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

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The Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership is a pioneering initiative devoted to educating and inspiring religious and spiritual leaders to utilize multifaith dialogue and service as a force for positive social change.

“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 two NYU’s University Chaplains, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khalid Latif, and their friendship’s impact on their 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 “Beloved Community” among students, faculty, and staff, even in a city whose immense diversity is easily taken for granted.[2]

Launched in 2012, Global Spiritual Life aims to foster conversations about the role of religion in diversity in higher education, and offer trainings, tools and experiences that cultivate belonging. GSL was founded by Linda Mills, Chelsea Clinton, Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif. A center for religious and spiritual life was first proposed when university administrators and the Office of Student Affairs began to recognize the important role that religion and spirituality played in students’ lives. Religious groups were making about 50 percent of room reservation requests on campus, signaling the vibrancy of 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 participate in a Mindfulness Zone training 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 interreligious 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. For example, Melissa Carter, Associate Director at GSL, melds her unique experience as an entrepreneur with her deep knowledge of meditation and mindfulness. 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, which has trained over 5,000 students and staff, aims to help create a climate on campus that is more open to, and aware of, the religious lives of students, given that religion is a personal subject that can be 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. [4] 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.

Soon, even more will be trained through GSL’s newest initiative, “Belonging Zone,” a training that responds to current students’ professed lack of belonging on college campuses. Through a mixture of group activities, self-reflection, and mindfulness tools, the training helps students to identify their own voice, gain new tools to share its power, and participate in difficult conversations with others to cultivate more belonging, care, and connection for all.

GSL has two programs particularly geared towards developing student leaders, in addition to providing support for student-led initiatives. GSL’s Student Multifaith Advisory Council (SMAC)  is a diverse group of around 15 students who serve as the student representatives of GSL and provide support for student-led initiatives. 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 MOSAIC, an interfaith student of color 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 a range of courses including: “Multifaith Leadership in the 21st Century,” co-taught by Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif; “What Really Matters? Leadership with No Regrets,” taught by Yael Shy and Imam Latif; and “Answering the Call,” a service learning course taught by Melissa Carter.

Through GSL’s programming, many students have had transformative experiences that reshape their views on spirituality and religion. What will it mean to have NYU graduates who have benefitted from, and are oriented towards, multifaith engagement and campus-wide belonging? As more of the Global Spiritual Life alumni enter the workplace in various capacities, it remains to be seen what impact they will have on New York City and beyond.

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

[2] “Religious and Spiritual Life.” New York University. Accessed 24 August 2015.

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

[4] Ibid.