PROVO — Maddie Blonquist wrapped up her proselytizing mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feeling like she still had a lot to learn. During her time in New York City, she'd been exposed to many other faiths, but she hadn't had time to study them.

After her mission, Blonquist, now a senior humanities major at Brigham Young University, remedied her desire to know more with research and field trips. She visited synagogues and mosques and met with leaders from other faiths.

"I wanted to reach out to people that I didn't have a chance to meet while I was a missionary," she said.

Blonquist recently drew on her discoveries to create an exhibit on sacred sounds for her school's library, emphasizing a shared interest among Jews, Muslims and Christians in singing praises to God. This year, she'll help launch another learning opportunity, serving as co-leader of BYU's new interfaith club.

"We'll offer interfaith dialogue training for LDS students and an inclusive community for students who are not LDS," she said.

Participants in Benedictine University's 2017 Interfaith Retreat participate in meditative practices at a local Buddhist temple.
Participants in Benedictine University's 2017 Interfaith Retreat participate in meditative practices at a local Buddhist temple. | Provided by Kathryn Heidelberger

Interfaith activism at religious colleges and universities can be difficult to negotiate, since most students, professors and even staff members come from the same faith background. Leaders like Blonquist can't just assume that students who belong to minority faiths will want to take part, said Brian Anderson, student leadership manager for Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that partners with schools to encourage interfaith cooperation.

In spite of those unique challenges, schools like BYU do well to offer interfaith programming, he said. The world beyond the college campus requires knowledge of many religions and an understanding of how faith intersects with all areas of life.

"Students are entering a diverse world. Even if they're living in a bubble now, they're not always going to be living in a bubble," Anderson said.

Beyond a safe space

Before taking his current role with Interfaith Youth Core, Anderson worked as an interfaith campus minister at Loyola University Chicago, a private Catholic school. Catholics comprised about half of the student body, and it was part of his job to support the non-Catholics who made up the other half.

Muslims, Jews and members of other minority groups self-organized into their own student groups, leaning on people who shared their faith to help them navigate campus life. Anderson's goal was to ensure that interreligious friendships were forming, too.

"I wanted to create an educational space, not just a safe space," he said.

Kathryn Heidelberger, coordinator of ecumenical and interfaith engagement at Benedictine University, another Catholic school in Lisle, Illinois, also addressed that distinction, noting that interfaith programming isn't about simply playing nice with others.

"I'm trying to challenge the notion that interfaith is just about having a bunch of people around you who are different than you. It involves working to make a place that's truly comfortable and inclusive," she said.

It isn't enough for her school's Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Protestants to be able to sit in the same room exchanging pleasantries. Heidelberger wants them to work toward addressing contentious political and theological differences.

Meaningful debates are a valuable outcome of interfaith activism, but they're not possible right away, especially at religious colleges and universities, Anderson said. You can't fairly represent all perspectives if participants all belong to the same faith.

"The work that needs to be done stems from the demographics that you have," he said, encouraging faculty and student leaders to focus on boosting religious literacy before planning high-profile events.

At BYU, it will take some time for the interfaith club to be truly interfaith, said Andrew Reed, a comparative religions and church history professor who is serving as the group's faculty adviser.

“Because of our setting here at BYU, there’s a good chance we’ll have predominantly LDS students at first, and I think that’s OK," he said. The group can still start discussing the basic practices and beliefs of the world's religions.

At religious schools, interfaith groups and programs don't have to ignore their unique setting, Heidelberger said. It's possible to emphasize Catholic or Mormon teachings that form the campus culture without making members of minority faith groups feel unwelcome.

"We are a Catholic school. We don't want to make apologies for that. Our Catholic identity provides a robust commitment to welcoming and including everyone," she said.

As a result of the unique setting, however, members of minority religions on campus may be wary of getting involved, Anderson said, noting that other students need to respect that.

"If there's no interest, leave them alone," he said.

Preparing for the real world

Interfaith activism is challenging for any person of faith, not just those enrolled at religious schools, according to campus leaders. It requires participants to take stock of their own limitations.

"Interfaith cooperation is only effective if you put in the work to figure out who you are," Heidelberger said.

This soul-searching should include grappling with your evangelistic instincts, or the desire to recruit new members to one's own faith, Anderson said. Members of interfaith groups shouldn't deny their interest in evangelism, but they also shouldn't focus on it.

"If evangelization is part of your identity, don't deny that part. But don't go into the space seeking to evangelize," he said. "We encourage students to acknowledge that there are parts of their identity that are not as interfaith friendly."

At BYU, sharing one's beliefs with others is an area of unique expertise. Many students serve religious missions for the LDS Church, during which they strive to bring new people into the Mormon faith.

As Blonquist works to launch the BYU Interfaith Club, she is trying to keep her fellow students focused on a different aspect of their missions: exposure to unfamiliar faiths. She reminds them that life after BYU will have more in common with the mission field than the campus environment.

“We’re hoping that we will be able to start something really big and create an organization that will provide students … with some training on how to respectfully approach interfaith dialogue,” Blonquist said. “There’s a good chance they’re not going to be working in a homogenous LDS environment their whole lives.”

Interfaith groups can also make life on a religious campus more interesting, noted Jacob Keeth, a senior at Biola University who helps lead a student ministry called Evangelical Mormon Interactions. When he enrolled at the evangelical Christian school, he was worried about the lack of theological diversity. The friendships he's formed with Mormons through the group helped expand his religious horizons.

"That's not something every Biola student has the opportunity to say," he said.

Anderson celebrated these stories, noting that all college students can benefit from engaging with people from different faiths.

"It's just as important to understand diverse religious backgrounds as it is to understand racial and gender differences," he said.