Through Brown interfaith initiatives, students seek intellectual, spiritual pursuits

For 70 years, the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life at Brown has championed the importance of discourse, dialogue, and above all, community.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — At the Brown University chaplain’s residence, tucked off a quiet College Hill street lined with lush, green canopies and colorful gardens in full spring bloom, pizza isn’t just a meal — it’s a metaphor.

Equipped with a towering stack of pizza boxes, students of all faiths began divvying up slices on a late April evening. One student who abstained from eating meat for spiritual reasons accidentally grabbed a slice of pepperoni, and another was quick to step in and offer their own veggie slice. For some, the pizza was their first meal since dawn as they broke their daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

For most, the pizza wasn’t what they were hungry for: it was the conversation.

For more than 50 years, Brown students and community members have been gathering each month at the chaplain’s house for Thursday Night Interfaith Suppers, a key initiative of the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life that comprises dinners, inspiring speakers, a respectful exchange of ideas, and invigorating interfaith conversations about spirituality.

Students gather at the chaplain's home for Thursday Night Interfaith Supper
At a recent Thursday Night Interfaith Supper, students had the opportunity to learn more about each others' faiths through a 'speed interview' conversation exercise. Photo by Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

The suppers are emblematic of the interfaith community at Brown. They provide a welcoming space where no one is turned away, and, with luck, everyone leaves with a deeper, more compassionate understanding of the full breadth of religious, faith, spiritual and ethical perspectives in practice.

That has been senior Dan Tully’s experience. When he was deciding where to attend college, a teacher and close mentor at his Catholic high school suggested to Tully that the beginning of his Brown education may spell the end of his faith.

“He told me, ‘Dan, if you go to Brown, you will come back without a trace of your faith,’” Tully said. “‘You will have been scrubbed clean of any stain of Catholicism.’ I knew what he meant. But I think what he didn’t anticipate is the richness of the religious community here in which I’ve spent the past four years.”

Tully, a senior concentrating in behavioral sciences and religious studies, found his home within the Brown/RISD Catholic Community. He also wrote for Cornerstone, a Christian literary arts magazine; joined the C.S. Lewis reading club The Inklings; sang in Brown’s interfaith choir; and, in what may be the first instance since the group’s founding in 2005, took on the role of music director for the Alef Beats — an a cappella group at deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition and hosted at Brown/RISD Hillel.

“It’s really been a privilege to see all the ways in which students practice their faith, and how it translates from the home life in which they’ve been raised into a totally self-sufficient, intellectual, spiritual pursuit at Brown,” Tully said.

“ There was never a moment when I felt like the door was being shut in my face or that it wasn’t a space for me. Instead, I just felt like I was being brought in. ”

Aliyah Blattner Class of 2023

The concerns Tully heard from his mentor were something Brown senior Aliyah Blattner wrestled with as well. She was the only Jewish student in her Oregon high school of roughly 2,000, and the closest synagogue was 45 minutes away. For most of her life, Blattner said she felt disconnected from her Judaism.

“When I came to college, I very much had an ‘all or nothing’ mentality,” she said. “It was either: Do it and go all in, or never set foot in any Jewish space on campus.” 

Within her first week at Brown, during the whirlwind of first-year orientation activities, Blattner was invited to Shabbat. And though she was hesitant about going “all in” as two student leaders walked with her toward Hillel, that wariness melted away quickly as they struck up a conversation that deeply impacted the way she considered Jewish life on College Hill. 

“From that moment on, I was like, ‘I want to say yes to everything,’” Blattner said. “Every opportunity I have to connect with this wonderful community, I wanted to take it.”

By her sophomore year, Blattner was serving as student president of Brown/RISD Hillel, which serves as the center for Jewish life on campus and an integral part of campus social, cultural, educational, political and religious life. Now, as she prepares to graduate with the Class of 2023 with concentrations in literary arts and gender and sexuality studies, Blattner said she is grateful for the home she has found.

