Global Spiritual Life at NYU / Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership

“They should have taken a before and after picture,” exclaims one student, referring to the new roof constructed by Muslim and Jewish New York University students during a service trip to New Orleans.[1] The scene is from the 2014 documentary Of Many, a film that chronicles the friendship of Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khalid Latif, two of NYU’s University Chaplains, and that friendship’s impact on Sarna and Latif’s students. In the film, the students on the trip themselves undergo a kind of transformation, beginning as strangers but growing to trust and admire one another by the week’s end. The film takes its name from the Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership, which is housed under the umbrella of NYU’s Global Spiritual Life (GSL). Global Spiritual Life is an innovative community at NYU that seeks to create a space for “transformative multifaith and spiritual encounters,” even in a city whose immense diversity can easily be taken for granted.[2]

Launched in 2012, Global Spiritual Life aims to place religion into larger conversations about diversity in higher education. GSL was founded by Linda Mills, Chelsea Clinton, Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif. A center for religious and spiritual life was possible because university administrators and the Office of Student Affairs began to recognize the important role that religion and spirituality played in students’ lives. Further, religious groups were making about 50 percent of room reservation requests on campus, signaling to the university the vibrancy of the religious life on campus. Additionally, the friendship and collaborative work of Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif, highlighted in the documentary, presented “multifaith collaboration in this way that was transformative for students.”[3]

Today, from their home in NYU’s Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, GSL offers students a dynamic shared space that hosts an array of religious and spiritual activities as well as interfaith events. A Protestant chaplain will be leading a Bible study in the conference room on the fourth floor while students sit silently in the meditation room next door. Down the hall, Muslim students will take off their shoes for prayer in a room that had been the site of a yoga class a few hours earlier and has a magnificent view of Washington Square Park, Fifth Avenue, and the Empire State Building. On Friday afternoon, students and community members come to the fifth floor for Jum’ah in the Grand Hall. In the evening, this same room transforms into a space for a Shabbat service and dinner.

Global Spiritual Life staff members play a major role in promoting interaction. Yael Shy directs GSL, which includes the Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership, Mindful NYU, and numerous affiliated religious groups and centers on campus. GSL has four full-time staff members who, unlike at many other universities, are not chaplains. Ariel Ennis, program administrator at GSL, says this allows them to think more broadly about religious and spiritual life.[4] GSL does serve as convener of the Chaplains’ Circle, which includes approximately 70 affiliated chaplains who have access to GSL space to meet with students.

GSL has developed a religious and spiritual literacy training session called Faith Zone. Faith Zone is one of a number of “Zone” trainings at NYU that provide the tools for students and staff to engage with diversity. Faith Zone aims to help create climate on campus that is more open to, and aware of, the religious lives of students, even as religion, as a form of identity, can be particularly challenging to talk about. “[B]eing able to communicate about deeply-held personal beliefs, religious or otherwise…is an important life skill and a teachable life skill,” says Ennis.[5] Participants in Faith Zone trainings reflect on their own religious or spiritual backgrounds, explore the impact of religion and spirituality in various contexts, and discuss the resources available at NYU to help create an environment conducive to religious and spiritual inclusion and growth. Over 1,000 students and staff have been trained through some version of Faith Zone.

GSL has two programs particularly geared towards developing student leaders, in addition to providing support for student-led initiatives. The GSL Student Fellowship places a select group of students at different internships in the fields of multifaith or mindfulness leadership in New York City. The Multifaith Advisory Council is a diverse group of around 15 students who serve as the student representatives of GSL. They meet on a weekly basis for dialogue and program planning. There are also a number of student-led initiatives, including a Muslim-Jewish dialogue, a Muslim-Christian dialogue, and an interfaith service group. On the academic side of their work, GSL supports the first academic minor in Multifaith and Spiritual Leadership, housed at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work. The minor includes the courses, “Multifaith Leadership in the 21st Century,” co-taught by Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif, and “Whose Social Justice is it Anyway? Spirituality, Religion and Civic Engagement.”

Through GSL’s programming, many students are experiencing a transformation similar to that of the Muslim and Jewish students in New Orleans. What will it mean to have NYU graduates who have benefitted from, and are oriented towards, multifaith engagement? As more of the Global Spiritual Life alumni enter the workplace in various capacities, Ennis wonders how they will have an impact on New York City and beyond. But “those stories,” he says, “haven’t been told yet.”[6]


 

[1] Of Many. Dir. Linda Mills. 2014. Film.                                                                                

[2] “Religious and Spiritual Life.” New York University. http://www.nyu.edu/life/student-life/student-diversity/spiritual-life/religious-and-spiritual-life-on-campus.html. Accessed 24 August 2015.

[3] Ariel Ennis. Interview with author. New York, NY. 8 August 2015.

[4] Ariel Ennis. Interview with author. New York, NY. 8 August 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.