Religious groups emphasize community over membership

Susan Du and Susan Du

During the past week, many Northwestern students have been engaging in a highly choreographed search for a “new home” in a fraternity or sorority. In a similar search for community, many NU students spend their freshman year – and beyond – connecting to their faith in a more familiar “home.”

NU does not permit proselytizing, or actively seeking to convert members; it also does not allow discriminatory membership practices based on religion. Different religious groups find different ways to cope in the campus setting.

Rev. Julie Mitchell of the University Christian Ministry said the relatively small membership of UCM fulfills the group’s motto of “Open Hearts, Open Minds” perfectly. The nearly 20 active core members of UCM include questioning Christians, gay Christians and atheists.

“We are always reaching out to new people and inviting them to participate but not requiring or pressuring them in any way,” Mitchell said. “The best thing about working on campus is how open and interested students are about religion.”

Mitchell said UCM does not recruit members. New members are students who are interested in discussing religion and spirituality.

“People come here if they have questions, doubts,” she said. “They will be treated with respect. They aren’t just given single answers they’re expected to believe. They can define faith for themselves.”

Executive Director Michael Simon of Fiedler Hillel said the organization’s goal is to inspire all Jewish students at NU to explore and commit to their own “Jewishness.”

“As far as expanding our reach, we believe that while students choose to engage with Jewish life for a wide range of reasons, what ultimately leads to meaningful Jewish engagement for most people is a relationship,” Simon said. “If you have a friend doing something Jewish, it’s more likely that you’ll do something Jewish. While we do advertise and maintain a public profile, our most significant engagement comes on a peer-to-peer level.”

Simon also said Hillel’s Campus Engagement Corps is a successful initiative for inspiring members of the Jewish community. Through this outreach initiative, interns accepted through an application process learn how to involve and engage their peers in discussion of the Jewish faith and culture.

“We are not a member organization,” Simon said. “We are not on campus in any way, shape or form to proselytize. We are not here to go out and make people become Jewish.”

Apart from being a religious resource, he said Hillel is also a social network through which all types of students may find avenues of interest besides religion, including journalism, the arts, environmentalism and community service.

The Muslim-cultural Students Association Co-President Noreen Nasir said McSA is here to promote values of Islam on campus, which include peace, justice and equality across all cultures and religions.

“We’re not out there to really necessarily change anyone’s opinion or anything like that,” Nasir said. “People who are interested in the group kind of show up themselves. McSA is more of a community of friends, roommates, people who hang out than a student organization.”

In order to garner new members, Nasir said McSA will conduct various publicity boosts throughout the year. At the beginning of Fall Quarter, the outreach process includes sending group information and welcome gifts of candy to freshman who have professed interest in involvement with the Muslim community. The Activities Fair is another venue to increase McSA’s profile. Islam Awareness Week features fireside discussions, while ‘boosts’ at the Rock and at Norris University Center include hot chocolate and Islamic Jeopardy.

In a statement echoing those of UCM and Hillel, as well as many other religious groups populating NU’s campus, Nasir said McSA’s goal was bringing students together and helping the community rather than boosting membership.

“A purpose of the group is to put on good events that people enjoy rather than to get a lot of members,” she said. “Our central focus is to service the community.”

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