“It was the first place that I was able to connect with beyond a surface level and feel a true sense of belonging and kinship with other people,” Blattner said. “There was never a moment when I felt like the door was being shut in my face or that it wasn’t a space for me. Instead, I just felt like I was being brought in.”

A tradition of openness

As the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life at Brown marks its 70th anniversary this year, University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson has reflected on Brown’s distinction as a trailblazer in its openness to all faiths; in fact, it’s written into the University’s 1764 charter.

One section, simply titled “No Religious Tests,” outlines that such tests will never be a precursor to admission. Brown was the only institution of higher education in the country at the time to take that approach. The charter goes on to state that “all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute and uninterrupted liberty of conscience” and that “youth of all religious denominations … shall receive a like, fair, generous and equal treatment during their residence therein.”

While that has remained a steadfast principle for more than two and a half centuries, Cooper Nelson said the University and its religious leaders have continued to innovate and evolve to better serve the Brown community with a deepening focus on inclusivity and representation.

Sherente Harris dances in traditional regalia at 2022 Baccalaureate
Brown's Baccalaureate service is a multifaith affair which includes performances, rituals, readings and prayers from Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and animist traditions. Photo by Nick Dentamaro

Prior to Cooper Nelson’s arrival in 1990, she said the chaplain’s office was instrumental in the creation of the Sarah Doyle Center for Women and Gender; what’s now known as the Brown Center for Students of Color; the Swearer Center; and up until the 1990s, the Brown-Tougaloo Partnership also fell under the office’s purview.

“The office was associated with racial justice, with women’s justice, with economic justice,” Cooper Nelson said. “These are all critical issues in any spiritual community I’ve ever been part of.”

But it was also important to make more transparent the ways in which faith was intertwined with those issues, Cooper Nelson said.

Over the course of her first several years at Brown, she interviewed 50 University leaders and surveyed more than 1,500 community members, with the help of a Board of Religious Affairs. The efforts informed a 1998 restructuring of the office that formed the basis for what it is today. The restructuring prioritized student-centered learning and helped create a community of chaplains across many different religious traditions who advise, counsel and provide pastoral care to the entire Brown community.

“A key principle of the kind of work we’ve done is the idea that it belongs to you,” Cooper Nelson said. “You come [to religious life events and programs] out of curiosity, but we’re trying to connect you to … something that will become your work as well.”

Innovations in interfaith

Beyond the myriad religious groups on campus, Brown provides resources that include dedicated prayer and meditation rooms, expanded dining options for students who observe Kosher and halal, funding for events like silent retreats for the Brown Meditation Community, and help for students who need to identify their own kitchen and food prep areas if their needs aren’t met by dining halls. That support was crucial for students like junior Moksha Kachhia. Kachhia, one of the Thursday Night Interfaith Supper student coordinators, is part of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha denomination of Hinduism and follows a highly specific diet.

“All the people I’ve encountered have not only been interested in learning about my dietary requirements, but also very accommodating and supportive,” said Kachhia, who abstains from eating meat, eggs, fish, onion and garlic, as well as any food that’s made in the same facility as those ingredients.

Experiencing the breadth of religious resources was particularly inspiring to senior Shirley Dong, a member of the Class of 2023 concentrating in applied mathematics.

“Brown has so much diversity — not just with different religious traditions, but also within a religion itself,” Dong said. “I wasn’t really expecting such a range when I first came here. Through my co-curricular activities, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to engage with my faith.”

Dong has practiced her faith through a religious group on campus, while also pursuing interfaith engagement. She leads the Brown Christian Fellowship, which holds weekly gatherings for Bible study and prayer, and partners with Church Beyond the Walls, which serves people without housing each Saturday in Providence’s Kennedy Plaza.

