This year Islamic Club bounced from the Center for Intercultural Life (CIL), to Carl Sandburg Lounge, to the basement of Seymour Library in search for an open, private space to pray together. A pagan student from the Pagan Student Alliance prayed in a parking lot.
Though established by Presbyterian and Congregationalist abolitionists, Knox College is unaffiliated. Within the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, this isn’t a surprise — at least half of the colleges are unaffiliated or hold only loose connections to a Christian denomination. In honor of this impartiality the college has no religious spaces on campus, leaving many religious students without a secure place to land.
But through the combined work of Associate Professor for the Study of Religion and Culture James Thrall, Dean of Students Deb Southern, Senate Campus Life Chair and senior Tevin Liao and freshman Rebecca Katz that situation is changing through the creation of the Interfaith Council.
Thrall, a religion professor at Knox since the college established his department five years ago, brought the concern forward as multiple students had approached him over the years.
“It started with Professor Thrall reaching out,” Liao said. “[A non-denominational prayer space] is something that he apparently has been trying to push for a very long time. … From there I went and started contacting all the clubs that were related to this and started gathering all the data I needed.”
Katz became involved in the project after Liao sent out his email to the religious groups on campus asking how each club would utilize a prayer space. Katz, a member of Newman Club, believed the conversation needed to move beyond emails.
“We were being contacted individually as groups,” Katz said. “We hadn’t had the chance to get together and say what we wanted to get out of this space and why we want this space.”
Katz joined Liao in organizing the presidents of the six religious clubs into the newly anointed Interfaith Council, and Katz serves as chair of the council. They wanted first to address the immediate needs of students who require a private place for prayer.
Freshman Ayla Mir grew up with Friday afternoons devoted to communal prayer in a mosque, but that came to an abrupt end when she came to Knox and discovered Galesburg had churches in abundance, one synagogue and no mosque.
“I don’t think there is a limit of space here,” Mir said. “And that’s why I did have a problem with the fact that we didn’t have our own space. When they made the learning commons I thought, well, why don’t you make it a religious space? … You know Knox, we’re all about diversity and inclusivity, but where’s that? Where’s the religion?”
The restoration of Alumni Hall aided their efforts, as offices and buildings opened up in the transition. One of these spaces was the Alumni Relations/50 Year Club House, now cleared out after the move to Alumni Hall.
However, a recently disclosed problem with the house will hinder its long term use. The house lacks fire alarms, so students are only allowed into the building in numbers six or below as a safety precaution. At this time, the 50 Year Club House and the CIL, if that office is moved to a different location, could serve as a prayer space.
Both spaces are too small for large gatherings of the larger individual groups, like the Catholic Newman Club and Protestant Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), or for interfaith forums. Thus the Interfaith Council has been considering the option of building or acquiring a new building entirely.
President Teresa Amott was approached about this possibility, but warns that this cannot be done overnight.
“I think it is preliminary at this point,” Amott said. “I’ve been talking with donors because I have been struck by the absence of something here that I’ve seen at other institutions. We have been talking but we have not had, until really very recently, a well-formulated proposal. And now we do, and I think now those conversations could move forward.”
The proposal above mentioned was created by Katz and co-signed by representatives of Newman, Orthodox Christian Fellow, Pagan Club, Islamic Club and Hillel Club with their hopes for the future.
In the long term, the council hopes to have a non-denominational prayer space with a large, central space for large gatherings and smaller nooks for small groups and individuals to pray. They also would like to have a bookshelf with literature and art of the different religions. In an ideal situation they would also have a kitchen, be allowed to burn candles and incense, have a sound system and seating and prayer mats.
Each religious club stands to gain from a transition to a central religious space. The Pagan Student Alliance, made mostly of non-pagan members, emphasizes religious discourse whereas most clubs emphasize communal worship.
President of Pagan Club and junior Tim Berner is one of the presidents involved in the Interfaith Council conversations. While the dialogue is positive and inclusive now, Berner believes that “interfaith dialogue will have to happen [in the future] because of the people, not the religion they stand by. … One of the things I like about [Pagan Club] is that it’s a discussion, it’s not an argument. It’s a discussion of people of all different faiths.”
Junior Joshua Kemp cautions enthusiasm about the Interfaith Council at this point in time, as only club presidents participate.
“There isn’t currently a dialogue, I don’t think, among the religious groups as a whole,” Kemp said.
An important aspect of that dialogue for the Pagan Student Alliance is problems of discrimination. Junior Sydney Pacione noted that this year has been particularly problematic with students ripping down posters and asking if paganism was a real religion.
“People, especially back home, assume I am pagan specifically because I hate Catholicism or something,” Pacione said. “That’s just not true.”
For the members of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), a united space could draw interest in this fledgling group, as it was only established in Winter Term. A space would also help give them a single location to land.
“We haven’t really been able to get a steady space for our Vesper services because they’re every other week and the booking policy makes it difficult to reserve on that kind of schedule,” junior Micah Wilger said.
Sophomore and future president of Newman Club Aly Eastman addressed the disconnect in groups by listing all the locations where clubs meet: IVCF in SMC, OCF in various locations, Newman Club in Old Main, Pagan Club in the Center of Intercultural Life and Islamic Club in the Carl Sandburg Lounge.
“And just going to these meetings … it’s funny, I didn’t even know who most of these people are, they’re so amazing,” Eastman said. “And even though our religions aren’t the exact same we all have so much in common. We all have that drive for that religious feel on this campus.”
Newman Club also hopes a larger communal space can be found so they may use it for their monthly masses, which they currently host in the Common Room of Old Main.
Islamic Club is already taking advantage of the former 50 Year Club House, where they hold their Friday prayers. The safety limitation on the number of students is problematic, as at times they anticipate more than six students will want to use the space together.
They are also discussing the addition of night prayers three times a week, but again, the numbers are higher than six and there is much hassle over borrowing the single key from the Office of Student Development.
President of Islamic Club and junior Rohail Khan hopes a bigger, easily-accessible place will be found on campus both for Muslim students to offer their prayers and for them to engage with others.
“You never know, you walk inside and someone else is offering prayers,” Khan said. “It brings about more religious acceptance as well as more interaction for the groups. Once you have space and you’re organizing meetings and you know that’s where I need to go if I want to organize an interfaith event or something, then it’s not going to be a foreign concept. … Once we have a foundation … it’s going to be much better for Knox in general.”
Katz hopes that the Interfaith Council won’t disappear once a space is found.
“It’s something that I’ve talked informally with people about,” Katz said. “I’m hoping that this can sort of continue after we’ve established our space. That we continue to have goals and more interfaith action. Having a physical presence on campus really will make the religious groups more apart of campus. We feel very separate. We’re always trying to find a space. It feels very temporary that religion is part of our lives at Knox. That’d be nice to have permanence.”
Khan agreed. “I would like to have religious conversations with others. … The same way we talk about everything else, why can’t we talk about religion as well?”
While IVCF will not be utilizing a joint religious space at this time, they will participate in the interfaith forum. Hillel Club, a club for Jewish students, did not respond to inquires but is expected to use the space that the Interfaith Council finds for students to use.
Acknowledging that a permanent place is unlikely to be found while he is on campus, junior Ryan Kennedy is still excited to be involved in the process. “I feel like having a space would legitimize the whole religious community at Knox.”
As the Interfaith Council works through administrative protocols in search of a better open space, they prepare also for the second-annual Interfaith Forum on Thursday, May 14 in Ferris Lounge from 7-9 p.m, where they will debate on the topic of Evil.