Rodney Frey was brought up in a Methodist household. He worked alongside the Franciscan priests of the Crow Indian Reservation and later, the Jesuit priests of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Yet, at his core, the University of Idaho professor of ethnography is a Crow Sun dancer.
During his battle with cancer, he said it was science and biomedicine, but also Sundance and prayer that helped him through his darkest moments.
Thousands of miles away from where Frey conducted his work with Native American communities, Vignesh Jayaraman Muralidharan, who was born and raised Hindu, found himself studying at a Catholic school under the care of a Muslim professor.
When he pursued a bachelor’s degree, the UI graduate student stayed in the dorms with people of varying faiths — ranging from Buddhists to Christians and Muslims. Jayaraman Muralidharan said this diverse exposure led him to develop his own eclectic belief system.
It was at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel, that UI junior Sydney Silbert connected not only with her faith, but also her Jewish heritage. The museum is set up like a snaking path along which visitors view remnants of the Holocaust arranged in chronological order — pieces of the train cars used to transport Jewish communities to concentration camps, the shoes of the children who were killed. At the end of this timeline, the top of the path opens on a view of Israel. Silbert said this where the history of her people connected with her present.
“When it goes out to the view over Israel, it shows — despite everything — the Jewish people have gone through, look at what we have now, look at how we’ve overcome it all, and that’s, like, when I realized — this is what I am, who I am,” Silbert said.
Their stories, circumstances, and experiences all differ, but one thread strings them together — their faith, and the practice of it on a college campus, is a personal journey.
Exploring spirituality in the classroom
During her 15 years as a professor at UI, Sharon Kehoe listened to these journeys. The former Director of the Campus Christian Center helped write a proposal for a UI Core Discovery class, now known as Integrated Seminars (ISEM), that revolved around the teachings of world religions. In the initial proposal, it was called Introduction to World Religions. Today, students know the course as “Sacred Journey: Religions of the World.”
On Core Discovery submissions, the purpose and value of the proposed class needed to be stated. While the class she was proposing would explore spirituality and faith, Kehoe said it was really about the personal journey of life.
“The idea was to show them that life was a journey and your year as a freshman will be a journey,” Kehoe said. “You’ll have the same class with the same students in the same classroom for a year, and so you would be with these people and they’ll be on the journey with you.”
At one point, Kehoe said the class was so popular there were seven instructors teaching the course. Frey, who was among the original instructors of the Sacred Journey courses, said he taught Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and indigenous spirituality in the fall semester. He went on to cover Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the spring.
“It was a really rich experience for me, because it really allowed me to learn along with my students,” Frey said.
Now that the course is only one semester long, Frey said he only teaches Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and indigenous spirituality. To minimize the chance of misrepresenting the faiths he covers in class, Frey said he tries to incorporate texts that are central to those belief systems. He said he considers the class to be a blend of the humanities and social sciences that provides students with the opportunity to learn more about the world view of other cultures.
“The fun thing about it is I’m not asking students to kind of embrace these religions and have them believe those other traditions, just to appreciate them and acknowledge them,” Frey said. “I think one of the strengths is that when you juxtapose something that may have some similarities, but also differences from your own upbringing, it allows you to have kind of a mirror into yourself and you can explore your own foundation.”
Frey said students can be more informed about a variety of belief systems when they aren’t afraid to explore other religions in the classroom.
“It gives choice to the students to have an informed life about a world full of religious issues that are all around us,” Frey said. “There’s so much misunderstanding about Islam, for example, and Native American beliefs, and so it’s really important to kind of bring that to the table.”
Experiencing the nuance of faith
The personal nature of faith makes it an exceptionally complicated topic, both to teach and explore as an individual.
Frey said one of his favorite ways of viewing religion came from a mentor he had the privilege of working with while on the Crow Reservation, Tom Yellowtail.
In some native communities, Frey said there are large medicine wheels, about 30 feet across, that have clusters of stones in the middle with spokes connected by a circular rim radiating out from their centers. Frey said Yellowtail saw the world like one of the great wheels.
“Tom went on to say he sees all the religions, all the various cultures and traditions, as separate spokes, each with their own history, their own way of ritual and prayer,” Frey said. “But all the spokes are equal, all religious traditions are equally important. One shouldn’t dominate the others.”
It’s a concept of spiritual connectivity that Thad Denyou, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, noted when she explained their belief system.
