Rutgers allots space for interfaith prayer rooms
Interfaith prayer centers have opened on three campuses, allowing students of different faiths to convene and explore their religion in a peaceful environment.
Rutgers Student Life has specifically designated the rooms for this purpose, opening them to Rutgers students of any faith — or none — as safe spaces, said Abdul Rehman Khan, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, who, along with several other peers, founded the movement that lobbied for their creation.
Room 103 in the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus, 108E in the Douglass Campus Center, and 174B in the Busch Campus Center will all be used as designated prayer spaces, said Kerri Willson, director of student involvement at Rutgers Student Life.
Khan advocated for the institution of these prayer rooms at the Second Reformed Church of New Brunswick, he said.
“This is a big platform,” he said. “Initially, when I was starting it up, I was thinking about it in terms of bringing together this group of people who can then support other political and social causes.”
Khan was significantly motivated by what he felt were threats to Rutgers’ Muslim community. He said the New York Police Department’s spying on Muslim Rutgers students in 2012 was a particularly inspiring factor.
“We wanted to create a pluralistic environment that was inclusive, for all students to really come and have a safe space to pray at,” he said. “Prayer centers are largely symbolic for this reason.”
Khan said Muslim students initially approached private religious organizations with their concerns, and received a sympathetic response.
Rev. Douglas Shepler, of the Second Reformed Church of New Brunswick, allowed Muslim students to use the church as a prayer space, Khan said. This acceptance partially compelled him to petition Rutgers.
“If a private church can give us space and understands the marginalized concerns of this group,” he said, “then why the heck can’t Rutgers do the same?”
Khan said he closely collaborated with Rutgers officials to pinpoint and renovate appropriate rooms in different student centers.
Willson said they worked with some students to identify what spaces would be able to accommodate the prayer rooms.
“We repurposed space that could be better utilized,” she said.
Willson said when President Robert L. Barchi was approached with the idea, he was eager to oblige.
“President Barchi made a commitment to the Muslim community,” she said. “Last spring, he said that by the end of the spring semester, we would identify two spaces on campus, and by the fall, we would have a space on every campus.”
Despite the prayer rooms opening primarily because of Muslim students’ concerns, the University committed to creating a space that would cater to every religion, Willson said.
“So, while the Muslim community has been the most vocal in terms of requesting a space for prayer, we at Rutgers [are] a state institution, [so] we decided that we would provide an interfaith space where anybody is welcome to come and pray or meditate and reflect,” she said.
Several other universities in the United States, including the University of California at Berkeley, Georgetown University, the University of Portland and Trinity College offer similar prayer rooms for their students, according to a CBS article.
Khan said while he was inspired by Islamic teachings, he did not want to create a space solely for Muslims.
“Right off the bat, I didn’t want it to be predominantly Muslims [coming to the space],” he said.
Khan said he did not anticipate conflicts between religious groups using the spaces simultaneously.
“The space itself is symbolic,” he said. “In the idea that right after we meet, sometimes you’ll have Jewish students come in to use the space, and right after them sorority sisters come in to use the space.”
Rabbi Esther Reed of Rutgers Hillel said she does not envision that many other religious groups will use the spaces, as they already have their own dedicated prayer centers.
“Since the Jewish, Catholic and several Protestant communities already have privately funded, independently-established prayer spaces, it’s likely they will not use these new university-provided prayer spaces,” she said in an email interview.
Matthew Long, who is a member of the InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship and the Korean Christian Fellowship, said he views the opening of the prayer centers as a positive development.
“We could get exposure and maybe even bring people into our activities by opening to other people,” said Long, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior. “[The room is] a place where we can talk to God and come together with a common interest in mind.”
The rooms’ hours of operation will coincide with the hours of their respective student centers, Willson said, but each will have rules entirely separate from other rooms in their buildings.
“You can’t study in there, you can’t eat in there, it’s really about visitation, prayer and reflection,” she said.
Aman Sharifi, who worked with Khan to lobby for the creation of the prayer spaces, said he had observed the diverse array of people they attract.
“It’s great that we have a spot now to pray,” said Sharifi, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. “I’ve seen people from different backgrounds praying in there, and it’s just cool to have one space.”
Sharifi recounted the story of a student who came to the prayer spaces after he had been forced to meditate under staircases and behind walls.
“We kind of had the same problems,” Sharifi said. “And that was a great solution to the problem.”
This article was updated on Tuesday October 8, 2013.
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