“ It’s really been a privilege to see all the ways in which students practice their faith, and how it translates from the home life in which they’ve been raised into a totally self-sufficient, intellectual, spiritual pursuit at Brown. ”

Dan Tully Class of 2023

She’s also a leader of the Religious Literacy Project, a semester-long non-credit course that meets weekly to explore five major religious traditions. With goals of clarifying misconceptions about religion, affirming the importance of religious literacy at Brown and illuminating the ways in which religion is embedded in society, a cohort of students, faculty and staff of all spiritual backgrounds (including none at all) gathers for discussion centered on philosophical foundations, values, identity formation and diversity within a tradition and beyond.

“We’ve always prized interfaith, multifaith, multivalent conversations around religion, with students joining us in the leadership of it,” Cooper Nelson said. “While each of those folks comes with their own set of issues and identities and questions, we can really honor the entrepreneurialism of their learning by meeting them with a rich set of resources.”

student sits on a meditation cushion next to a monk
Venerable Sagarananda and Brown senior Joanne Lim discuss Buddhist metaphysics during a Q&A session as part of Brown Meditation Community's spring break retreat to the Amata Meditation Center in Boyds, Maryland. BMC is non-denominational and comprises students of several faiths. Photo by Justin Lu

In addition to programs, clubs and classes, it’s crucial that material resources on campus are congruous with its interfaith goals — to support interfaith infrastructure is to support those who may need different accommodations. Meeting those needs — and making it known to students that there are specific resources available to them through the chaplain’s office — has resulted in a significant boost in visibility and participation in religious and interfaith activity across campus, Cooper Nelson said.

That visibility was crucial to senior Sameerah Munshi, who served as president of the Brown Muslim Students’ Association. Munshi, who will graduate this month with concentrations in political science and mathematics, created a virtual reality experience of sacred religious spaces and advocated for visibility and acceptance of Islamic tenets within academic environments.

“When you see a community growing, you want to be part of that growth — you want to be a part of building it,” Munshi said.

To support that growth, the chaplain’s office is also focusing on prospective students. They contributed a one-pager on religious life at Brown to the Office of Undergraduate Admission and added interfaith programming to events like A Day on College Hill for admitted students, a move that Tully said is crucial for attracting and retaining spiritually minded students who aren’t sure what kind of spaces are available to them at Brown.

“We have no doubt that there’s biology and robotics and Pulitzer Prize-winning alumni … but it’s hard to imagine how rich the religious communities are here, coming from high school,” Tully said. “The chaplain’s office has done a really great job in the past few years making that activity more visible.”

Solutions for evolving communities

Cooper Nelson said a chaplain’s work is never truly finished, and she and others across campus have a wealth of ideas on how to make the community even more robust.

As leaders look ahead, they are thinking about ways to improve and preserve Manning Chapel, which is used by students of all faiths and for events such as weddings and baptisms. The chapel is particularly meaningful to senior Angelo Giannopoulos, who was raised in a household that combined Greek Orthodox tradition with tenets of yoga and mindfulness. He is deeply involved in the Brown Meditation Community, which holds many events and sessions in the chapel.

“Manning Chapel has become a symbol of the interfaith aspect of Brown,” Giannopoulos said. “You can attend so many different religious services. And when I’m in there, the aura, the spirit of the space, it really warms your heart.”

It’s just one of the sacred spaces on campus that first-year neuroscience concentrator Rachel Vidomlanski plans to include in an effort she’s developing to provide tours to the Brown community of significant spiritual, religious and sacred spots across College Hill.

In the immediate future, Cooper Nelson said she’s particularly excited about a cohort of 14 students who will live together in an interfaith-themed community within the soon-to-be-completed Brook Street Residence Hall project, which will open to students at the beginning of the 2023-24 academic year.

In addition to the interfaith cohort, Brook Street will also house two other themed communities — one dedicated to civic engagement and one focused on sustainability and environmental care. That all three groups will be in the same residence hall is a testament to the unique way Brown students combine disciplines and beliefs in collaboration with each other.

“I think those three communities have many, many places of overlap,” Cooper Nelson said. “I routinely see students with no presenting religious identity performing these sacred acts of generosity and hospitality, and that makes me really happy. Whatever we mean by ‘God,’ I am pretty sure that God sees those actions.”