Denyou first became interested in the church while at the Palouse Pride Parade. The Unitarian Universalists were handing out bookmarks with a checklist of the church’s principles on them. As she read down the list, she found herself agreeing with many of the boxes, such as, “You don’t believe in original sin,” and “You believe that everything is interconnected.”
Once she pulled together her courage to attend a church for the first time, Denyou said she connected with the idea of spirituality presented during the service. She said the idea was pulled from the book “The Cathedral of the World.”
“Whatever is a deity, whatever might make up any type of faith, think of it as the sun. And then all these people are together and we’re all clustered at different windows and they all show us different things,” Denyou said. “Some of us might see something reflective of Catholicism or of Judaism or Pagan faiths. We’re all clustered at these windows and it leaves us with different impressions of the sun, but we’re all seeing the same light.”
Expanding faith representation on campus
The Unitarian Universalist Church is one of the many places of worship that can be found in Moscow, including the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, First Presbyterian Church and the Islamic Center of Moscow.
On the UI campus, there are three religious centers and a variety of faith-based student organizations.
Jayaraman Muralidharan said he believes the university fosters a religiously inclusive environment. Although he is Hindu, Jayaraman Muralidharan said he’s been welcomed into a weekly Christian bible study and he’s also attended the local Mosque on several occasions.
“They are not trying to impose a particular religion on the students, but they are trying to make little exposure for the students to get knowledge in different religions,” Jayaraman Muralidharan said. “So students should not take that in a personal way, they should take it in a knowledgeable way.”
Anna Arend, a fifth-year UI student pursuing her second bachelor’s degree, said it was one of the religious resources on campus — the St. Augustine’s Catholic Center — that solidified her decision to attend the university.
However, she said her experiences with religious attitudes on campus haven’t always been inclusive.
“I would say the university in general — and I don’t want to generalize — but I feel like it has a rather negative view of Catholicism,” Arend said. “Although it’s great that the campus is open to having a Catholic center, there has not been much more from the secular part of the university to make me, as my Catholic identity, feel particularly welcomed.”
Arend said she’s even had experiences in the classroom and as a university employee that made her feel as if her religion wasn’t respected. In one instance, Arend was attending a diversity training through the university that extended into the weekend. When Arend asked to be excused from the training for one hour on Sunday to attend Mass, her request was denied.
“Especially since it was a diversity training and I was not allowed to practice my religion, I was extremely frustrated,” Arend said. “So I wrote a letter in response asking that they please reconsider. They offered a room where any Christian could go and worship for an hour on Sunday, but again that was not a recognition of the diversity of religions.”
Arend said she was frustrated because Catholics do not worship in the same way that other denominations of Christians do. After working with the dean of students, Arend was allowed to attend Mass for an hour that Sunday. She said she feels like such resistance regarding religion is what deters some students from openly practicing their respective faiths.
“That’s just one situation where I think someone would have easily been scared out of practicing their religion,” Arend said.
For students like Silbert, there are no religious resources on campus. The New Hampshire native said she was surprised to learn that no Jewish student organizations existed on campus, as support groups for Jewish students are common at public universities.
“We don’t have a hallal or Jewish student club or something like that on this campus, or Students Supporting Israel, which is really common on a lot of state school campuses,” Silbert said. “I have not met a large amount of Jewish students on campus through clubs and organizations I’m a part of. Because of that, I don’t think there’s enough demand on this campus.”
Silbert said she doesn’t feel as if religion is regarded in a negative way on campus, but rather that it is a non-topic for the university.
“I’m lucky that I haven’t experienced anti-Semitism,” Silbert said. “In that sense, it’s inclusive, but I wouldn’t say that anybody has gone out of their way to make me feel included, but I’ve never felt non-included.”
The resistance to talk about religion is something Frey said is potentially a product of the tensions that can come from differing ideologies.
“There is a way we can improve,” Frey said. “There can be tensions between groups on campus, misunderstandings, but it’s a work in progress and I’m hopeful we’ll keep addressing it.”
Beyond that, Frey said empathy is the most powerful tool students can use to disband any misconceptions they might harbor about a particular religion and better understand
the similarities and differences between their own faith and someone else’s.
“We’re all on this journey, so part of it’s perseverance, part of it is sort of digging deep into who you are ultimately and not letting the voices of others drown out a clear understanding of your foundation,” Frey said. “As the voices get louder around you they may seem to attack you. It’s an opportunity to first of all try to understand where they’re coming from with empathy.”