It is 3:30 a.m., and Erva Khan (COL ’15) struggles out of bed to silence her alarm. In the murky darkness of predawn, Khan wraps a headscarf around her hair and stands facing east, preparing to begin her fajr, the dawn prayer.
Khan is a devout Muslim and a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association. She is also one of the many non-Christian students studying, socializing and praying at one of the nation’s best-known Catholic universities.
Georgetown’s student body comprises students from a variety of faith traditions. They range from Catholics, who make up the vast majority of undergraduates, according to the Registrar’s Office, to Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Mormons, Baha’is and atheists. Life as a non-Christian student at a Catholic, Jesuit university comes with a unique set of challenges and benefits.
Often the most pressing issues confronted by non-Christian students has to do with resources. On a small campus already pressed for space, it is difficult for diverse religious groups to carve out their own areas for living and worshiping.
Many Jewish students, for example, struggle to adhere to their religion’s dietary constraints while living on campus. Last year, the university established Makóm: A Jewish Gathering Space in theLeavey Center to replace an off-campus Hillel House — which featured a full kitchen — that previously served as the center of Jewish student life. While students appreciate how much closer the space is to the center of campus, Makóm lacks a kitchen to prepare kosher food.
Storage is also a logistical difficulty, and catering for weekly Shabbat meals is difficult to organize.
“Catering food is expensive, and we no longer have a kitchen to make food. … It can be hard to keep kosher. You run out of options at Leo’s. So it can be very tedious and hard work for the students who do [keep kosher],” Sapir Yarden (SFS ’15), co-president of the Jewish Student Association, said.
Quarters became even more cramped later in the semester, when Jewish students decided to shareMakóm with the Hindu Students Association, which had outgrown its home in McSherry Hall.
“JSA was really nice to share their space with us, but we’d definitely like our own place,” HSA Vice President Neha Jejurikar (NHS ’13) said.
This situation is set to change soon, according to a Sept. 5 email sent by Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry, to the campus community. The Office of Campus Ministry is currently planning an interfaith prayer center to be housed in the Leavey Center, featuring specific spaces for the Jewish and Muslim communities as well as kitchens in which students will be able to cook meals according to their religious customs. The space will also house an interfaith chapel.
Even so, resources remain strained, especially for groups who are not part of the three Abrahamicfaiths — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Georgetown does not have a Hindu chaplain or a designated Hindu prayer space, though the number of students at HSA’s weekly puja prayers is about 35, according to HSA secretary Abhilasha Banerjee (COL ’13). By comparison, about 40 students attend JSA’s Shabbat every Friday, and 50 students are active members of MSA.
“We definitely have a voice here, as part of those three big Abrahamic faiths. But the Buddhist and Hindu groups don’t have that, which is probably very frustrating,” Khan said.
Issues of representation spill over into the theology department as well.
“Being at a Catholic institution, there is an emphasis on Abrahamic faiths in general. … People giving speeches often just talk about Christianity, Islam and Judaism,” HSA president Anwesha Banerjee(COL ’13) said. “[Hindu students] would like to be on that list, too. … Even in ‘Problem of God,’ the texts we pulled from are from Western authors and faiths.”
This semester, two courses focusing on non-Abrahamic faiths — “Introduction to Buddhism” and “Hindu Religious Tradition” — are offered to nonmajors in the theology department. The department includes three full-time faculty teaching courses on Judaism and two teaching about Islam. Both of the professors of Islam are Catholic.
Meanwhile, in Georgetown’s “Problem of God” class, a course commonly taken to fulfill the university’s theology requirement, discussions can be uncomfortable for students who don’t ascribe to any faith tradition.
“I thought the class would be more about the existence of God, but it was like ‘Religion 101,’” Dennis Mai (COL ’15), who identifies as an atheist, said. “It was like everyone just assumed God existed.”
Yarden had a much more positive experience with her “Problem of God” class.
“I don’t think they try to pressure you into a certain religion. A lot of the Jesuits I’ve spoken to are really interested in what you think, what you want and how you want your experience to be,” Yarden said. “It’s a good thing that they give you the resources to learn everything. I’m so happy that there is a theology requirement, because people who don’t know much about [religion] have a chance to learn something new and different.”
According to Fr. Dan Madigan, S.J., one of the two theology professors teaching courses about Islam, this is exactly the goal of the requirement.
“The purpose is to get you into the God talk. So I think it’s important for the Christian students to read outside their tradition. I think everyone in the course ought to have their boundaries broadened,” he said.
Madigan, who spent seven years teaching in Rome to students of different faiths, said that his experiences with interfaith dialogue there influence the way he teaches at Georgetown. Many of his students were Muslims who had come to the city specifically to learn about Christianity.
“Rather than dismissing the questions and saying, ‘That is the way it is,’ I learned an awful lot by explaining things that did not seem to go together,” he said. “Everything I say has been formed in conversations with Muslims. The conversations and the teaching and learning together have made my preaching much more holistic.”
Khan has had a similar experience at Georgetown.
“The fact is that this is a Jesuit university. But it’s not that they’re just promoting Catholicism, but to look within ourselves and consider our faith. … The Jesuit ideals are universal ideals, even without religion,” she said. “Coming here, I feel like I’m learning more about religion and God and becoming more religious. I’m being questioned on my faith, but not in an attacking way, but to [help me] understand.”
This perspective is shared by many of Khan’s peers. Despite the shortage of resources and space, leaders of non-Christian religious groups said their organizations benefited from the interfaithdialogues Georgetown tries to promote.
Jejurikar, who helped organize a discussion panel for MSA and HSA last spring, said that the university’s emphasis on interfaith talks has been a boon to her organization.
“If we went to a nonreligious school, it’d be hard to find that kind of support and that kind of faculty. [HSA] might just [have been] a very tight-knit group without much interfaith dialogue and involvement,” she said.
Aamir Hussain (COL ’14), a Muslim student who serves as the president of the GU Student interfaith Council, believes the group’s greatest successes often come outside the classroom.
“We focus on dialogue and making it more of an occurrence in common settings,” he said. “We want to build faith into conversation, break students into groups of three of four, have them meet twice a month and give them guidelines to discuss faith. It will help build deep connections and provide a better understanding of themselves and other people.”
According to Anwesha Banerjee, this Jesuit ideal of interreligious understanding has helped these non-Catholic students feel at home on the Hilltop.
“If we involve students [from] other organizations, they will also get to know about us and understand us. I think that being a Catholic and Jesuit institution helps that,” she said. “[Jesuit] values encourage interaction between Hindus and Muslims, even though neither of us are Catholic. As much as we are Hindus, we are also Georgetown students.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelt Aamir Hussain’s last name as Hussein and did not reflect his role as president.