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placeholder December 12, 2016   •   VOL. 54, NO. 21   •   Oakland, CA

Kate Arenchild, a Lasallian peer minister for fair trade, and Roshun Rahimi, a student involved in Mission and Ministry, greet each other at the dedication of the Interfaith Sacred Space on the Saint Mary's College campus in Moraga.
GERRY SERRANO/SAINT MARY'S COLLEGE, COURTESY PHOTO

Interfaith Sacred Space opens at Saint Mary's College

A small space that has served, over the years, as the pastor's office, a reconciliation room and the office of an Episcopal parish-without-walls that worships on the Saint Mary's College of California campus, has been dedicated as an Interfaith Sacred Space to provide a place of prayer for students, faculty and staff members who might have otherwise sought out the rare, vacant classroom for prayer.

The Office of Mission and Ministry shepherded the project with input from students that was dedicated Oct. 5. The cozy space can be entered through the back of Saint Mary's Chapel or through a door on the arcade facing the front of the campus. It is simply furnished, with a small chest to hold texts; a basket, which on a recent visit, held three prayer rugs; a rug; and pillows soften the space. The lighting is low. A digital clock in the corner displays the times Muslims are called to prayer; the clock is a gift from a faculty family. A small water fountain provides a backdrop. It's a tranquil spot on a bustling campus.

The room is intentionally minimalist, said Karin McClellan, director of the Office of Mission and Ministry, to make it welcoming and appropriate for various faith traditions.

While 153-year-old Saint Mary's College once might have been close to 100 percent Catholic, today's student body defines itself as more diverse in religious beliefs and practices. At the dedication of the Interfaith Sacred Space, for example, blessings were offered by representatives of seven faith traditions.

It's just the sort of space student Roshun Rahimi has been seeking during her years at Saint Mary's.

Rahimi came to Saint Mary's as a transfer student two years ago. "I wear a head scarf," she said. "You stick out like a sore thumb." It led her to question whether Saint Mary's was the right environment for her.

"My first year I came close to dropping out," she said. "I stayed because I was past the deadline to get a refund. I figured I would come on campus, go to class and leave," she said.

As a transfer student, she had missed out on some of the traditions that connect first-year students.

A flight to Washington, DC, to respond to a family emergency had been particularly difficult for Rahimi, her aunt and young cousins. They had been subjected to secondary and tertiary searches.

She came back to school at a low point, she said, as she questioned why she had to "jump around from empty classroom to empty classroom" to pray as her faith requires.

In her email, she found an invitation from Christian Brother Charles Hilken, in which he expressed support for "our Muslim brothers and sisters" in the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino, and invited them to dinner.

"I was skeptical," Rahimi said. She told her mother about the event, and received encouragement to attend.

Rahimi was sitting with Michael McAlpin, interim assistant vice provost and director of media relations, who asked her if there was one thing she had an issue with on campus.

"It's challenging to pray on campus," she told him. "I go find a classroom but then if a class comes in, I have to go reset that prayer."

McAlpin introduced her to McClelland, of the Mission and Ministry office, who was dining there with her children.

McClelland recalled the conversation, with Rahimi asking, "Where can I pray on campus?"

Her reply: "We're working on it."

Rahimi's answer might have surprised even herself. "I'd like to help."

McClelland saw her as "exactly who I need."

McClelland said Saint Mary's College Professor Barbara McGraw had offered her office key to Muslim students seeking a place to pray. But the campus needed something bigger. It also needed to be close to the heart of the campus, McClelland said.

In addition to finding a space — which was furnished with a grant from the Bishop John S. Cummins Institute for Catholic Thought, Culture and Action — the work of the group of students, faculty and staff members is not finished.

The hope is that in addition to sacred space, there will be opportunities for people of various faith traditions to "gather around issues of social justice," McClelland said.

Saint Mary's College chaplain. Rev. Hai Ho, a Conventual Franciscan, noted the dedication of the Interfaith Sacred Space took place on Oct. 5, just a day after the Feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is considered a model for interreligious dialogue.

 
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