Office of Religious, Spiritual Life Holds New Week of Events


Effie Kline-Salamon

College senior Talia Greenberg (left), College sophomore Talia Rodwin, College junior Becky Berenbon, College sophomore Emily Volz, double-degree fifth year Einav Silverstein and College sophomore Simon Regenold share a laugh at Hillel’s Chocolate Seder. The coming week is Religious Life Week, which will include the release of a new report on religious life on campus.

Molly Brand

The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life will host Oberlin’s first ever Religious Life Week from April 3–12. Organizers hope the event will provide a space for students and community members of all faiths to come together, participate in various activities and discuss spiritual life.

Additionally, the ORSL plans to reveal the findings of a six-month review process begun last October — a review which focused on evaluating ORSL’s services and identifying current trends that could inform how to best serve religious and spiritual needs on campus. Outside reviewer Reverend Dr. Jan Fuller will lead a discussion about these findings directly after a lecture by authors Jake and Rhonda Jacobsen titled “No Longer Invisible: Religion in Higher Education Across America and at Oberlin” on April 9.

Alyssa Phelps, College senior and member of the Interfaith Student Council, expects that the discussion will be important for the future of those involved in religious life on campus and for the Oberlin community as a whole.

“[The lecture] is going to be a really important thing for people to go to. It’s been a big deal,” Phelps said. “Going there, listening and asking questions is going to be really important.”

The 2014–15 College-sponsored review is an effort to look forward and identify present and future religious and spiritual needs on campus. Through surveys and focus groups, over 600 students participated in the review. The findings, conclusions and recommendations of the review will be released in full by the end of the semester.

Historically, religion at Oberlin was rooted in the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology that existed from 1833 until 1966, when the program was moved to the Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, TN. Today, religious life is often less visible at liberal arts colleges, including Oberlin, although Oberlin’s Office of Religious Life has existed in various forms since at least the 1970s, according to Reverend David Dorsey, the current director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.

Religious Life Week will begin with an interfaith progressive seder in Talcott on Friday, April 3, marking the first night of Passover. On Sunday, April 5, Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin, Newman Catholic Community and the Oberlin Area Cooperating Ministries are sponsoring an Easter sunrise service. Several speakers will also visit Oberlin during the week, including Imam Adeel Zeb, director of Muslim Life at Duke University, whose talk is titled “Muslim Peace Making: What Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc. Can Learn from Islam Peacemaking.”

The Muslim Students Association is hosting Imam Adeel Zeb’s lunchtime talk, as well as two other events during the week, including another talk on April 7 and a Muslim mass prayer open to the community and led by Professor Jafar Mahallati on April 10.

According to College junior and Muslim Students Association Chair Rand Zalzala, Syrian hip-hop artist Omar Offendum will discuss the effects of living in the U.S. as a Muslim Arab American, particularly after 9/11 and during the Iraq War.

“We’d like to raise awareness and shine light on Muslim activities around the world as well as on campus,” Zalzala said. According to Reverend Dorsey, the purpose of this week is to highlight the vibrant religious activity that exists in Oberlin.

“One part is to ensure that students know what’s there,” Dorsey said. “And to model cooperation— coming together across religions isn’t always easy.”

The Interfaith Service Day, which Phelps organized, will conclude Religious Life Week.

“The whole focus on interfaith is really important on this campus,” Phelps said. “Interfaith Service Day is a specific space for having these deep conversations, [especially because] service is a key component of a lot of different faiths.”

In the past, mostly students, and in particular students who regularly participate in religious life on campus, have attended Interfaith Service Day. This year, Phelps is trying to attract a broader group.

“We’re trying to broaden [the focus] to include community members, faculty members and those who aren’t already involved in these conversations,” said Phelps. “We want to bring people into the fold, to talk about what spirituality and religion, or lack thereof — means to people.”

Interfaith Service Day, which in previous years only had service sites in Oberlin, is stepping outside of the city this year: Three of the four service sites are in Cleveland, including a Hindu temple, an Islamic center and a Buddhist Zen center. Students will also volunteer at Oberlin’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Park and the adjacent community center.

Religious Life Week organizers emphasized that everyone is welcome to attend any of the events, regardless of religious background or level of interest. Dorsey, who has been at Oberlin for two years, says he understands that Oberlin students like to explore their options before making commitments.

“We welcome that experience,” Dorsey said. “Religious events at Oberlin aren’t defined by consistent membership.”

Additionally, Religious Life Week will incorporate the fifth annual Friendship Day at Oberlin, which is hosted by Presidential Scholar of Islam Jafar Mahallati. The event is intended as a reminder that spirituality extends outside of organized religion and that interpersonal relationships are a large part of spiritual well-being.

Several of the events, such as Friendship Day, are recurring events, but other events are totally new. One new event is the four-part Faculty Faith Stories series, in which faculty from various departments will host discussions about different faiths.

Dorsey also highlighted a talk that will be hosted by Martin and Kate Thomson-Jones, which will focus on atheism. According to Dorsey, atheism has been previously absent from discussions about religious life on campus.