Calvin students face challenges with interfaith engagement; intentional interaction promotes progress

Senior Duy Nguyen’s Calvin experience has largely been a good one. After all, his peers treat him well — and only “a few” have tried to convert him.

“I didn’t mind, because I know that they did that from good intentions,” said Nguyen, who described himself as somewhere between Buddhist and non-religious. “I’m very open-minded.” But to others, he noted, conversion attempts could be offensive and “quite disrespectful.”

Life as a religious minority student at Calvin is a mixed bag, based on interviews with four of these students. Opportunities to share their faith, both inside the classroom and out, exist — and  while those students are generally treated well, their minority status comes with its fair share of difficulties, from microaggressions to conversion attempts. As a whole, the university is moving toward intentional interfaith engagement. It’s an arrangement which benefits everyone, according to members of Calvin’s Interfaith Engagement Team. 

At Calvin, “religious diversity” is often used as a synonym for denominational diversity — which has indeed been increasing in past years, according to data from Calvin’s Day 10 report

But the university, on the whole, is still overwhelmingly Christian. In fall 2021, approximately 91 percent of Calvin’s student body identified as Christian, based on the same report. And for traditional undergraduates alone, this statistic rockets to 96 percent.

The scant remainder falls into a category often referred to as the “religious nones.” While Calvin doesn’t collect data past this point, most of these “nones” are likely atheist, agnostic or questioning.

Even more elusive than these “nones” are religious minority students — students who actively follow a faith besides Christianity. At Calvin, they’re few and far between: there are “not more than 10” religious minority students on campus, estimate first-year students Aishwarya Joshi and Anwesha Pradhananga.

Joshi and Pradhananga identify as Hindu. And for the most part, they’ve enjoyed their Calvin experience. “It’s a very welcoming campus,” Pradhananga said.

But sometimes, the opportunities to discuss non-Christian faiths are limited. This is often the case in the classroom: after all, Calvin professors are defined by a strong commitment to Christianity. 

For many religious minority students, this is not necessarily a problem.

“It’s a Christian school,” said Nguyen. “If we’re willing to come here, then we should be willing to learn.”

Joshi echoed this sentiment. “We take it as a learning opportunity.”

“We just go with the flow,” Pradhananga added, “and we try to understand our religion courses like [any other] course.”

Junior Oula Salih, one of a few Muslims at Calvin, finds ways to think through her own faith in the classroom. “When it comes to discussions and they ask for a Christian perspective, I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll just do my perspective,’” she said.

Occasionally, though, non-Christian students are not given the chance. “Sometimes, you kind of fake-write essays” from a Christian point of view, said Nguyen.

Typically, professors are flexible: Salih said that she is usually allowed to draw from her Muslim background. “But you always have those clashes,” she added.

Once, during her first year, a professor insisted that she write from a Christian perspective. “I was like, okay,” Salih said, laughing. “This is something for Google!”

Learning about different religions doesn’t make your faith weaker. It makes it stronger.

There are challenges beyond the classroom, too. Many people assume that all Calvin students are Christians, according to Joshi. Sometimes, that assumption can feel difficult to challenge.

“We don’t really bring up the topic that we’re not Christians,” Pradhananga said of herself and Joshi.

When they do, though, their experiences have largely been positive. “We thought that they would react very differently,” Pradhananga said, “but [our friends] took it as a very normal thing.”

For her part, Salih is very open about her faith. “I don’t try to hide it or anything,” she said.

As a result, Salih mentioned that she encounters certain “microaggressions” from members of the Calvin community. “People don’t know that they’re doing these things,” Salih said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve met people like you!’”

Being the only Muslim in a room full of Christians can be exhausting, she admitted — but Salih sees it as a sort of vocation.

“If it’s not gonna be me, then who is it gonna be?” she asked. Those who get to know her “become more open-minded about Islam and learn new things. I feel like it’s my duty to spread that open-mindedness for my community.”

After all, as Salih said: “Learning about different religions doesn’t make your faith weaker. It makes it stronger.”

In other words, interfaith engagement isn’t anti-Christian.

On the contrary, it’s consistent with Calvin’s Christian commitments, according to Andrew Haggerty, director of the Service-Learning Center.

“In a really basic sense, the mandate to love our neighbor includes all of our neighbors: those whose worldviews align with ours and those whose don’t,” Haggerty said. “There are ideals in Christianity related to hospitality, welcoming, justice, inclusion and diversity. We can embody these ideals toward religious minority students — because of our Christian identity, not in spite of our Christian identity.”

Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim, German professor and associate dean for diversity and inclusion, echoed these ideas.

“We should feel called to engage well with people who have different religious beliefs,” Dykstra-Pruim said. “[Interfaith engagement] isn’t saying we should believe what they do. It’s not that at all. Interfaith engagement is about mutual understanding.”

Both Haggerty and Dykstra-Pruim serve on Calvin’s Interfaith Engagement Team, which was established in July 2020. The five-person team includes staff members, faculty and administrators.

Over the past year, the team has drafted a campus-wide vision statement, worked to integrate interfaith engagement into the new core and developed a list of useful resources.

Now, they’re partnering with professors from the nursing, business, English and history departments to add interfaith engagement to specific courses.

“It’s a very Christian thing to do, and it increases the learning that would occur for the students,” Haggerty said, giving the example of a business student’s need for competence in a globally-connected world.

“And then for non-Christian students in the classroom, that could be a strong signal of inclusion,” he continued. “It feels like a win-win-win to me.”

English professor Chad Engbers is one of the professors working with the Interfaith Engagement Team. Engbers is leading a semester abroad in Liverpool, England — a religiously diverse setting that is ideal for interfaith engagement.

For every student offered admission to Calvin, Calvin should be prepared to serve that student holistically.

“Students will be encouraged to visit non-Protestant and even non-Christian worship spaces,” Engbers wrote in an email to Chimes. The students will also spend a week living in a dominantly Muslim neighborhood.

On top of these plans, Engbers continued, Calvin students will have many “serendipitous interactions” as they study alongside peers of many different faiths.

But even with this progress, there’s always more room to grow. Haggerty characterized Calvin as a leader among Christian institutions, and he acknowledged that he doesn’t know everything the university does behind the scenes. Even so, he said he would like to see “a stronger institutional push to understand how to better serve religious minority students.”

After all, Calvin makes the choice to admit non-Christian students. “For every student offered admission to Calvin,” Haggerty said, “Calvin should be prepared to serve that student holistically.”

Meanwhile, Salih had one simple request: “more interfaith dialogue.” As co-director of the Calvin Interfaith Alliance, she works toward this goal by leading events like mosque visits. “Just being there, seeing it — that small little action can change your perspective,” she said.

Indeed, a 2014 survey of American religious attitudes by Pew Research Center found that knowing someone of a particular faith is correlated with more positive attitudes about that religious group. Simply put, interfaith dialogue can lead to more understanding and less fear. 

“I would like to encourage our Calvin community to not be afraid of religious others,” Dykstra-Pruim said. “I think that if you recognize that we’re not out to convert each other, that can help us overcome our fears. I would love for more of our Calvin people to be courageous in this way.”