The mood is solemn yet relaxed as members of Hillel, the Jewish student organization, eat at tables arranged family-style in a giant square. Tonight they are sharing Shabbat, a dinner of rest and reflection. On the menu is vegetarian lasagna and challah, a customary bread. It’s seems like a traditional Jewish atmosphere. That is, until you catch the the exotic aroma of Somali food drifting in from the kitchen, where other students are preparing Iftar, the meal that breaks the fast during the Islamic holiday of Ramadan. Members of the Muslim Student Association are quietly trickling in to set up for that event, which will follow Shabbat.
Overlaps like this are bound to happen at the Open House, the new home for Denison’s Center of Religious and Spiritual Life. But instead of just tip-toeing around each other, the passing groups come together. The Jewish students stay after Shabbat to help their Muslim friends rearrange the tables into rows and serve Iftar. They set up glowing lights and bright tablecloths, quickly transforming the atmosphere from somber to celebratory. Soon over 60 people, not all of them Muslim or Jewish, are standing side by side with those who had been fasting all day.
For Rev. Mark Orten, director of Religious and Spiritual Life, this impromptu demonstration of religious understanding was a “pointed moment.” It reminded him of the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world.” It also symbolized the idea behind the Open House, which is to be both a haven for spiritual uniqueness and an umbrella under which diverse ideals are united. Now nestled in Mulberry Circle instead of crowded on the fourth floor of Slayter Union, the Open House offers Denisonians opportunities to transcend religious barriers like never before.
“We share time in the world, but we don’t always share the same space,” explained Orten, who is also Denison’s chaplain. “Open House turned that around. We share space, but not time. Each group maintains its own traditions, but this allows for more interaction than [sharing time but not space].” While the Open House offers a retreat from the rest of campus, Orten also noted that “the groups are here with a degree of intentionality. They are not just passing through.”
Orten’s vision for an interfaith community began when he was the Presbyterian Chaplain at Princeton University, where he had “an increasing passion to find ways to make my own faith broader and relate it to campus issues along with issues of the world.”
When he came to Denison in 2003, Orten saw his opportunity. He teamed up with Tricia Ruess, who wanted more interaction with students after doing institutional research in the president’s office for the previous 12 years. “I had the historical background [of the school] and Mark had the new vision,” said Ruess, the assistant director of Religious and Spiritual Life.
Before long, 25 students were gathered in the University Room on Slayter’s fourth floor for the first inter-faith dialogue. Eventually, Denison Religious Understanding (DRU) evolved out of these discussions. Today, this group welcomes students from the entire scope of spirituality, including those removed from it entirely. During discussions, students are asked to share personal views and experiences rather than represent an entire religion. According Tom Mitchell ’11, a member of DRU’s Elder Council, “you don’t have to agree with what people are saying, but you must respect other people’s views.”
DRU helped to foster a burgeoning interfaith environment that made the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life the perfect candidate to move into the former Alpha Chi Omega house. The dedication ceremony was in April.
Amid the Open House’s broad assembly of religious pursuits, Orten acknowledges Denison’s Christian roots. “It’s not my intention at all to dismiss that or change that, but rather to embrace that and all the different forms it takes at Denison today,” he said. The Open House provides resources to the Christian faith, as well as all other religious groups on campus. “The right thing to do is to encourage all faiths,” he said. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Echoing her colleague, Ruess noted that “the space is dedicated to celebrate Denison’s diversity. It’s open to everyone.”
The same principles that encourage religious differences might someday expand to other issues embedded in Denison’s diversity, including race, class, gender and orientation. Tikkun olam might not happen overnight, but Orten believes that the Open House is already making progress. “It’s not a question of whether we will move through these issues,” he said, “but how.”