Members of Campus Ministry at Santa Clara University prepare snack packs for Muslim students to use to break their fast during Ramadan (photo by Miguel Ozuna, SCU)

Being a commuter student did not make it easy for junior computer science and engineering major Nicholas Kenny to find community at Santa Clara University (SCU). Luckily, as a lifelong Catholic, he found comfort in the many gathering opportunities for Catholic students, including Mass, Campus Ministry, and small groups and retreats.

But, surprisingly, it was among students of different faiths where he found his own Catholicism strengthened. He attended a Ramadan interfaith dinner last year at the suggestion of a friend, and found many parallels between the sacrifice and service of Ramadan and Lent. Listening to other students share their own values and rituals also made him think more deeply about his own faith.

“Why do we say the Our Father? Why do I go to Mass? What is the Holy Spirit”?” said Kenny. “These are not questions I would be asking if I was just going through the motions of being a good Catholic.”

That experience made him want even more interfaith connections. He soon became an interfaith intern in Campus Ministry, and a participant in a steering committee that includes student leaders who help the University decide how best to serve its myriad faith communities—as well as the growing number of religiously unaffiliated students.

Kenny joined an interfaith Campus Ministry team guided by Elizabeth Rand, who has held the title of Campus Minister for Religious and Spiritual Diversity over the past year. She was recently joined in Campus Ministry by its new director, Rev. John McGarry, S.J., who took the helm in February after decades in Jesuit leadership and administration, including service as rector of the Jesuit community for the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, and Provincial of the former California Province of the Society of Jesus.

These interfaith connections tap into the foundational Ignatian mission to be “a faith that does justice” said Fr. McGarry. And while many people “find meaning through faith,” others find rich common ground in their shared desires for the planet, for the marginalized in our world, or for finding God in all people, all things.

A recent Mosaic coffeehouse event at Santa Clara (photo by Campus Ministry, SCU)

First, We Eat
Upon being hired at SCU, Rand convened students from various faith and ethnicity-based groups — including the Sikh Student Association, the Muslim Student Association, the Jewish Student Union, Intandesh, and the Native American Coalition for Change — and invited them to discern together how they could create a multifaith and multicultural community at SCU.

“What I do is come into relationship with these students and say, ‘How can we support you? And what should that support look like?” said Rand. “You will not be surprised to hear that [a top request] is to feed them,” she said with a laugh.

Together, the students have created a number of multicultural and multifaith Mosaic events. For example, every month, students gather around tables for conversations and the sharing of a meal representing a different part of the world. Recently, students practiced skills that will enable them to become bridgebuilders and learn how to listen to people who hold different beliefs and perspectives.

Campus Ministry has also provided funds to pay for foods — such as traditional challah bread or gefilte fish — for Shabbat meals hosted by the Jewish Student Union, as well as a Rosh Hashanah dinner during Welcome Weekend and a Passover seder in April. They’ve provided funds for Halal food for the Muslim Student Association’s twice-monthly general meetings; during Ramadan, they also provided snack packs and three meals for the daily sundown breaking of the fast. April will also see Campus Ministry hosting an Eid al-Fitr banquet to celebrate the end of Ramadan for Muslim students, and the funding of a movie night for the Sikh Student Association.

“Santa Clara is a school of faith, which is really important because it’s rooted in those values and shares those ideas with the students, which allows them to take the best things from what they have to offer,” said Jugraj Singh Shoker, a senior accounting and information systems major and president of the SCU Sikh Student Association.

Shoker continued, “It’s also able to be a place of dialogue for faith because other schools that don’t really support or don’t focus on faith as much don’t allow you to realize who you are, to take on that journey. Santa Clara has allowed me to understand my faith and other people’s faith as well, instead of just ignoring it.”

Santa Clara faculty, staff, and students visiting a local Hindu temple (photo by Nicholas Kenny)

Exploring Silicon Valley’s Rich Faith Tapestry
In addition to providing food and ways to celebrate their faith holidays, Campus Ministry’s interfaith team is also organizing group outings to some of the many places of worship that populate diverse Silicon Valley.

So far, they’ve gone to a Hindu temple in Sunnyvale (led by adjunct business professor Nitin Barve, who recently became a Hindu priest) and have plans to go to Chung Thai Zen community in Sunnyvale; the Muslim Community Association; and to a local Sikh Gurdwara.

Rand says they would love to identify additional “sacred spaces” on campus, after it has become clear that the Campus Ministry meditation room has become the de facto spot for Muslim student prayer, and that the current interfaith sanctuary space is not as conducive to multi-use as students wish.

“Human beings need more opportunities to gather in these kinds of communities, because we are so siloed, so cut off from one another, and so righteous in our sense of the groups that we are in,” said Rand. “We’re pretty sure that we have all of the knowledge and wisdom, so for students to have an opportunity to mix it up with people that they normally wouldn’t hang out with is just good for their souls and their hearts. It teaches them how to live in a world that is pluralistic and very diverse.”

Fr. McGarry said that he views Santa Clara’s interfaith outreach in terms of St. Ignatius’ own vision, not only to educate the whole person, but also “to be available to as many people as possible who are interested in engaging in their faith development, or exploring or seeking or asking questions.”

“I think all of that is really at the heart of Jesuit educational pedagogy — whether it’s in the classroom or in campus ministry, or in co-curricular activities.”

By Deborah Lohse, Director of Media and Internal Communications, Santa Clara University