By Lori Dresner
**Image by Lori Dresner/The Current. From left to right: Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Sara Rahim, Steve Di Salvo.
The Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis held a discussion about religion, faith, and misperceptions and myths sometimes related to religious practices, in the Student Government Chamber in the Millennium Student Center at the University of Missouri—St. Louis on March 11. Reverend Dr. David Mehl, director of planning and development for the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis, was the moderator of the discussion, and hosted a four person panel of four different faiths who are members of the Interfaith Partnership.
The panel consisted of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Sara Rahim, Jashaam Grewal, and Steve DiSalvo, director of the Office of Campus Ministry and Community Service at Maryville University. Mehl asked the panelists questions pertaining to their faith and religion, and each gave answers based on their faith and personal religious experiences.
Mehl first asked Neiss, Rahim, and Grewal to share a distinguishing feature of their specific religion. Rahim, who is Muslim, said that Muslims have a 30 day period of fasting called Ramadan. During those 30 days, from sunrise to sunset, Muslims abstain from food and drink.
“For me, I really feel a sense of solidarity with that feature because it’s 30 days where you are really committing to yourself, spiritually and internally,” said Rahim.
Neiss, who represented Orthodox Judaism, said that one of the key defining features of her religion is the deep sense of history and text they have. Neiss is a Maharat, a newly created word for a clergy position within Orthodox Judaism, which does not retain women as clergy or rabbis. She is part of a new program to create leadership positions for women within her religion. Neiss said that there are only five Maharats total in the world. Grewal is of the Sikhism faith, a monotheistic religion which began in 1469 in Northern India and combined the ideals of Hinduism and Islam. He said one key feature of Sikhism is a required aspect for Sikhs not to cut their hair, to symbolize their commitment to God and their religion. Many males of Sikhism are required to wear a turban and some females choose to do so, too.
Mehl asked the panelists to share an experience of when they have felt a deep sense of awe at God. Neiss said that she has felt a deep sense of awe during Passover, especially during the Passover Seder, a long meal in which people of the Jewish faith commemorate the story of the Exodus from Egypt. She said there is something in the ritual that always evokes a deep sense of awe in her. Rahim said that she felt a deep sense of awe when she was working at Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, during the time of the Wisconsin Sikh Temple Shooting and the Joplin, Missouri mosque being burned down. She remembers being in a state of shock and feeling hopeless over the acts of violence, but she began thinking about how she, as a student leader, could respond to that. She returned to St. Louis University that fall, and got together with other faith communities to organize an interfaith vigil.
“That, for me, was really the first time I really saw a sense of solidarity among the faith communities on my university campus,” said Rahim.
Mehl went on to ask the panelists what some misperceptions of their faith traditions are that they face on a regular basis. Grewal said that the biggest misperception his religion faces is their identity and outward appearance, especially after 9/11. He said Sikhism is generally associated with the Islam community, but the Sikh Coalition, a legal organization for Sikhism that operates in New York City, verified that 99% of the turban-wearing population in the United States is Sikhs and only one percent is Muslim. He said that while Sikhs wear the turban for religious reasons, the Islamic community generally wears it as an ethnic attribute. Rahim said that as a Muslim, the biggest stereotype about Islam is Islamophobia itself.
“Post 9/11, I think nationally, the U.S. and most of the world went from knowing nothing about Islam to knowing all the wrong things about Islam,” said Rahim.
Rahim said that she began wearing a headscarf when she was 16, and she often faces questions of if she is oppressed or forced to wear the headscarf. She said she thinks it is difficult for people to separate culture from faith. Neiss said that there is a long history of anti-Semitism and misperceptions relating to Jewish people having too much power, having too much money, and being very greedy. She believes that the media contributes to these stereotypes.
Mehl proceeded to ask the panelists what each would hope for on a university campus that would make their academic experience successful and comfortable from their faith perspective. Neiss said she wished that there was a wider availability of kosher food on campus when she was in college. She also added that she wished there was the ability to reschedule exams and make up for missed classes due to Jewish holidays. Rahim agreed that she wished there was more access to kosher food, and she said it would be great if universities would accommodate more open prayer space for students and student religious groups. From a campus ministry perspective, DiSalvo said he would like to see humility and respect towards all students, regardless of their faith.
“Different individuals live out their faith in different ways,” said DiSalvo. “If you just go by what you’ve read in a book or the stereotypes you hear about in the media, then you’re completely lost. Getting to know each individual… and the way they live out their faith and their needs on your campus is the beginning.”
When the discussion panel ended, audience members had the opportunity to ask the panel questions and meet with the panelists one-on-one.
“It was nice to know similarities and differences between religions,” said Syeda Zaidi, senior, nursing. “It opens your mind a little more from the responses they gave.”
“I didn’t know anything about Sikhs,” said Shurouk Alkharabsheh, sophomore, biology. “It was very interesting what [Grewal] had to say.”
The Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis is a collaborative nonprofit organization with over 30 years of history in bringing together religious communities for education, community service, celebrations, and growing partnerships. It is connected with over 30 faith-based communities in the St. Louis region, as well as with businesses, arts, education, and health institutions, and government and service organizations to raise awareness and understanding across religious boundaries and barriers.
(c) The Current 2015