This summer, Hendrix’s Office of Religious Life announced that it will be restructured to concretize a commitment to interfaith dialogue and community-building. Dr. Robert Williamson, an associate professor of Religious Studies—who was named last year to head the Miller Center for Vocation, Ethics and Calling—is now the first director of the Interfaith Initiative.
In previous years, Religious Life at Hendrix was composed of the Office of the Chaplain and the Miller Center. Starting this year, the Interfaith Initiative will be a third branch of Religious Life. J.J. Whitney will continue to work as the Chaplain and, in addition, as the new Director of the Miller Center.
The restructuring aims to foster, in Dr. Williamson’s words, both “bonded” communities and “bridged” ones. Whereas the Chaplain’s Office helps students develop their faiths which connect to a specific tradition, the Interfaith Initiative will bring students of diverse religious backgrounds and worldviews together through new forms of programming, leadership, and service-learning.
The Interfaith Initiative is hosting weekly interfaith meals on Thursday nights that feature students’ stories and perspectives from different philosophical and religious worldviews. The Initiative is also working closely with a student-run interfaith group.
The Initiative’s programming is not limited to students with traditional religious communities. It also seeks to platform students who have certain philosophical or value-driven perspectives. One interfaith meal in September, for example, featured two atheist students from the Philosophical Society as keynote speakers.
In August, Dr. Williamson and Tricia Burris (staff member of the Initiative) traveled to Chicago with the student interfaith group to attend the Interfaith Leadership Institute, hosted by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). The conference aims to foster skills related to inter-religious dialogue for over 200 participating colleges and universities.
IFYC, which previously recognized Dr. Williamson’s work, is also providing funding for a regional gathering hosted by the Interfaith Initiative in April. The summit, which is co-sponsored by Project Pericles, will bring together interfaith groups from colleges and universities in the surrounding area to discuss “Interfaith Community & the Future of American Democracy.” Students enrolled in the religious studies course entitled Leadership in a Multifaith World will be required to participate.
The Office of Religious Life has its roots in Methodist-specific service and ministry opportunities through its endowments from Methodist donors and organizations. The Chaplain’s Office and Miller Center will maintain many of its Methodist-specific service and ministry opportunities in addition to supporting non-Christian students. However, both offices are expanding their outreach across the student body. For example, the Chaplain’s office is planning book discussion groups facilitated by leaders across Central Arkansas’ faith organizations.
Dr. Williamson believes that building interfaith dialogue will strengthen the Hendrix community by encouraging students to engage with a diverse religious society during their years here and after they leave:
“If we can model those relationships of appreciation, trust, and cooperation on a small scale on campus, then when students graduate and go on to live in Conway, or Little Rock, or New York or wherever it is, they will seek people of other religious orientations as friends and allies.”
J.J. Whitney also affirmed the value of developing multifaith connections from the perspective of the United Methodist Church:
“We’ve always been about interfaith cooperation and community. That is who we are at the core. We think that community-building is not just with Christians—it’s with everyone.”
This story orginially appeared in the October Print Issue of The Profile