United in faith: UToledo Multifaith Council celebrates religious diversity on campus

·6 min read

Sep. 19—It's a new year, and a new opportunity for students to find their place at the University of Toledo.

So why not take a spin through the Religious and Spirituality Involvement Fair?

The UToledo Multifaith Council took the lead in organizing the first-time involvement fair, where students could chat up peers involved in faith-focused student organizations like Toledo Cru, Toledo Hillel, or Circle of Pagans on Centennial Mall on Sept. 2. Its executive board saw it tap into what one of them, Jacob Lombardi, said he sees as a "natural curiosity" when it comes to religion on campus.

"A lot of freshmen at the involvement fair were telling us that they were raised in a certain religion, and they maybe didn't feel a connection or didn't know enough about it," Farah Elnahal offered. "So they wanted to start exploring and learning more about other faiths."

"Even if they're not religious, or they're not used to organized religion, they're finding out what each group is about here on campus," Mr. Lombardi added.

The Religious and Spirituality Involvement Fair was the first of two major events to take shape under a student organization that's coming into its own this semester, after an inaugural year that leaders said was largely dedicated to organization and video-conferencing.

Just a few hours after the involvement fair, the UToledo Multifaith Council led campus and community in a candlelit vigil to recognize and reflect on the grief of the past year and a half. Campus and community representatives shared a variety of faith traditions.

And this week comes their third major outing: The UToledo Multifaith Council partners with the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio to observe International Peace Day on Tuesday. It's open to the public at 6 p.m. in the Ingman Room of the UT Student Union.

"We're so excited," said Isabella Weik, the founder and president of the student council, as she and her executive board paused to chat between events earlier this month.

"This thing is like one year old, and here we are."

'Now more than ever'

The UToledo Multifaith Council is ultimately a credit to Ms. Weik, a senior in general studies.

As a freshman she'd been influential in bringing back to campus the Zen Buddhist Student Association — she grew up in the tradition; her parents are the Revs. Jay Rinsen and Karen Do'on Weik of the Buddhist Temple of Toledo — and she said that experience introduced her to the "incredible religious diversity on campus."

"These organizations are doing amazing work on campus, but there wasn't a whole lot of communication or shared events," she continued. "So I thought of the Multifaith Council, particularly to help out minority religious organizations."

The council began to take shape in her bedroom, on her laptop, in the summer after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic transformed what students had taken for granted as the on-campus experience into an at-a-distance unknown. It was perhaps not the ideal time or circumstances for a new student organization, as she recalled some suggested to her early in the process, but she saw the same conditions, in part, as an impetus to get started.

"Now more than ever, the university needs spiritual support and connection," she said, recalling her line of thinking. "I shared that mission, and then all these incredible people walked into my life."

These are the council's executive board, which registered as a student organization last fall. In numerous video-conferences and socially distanced meetings, they helped her get the council off the ground, and this year are looking forward to beginning biweekly on-campus meetings of the general body.

There's Mr. Lombardi, the secretary, a sophomore and a Catholic who said he was drawn to the council after experiencing "culture shock" of religious diversity in his first year on campus; he's from small-town Milan, Ohio. And there's senior Ms. Elnahal, the treasurer and a high school friend of Ms. Weik, who had already been dipping a toe into multifaith outreach and events through her involvement with the Muslim Students Association.

Terri Draper is the vice president, and Isra Dar is the social media coordinator.

"I thought it was something the university really needed," said Ms. Dar, who, like Ms. Elnahal, came to the council from the Muslim Students Association, "so I was more than happy to join."

By March, 2021, they were ready to present the Interfaith Connection Convention by Zoom.

And a year into establishing themselves on campus, they now count four student organizations formally under their umbrella: the Zen Buddhist Student Association, the Circle of Pagans, the Jewish Toledo Hillel, and the Christian Toledo Cru.

They're also in communication with several other faith-based organizations on campus, which participate in at least some of their events. Consider this month's involvement fair, for example, where tables were also set up for H2O Church, Delight Ministries, the Catholic Student Association, and the Muslim Students Association.

The UToledo Multifaith Council also enjoys support and collaboration at the university's administrative level, including the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The office has had a hand in the involvement fair, vigil, and upcoming celebration for International Peace Day.

The goals of the student organization align well with the goals of the office, said interim executive director Malaika Bell.

"It's really important that we not only focus on racial diversity on our campus, but also put a focus on other types of diversity, and help our campus community understand those differences," she said. "Diversity is not just about racial diversity."

Looking ahead

After a whirlwind day at the involvement fair and the vigil — months, arguably even a year of planning that finally came to fruition for the UToledo Multifaith Council — the executive board is now turning its sights on International Peace Day.

An annual observance in Toledo, it's taking place on campus this year in a reflection of the collaboration between the students and the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio. The latter is a longer-standing nonprofit that supports its mission on campus, and shares much the same mission in the broader community. Its leadership has been in touch with Ms. Weik and executive board since early in the process of forming the UToledo Multifaith Council.

"They're small, but they've started something we weren't able to bring [to campus]," said Judy Trautman, co-founder of the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio. "I'm really pleased."

This year's program includes a Universal Worship Service, a dedication of a Peace Pole that will be installed at UT, and a recommitment to the Greater Toledo Compassionate Community, a title and designation that was formalized in April, 2014.

As with the vigil, both campus and community representatives are set to participate.

It won't be the last that campus sees of the UToledo Multifaith Council.

They're looking forward to continued collaboration, Ms. Elnahal said, "so that we can create this unified campus culture, so that it is normal to see like mixed-faith friend groups ... so that we feel like more of a community on campus."

First Published September 19, 2021, 11:00am

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