Better Together Club Encourages Open Dialogue Between Religions

Maegan Nelson

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Last Wednesday evening a group of about a dozen individuals gathered on the top floor of the GAC to share a loaf of banana bread and discuss the afterlife. The discussion was the first meeting of a new club founded by first-year Leda Zakarison called Better Together, meant to encourage more on-campus dialogue between members of different religions.

Ashley Ehlers '13 and Rachel Quednau '13 laugh at a joke during the Better Together discussion on the afterlife.  Photos by Susie Krikava.

Ashley Ehlers ’13 and Rachel Quednau ’13 laugh at a joke during the Better Together discussion on the afterlife. Photos by Susie Krikava.

After introducing themselves and the religion that they associate themselves with, the students proceeded to have a discussion on death. Although a darker topic, the discussion was enlightening for many as students confessed what they believed happened after death, which parts scared them and what they were unsure of.

Zakarison said she noticed a need in the Whitman community last semester that was going unfulfilled: a student group that encourages openness between religions.

“I have been interested in interfaith work for a couple of years now, and I came to Whitman hoping that there would be some kind of interfaith group, and there wasn’t,” said Zakarison.

Leda Zakarison '16, organizer of the Better Together club.

Leda Zakarison ’16 was inspired to bring Better Together to Whitman.

When Zakarison approached Stuart Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life Adam Kirtley and asked him to be the adviser for the new group, he understood the need that she was trying to fill. Kirtley said he believes that since college is a time where students are attempting to cultivate themselves, spiritual matters become crucial.

“The college years provide students with the unique opportunity to engage, rather easily and intentionally, with those who are different from them––with those whose core identity is different,” said Kirtley.

Better Together is a national student campaign for interfaith action, mobilizing college students to voice their values, engage with others and act together to make the world a better place for everyone.

“Whitman is really devoted to diversity, which I love, but I believe that there is not enough emphasis on religious diversity,” said Zakarison. “It’s kind of a taboo topic.”

According to Kirtley, creating an open community to talk about different religions is a means to accomplish this goal, not only in terms of awareness about the different kinds of beliefs out there, but also what those different beliefs have in common.

“When we do this, we not only learn more about the other, but also about ourselves. This process of self-discovery fosters growth and development.  So, call me a pluralism geek, but yesterday’s conversation about the afterlife that brought in Buddhist, atheist, Christian and Unitarian Universalist voices is exciting to me,” said Kirtley.

Participants in the afterlife discussion came from a wide variety of religious backgrounds.  From left: Joel Ponce '16, Ziyi 'Vicky' Su '16, Ashley Ehlers '13, Rachel Quednau '13, Adam Kirtley the Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life at Whitman, and Emily Jones '16

Participants in the afterlife discussion came from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. From left: Joel Ponce ’16, Ziyi ‘Vicky’ Su ’16, Ashley Ehlers ’13, Rachel Quednau ’13, Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life Adam Kirtley and Emily Jones ’16

The rift between religions, however, is not only evident at Whitman, but also in other places.

Alex Hulse '16 joked about why he even does work when he believes there is nothing after death. Hulse was the only athiest at the meeting.

Alex Hulse ’16 joked about why he even does work when he believes there is nothing after death. Hulse was the only atheist at the meeting.

“We also, of course, live in a world in which religious strife is often blamed (rightly or wrongly) for any number of terrible conflicts. The thing is, religion isn’t going away. I fundamentally believe that promoting religious understanding among people of diverse faith traditions is an essential step in making the world a better place,” said Kirtley.

Supporting Better Together in their goal is a national organization called Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). The IFYC is an organization dedicated to promoting college environments that explore a variety of religions and discuss interesting topics, for example the existence of an afterlife, within multiple religions.

Although the club is still in the process of figuring out its niche, Kirtley said he hopes a student-led organization will offer new ways to approach religion on campus.

“Essentially, Better Together is so new that we are still in the process of identifying the terms of our collaboration [between Zakarison and me]. I also know that any initiative brought about by students has the greatest likelihood for success. My job is to get out of the way and offer support where I can,” he said.

Senior Ashley Ehlers, who originally attended Better Together’s event to support Zakarison, said the club seems promising.

“I might come back [to the next meeting] … It was interesting and everyone seems really nice,” she said, adding that she has noted the lack of religious diversity on campus as a small group leader for the Whitman Christian Fellowship for the past year.

Joel Ponce '16, Ziyi 'Vicky' Su '16, and Ashley Ehlers '13 listen during the afterlife discussion.

Joel Ponce ’16, Ziyi ‘Vicky’ Su ’16 and Ashley Ehlers ’13 listen during the afterlife discussion.

In addition to holding discussions about religion on campus, Zakarison hopes that Better Together can get involved in some community service in the future. According to Zakarison, her goals include completing one community service project a month with the club.

Better Together is hosting a yoga and spirituality workshop with Terri Cotts on Friday, Feb. 15.

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