather for the Coming Together 7 conference. The students, who represented more than 18 religious and spiritual traditions, discussed the unique challenges and advantages of building interfaith communities on a university campus at the event, which ran Feb. 12–15 and was organized by the Yale Chaplain’s Office.

“The goal is for students to be in conversation with each other, share best practices, talk about emerging issues, and dream together about what they’d like to do on their campuses in terms of interfaith work,” said Sharon Kugler, university chaplain.

Now in its 10th year, Coming Together included panel discussions, breakout sessions, worship services, tours, and keynote lectures by Marvin Chun, the Richard M. Colgate Professor of Psychology; Kathryn Lofton, professor of religious studies, American studies, history, and divinity; and Pamela George, assistant dean of academic affairs. The talks ranged from the psychology of happiness to the role of religion and media in our lives to finding one’s genuine self.

According to Kugler, the recent shooting of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina was on the minds of many attendees.

“The thread between the keynote talks was especially meaningful,” said Kugler. “The heartbreak of what happened in North Carolina was dealt with in such a way that went deeper into questions about the world we live in now,” she said, noting that Friday’s schedule included Jumuah — a Muslim prayer worship service — at which Yale’s Muslim Chaplain Omer Bajwa preached about the shootings.

Later Friday night the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale hosted three different Shabbat services. According to Kugler, there was one room you could stand in to hear all three services. At the same time in the basement of the Slifka Center, she said, one of the Muslim participants was praying.

In addition to sessions, attendees enjoyed musical performances, art activities, a spoken word event, and a chance to see “Familiar” at Yale Repertory Theatre.

“We have it all here at Yale,” said Kugler. “Sometimes a host institution needs to bring artists and performers, but we can draw from what’s on campus.”

Yale President Peter Salovey joined the students for dinner on Saturday evening.

“A lot of students wanted to have their photos taken with Peter,” said Kugler, adding that another popular selfie site was at Yale’s St. Thomas More Chapel, where students took photos with a cutout of Pope Francis.

A student-driven program

The first Coming Together conference took place at Princeton in 2005, inspired by an annual gathering of college and university chaplains. Participants at the Association of College and University Religious Affairs valued the conversation and relationships that formed during their annual meetings and wanted to create a student-driven event for undergraduates.

“The associate dean of religious life at Princeton decided to invite three students from every university and college in the country that could send them,” said Kugler. She noted that universities strive for diversity in their student delegates’ religious affiliation, gender, and age.

Subsequent gatherings took place at Johns Hopkins University, and the Universities of Southern California, Puget Sound, and Chicago before coming to Yale. The host institution covers room and board, as well as program expenses. In addition to the 115 students who traveled to Yale, there were many on campus who helped plan the event and even hosted visitors in their dorms.

“We kept hearing how warm and welcoming Yale was,” said Kugler. “People are so gracious, generous, and open here.”

In spite of the cold temperatures, attendees were reluctant for the gathering to end.

“They were hugging and forming Facebook groups,” said Kugler. “There was a spirit to this group that I hadn’t experienced before. It was unmistakable and sustained; it was really special.”

While the location of next year’s Coming Together conference has not yet been decided, Kugler speculated that it might take place somewhere on the West Coast. It’s not clear when Yale may next play host to the gathering, but Kugler said she loved showing visitors the program at Yale. 

“I ran a session on starting and sustaining an interfaith program on campus,” she said. “I encouraged students to find out what’s unique about their community and build on that. They realized they don’t have to be just like Yale to make this happen, but we certainly are an inspiring setting.”

Photos and video of Coming Together 7 events , including Breakin' with Buddha, can be seen on the Universitiy Chaplain's Facebook page.