Last summer, I worked at a nonprofit organization in the Bay Area through a Haas Center grant. The grant was called the Spirituality, Service and Social Change fellowship awarded jointly with the Office for Religious Life. The fellowship itself was not explicitly religious, but sought to deepen our service experiences through spiritual reflection in once-a-week seminar meetings. Through the fellowship, I got to know several of the Associate Deans in the religious life office, who encouraged me to apply to the Rathbun Fellowship for Religious Encounter (FRE), an interfaith fellowship on campus run through their office.
For me to join an interfaith group was, by any traditional metrics, a bit of a stretch. I was not raised in any particular religion, and I do not believe in God. Rather, I grew up reading a bit about Buddhism here, a bit about Christian mysticism there, thus cultivating a distant curiosity about religion. I loved the existential and moral language of religions viewed through a godless context, but had never participated in an actual religious community. I knew religion in the same way I knew Europe or Africa; I had read about it, but I’d never been there and seen it for myself.
Nonetheless, I joined the fellowship out of curiosity and admiration for the Associate Deans of Religious Life. For our first event, the other ten members and I attended University Public Worship on a Sunday morning in October. Invited to church for the fellowship, I felt awkward and out of place. Was I supposed to cross my legs? Was I allowed to smile? Should I have sung even if I was off key? Would others in the audience notice my naïvete and disapprove of a pagan like myself attending their morning service?
Of course, none of my worries came to pass. We spent the rest of the day conversing over lunch and walking the labyrinth outside of Windhover, all the while challenging ourselves to enter a more contemplative, vulnerable state of mind. By the end of the day, we were already sharing our reflections on purpose, meaning and emotional tensions with each other.
From that day on, FRE became the only community on campus where I felt wholly known and listened to. Despite being non-religious, other members of the group and our lovely Associate Deans absorbed my ideas and opinions with the utmost open-mindedness and respect. Though the goal of the fellowship was to promote interfaith dialogue, I was pleased to find that we shared many of our values, concerns and moral attitudes. We all wondered about the meaning and actualization of love, what it meant to be a servant of humanity and how to best integrate our own spiritual ideals (be they divinely related or not) in our day-to-day lives. We also wished each other luck on midterms, made lighthearted fun of each other and even occasionally gossiped about our romantic lives together. Once a week, every quarter, we came together, shared a meal and made a point of being present, open and compassionate no matter what was going on in our lives outside of our dining room.
FRE ended this week, and with its conclusion, I have come to realize how central the Office for Religious Life has become in my otherwise non-religious life. When I am anxious about the future of humanity, confused about how to balance aspiration and wellbeing or otherwise in need of wisdom, it is the people in the Religious Life office that I talk to. They do not provide therapy, but something better: a thought partner with whom to talk about my internal conflicts, full of both religious anecdotes but also personal stories. It is rare that I meet an adult on campus willing to be vulnerable in front of students; in the Office of Religious Life, such discussions are commonplace, and make this office the sanctuary it has become for me and others.
The purpose of this article is not to convince every one of you to get involved with the Office of Religious Life (though I’m quite sure they would appreciate your visit to the third floor of Old Union!). Rather, it is to say that we should all be open to finding meaning and connection in places where we least expect it. I came to Stanford with no intention of exploring religious community; I will leave Stanford counting among my closest relationships a rabbi, a Muslim leader and several Christian deans at the university, who accept and care for me regardless of my belief or lack thereof.
So do not limit yourself to connections within the bounds of your own identity. Venture into unfamiliar spaces that spark your interest, and have the courage to be the odd one out. You may not always feel accepted, but you may form connections you never thought possible, and open your world to a whole new set of people and ideas. For as much learning as can be done in the classroom, the deepest experiential learning that Stanford has to offer is in its people.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.