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Religion | November 19, 2012

A lifelong conversation

Religious freedom

Interfaith meeting at Indiana State University encourages students to be more open about their beliefs in a secular setting

Indiana State University

Katie Romoser had a distinct idea of what sharing her faith on a college campus would look like. As a high school student, Romoser pictured a packed lecture hall filled with disengaged attendees and herself down in front, prepared to articulate the gospel.

Romoser, a junior at Indiana State University (ISU) in Terre Haute, Ind., never found herself in that imagined situation. But she recently had an opportunity to speak openly about her beliefs in a conversation with students of other faiths. The interfaith discussion gave 40 religious students the chance to discuss their faith in a secular environment and disband the cultural stereotypes that surround religion.

Stephen Wessler, director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Crime Violence, facilitated the discussions. Wessler has traveled across America, Northern Ireland and Kosovo to organize interfaith conflict resolution activities.

The students discussed a variety of tensions that Christians experience on campus. Some students expressed frustration with how forcefully biology professors taught evolution. Others thought boisterous street preachers negatively influenced people's perceptions of Christian students.

College campuses have become increasingly liberal, making it more difficult than ever for Christian students to feel comfortable expressing their views, Wessler said. This resonated with Romoser, who thinks the culture of the typical American campus doesn't allow for enough open dialogue about religion. Because of this, she does not take many "religious risks."

"I do feel like we don't have the freedom to express how we believe because that means we're imposing our belief on someone else," Romoser said.

Universities used to be places where people spoke openly against culture and the establishment. The protestors of the 1960s didn't worry about who they offended when they rallied against the Vietnam War or racial oppression. But on today's campuses, administrators put a premium on making sure all students feel validated and no one gets offended. The resulting culture of pseudo-acceptance silences students whose beliefs aren't universally approved, especially Christian students.

While the liberal climate of secular campuses can inhibit Christian expression, campuses more easily accept students of other cultures and religions, Wessler said. But that does not mean the students remain free from judgement.

Many Muslim students in the discussion believed Americans held negative stereotypes of them because of 9/11. Nassira Nouioua, a Muslim and graduate student from Algeria, recounted how someone once called her a terrorist. The comment was an intended "joke" but deeply offended her.

Nouioua decided to participate in the discussion to help stop the spread of harmful and inaccurate stereotypes. As more people promote appreciation and respect for religions and cultures, stereotypes will lose their momentum, she said.

The lack of open dialogue about religion on campus prompted the discussions, an irony that struck Romoser, given universities' role in fostering learning and intellectual conversation.

Yet for the majority of students, this was the first time they participated in open, respectful conversations with people of other faiths. Such dialogue should not be limited to an hour-long session in a campus building, Wessler said: "I hope this conversation is a lifelong conversation."

Connecting with students of other faiths encouraged Romoser to evaluate how to be the most effective and loving Christian witness.

"We need to be aware and know how to pray for them and witness to them through their own religion," she said. "If they believe one way, then that's how you have to enter into their world."