19 October 2011

Interfaith Week: an inaugural success

You may not have realised it, but last week was the start of something special. The never seen before, Interfaith Week hosted by the University of Sydney Union splashed onto the stage. It was the first of its kind at an Australian university, and with it came a profound and spectacular display of the history, culture and beliefs that different faiths adhere to. With great diversity and imbued respect, these different faith-based communities came to discuss and more importantly share what shapes their identities.

As a recognition of the thousands of faithful students at the University of Sydney, Interfaith Week first manifest as a policy in a Union election one and a half years ago. With much encouragement and support of the USU, the idea found its way into the hands of the two inaugural Interfaith Week directors, Kate Wilcox and Sarah Segal who with great enthusiasm, breathed life into the festival. Kate who hailed from the Evangelical Union and Sarah, an executive of the Australian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) had differing experiences within their communities but came together with one mandate, to start a discussion about faith. Whilst that sounds straightforward, their job became more complex, as they weaved in events that displayed the depth of culture that surround the different faiths, be it their art, music or food.

The outcome of the week was not a mere discussion between the religious societies on campus, for that would have only met the lowest criteria. But rather, issues of great significance and personal prominence were discussed between students of all creeds, faith-based or not. Interfaith week as an act of pluralism allowed for the faith-based societies on campus to give proper consideration to antithetical views and work with members from other societies. However Interfaith Week also an act of outreach was of great significance, bringing together faith-based communities with students that don't hold great affinity for faith, or are aggrieved by certain issues and having honest dialogue. The impressive turnouts at 'Religion and Women' and 'Religion and LGBTIQ' showed that the week held the perfect temperature, cool enough not to inflame or offend, and warm enough for satisfying and serious discussion to be had.

So what actually happened during the week? 

Monday - Launch Brunch
Brunch was on the Union, and whilst it was a light spot of tea the questions dug deep. 
The presidents of different religious societies came together to discuss in panel form, the possibilities of interfaith dialogue and what its value was.
Many thanks to the presidents who spoke;

- Joel Einstein (AUJS)
- Hugh Chilton (EU)
- Hajar Rafiq (SUMSA)
- Martha Gouniai (Baha'i)
- Savitha Narayan (HinduSOC)
- Alison Chau (UniBodhi)

Tuesday - Religion and Women
An impressive range of speakers aimed to reconcile the modern concerns of women and religion, their rights and roles.

- Anisa Memari (President of Baha’i Society)
- Dr Laura Beth-Bugg (Lecturer in Sociology of Religion at USyd)
- Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio (Rabbi at Emanuel Synagogue)
- Ghena Krayem (Lecturer in Law at USyd)
- Bhante Sujato (Buddhist community leader)

Tuesday - the Great Debate
The Law School foyer was beaming with life as Scott Stephens (ABC Religion and Ethics editor) dove right into the issue of whether society has outgrown religion.
In an impressive and well informed discussion there was an impressive lineup;

- Scott Stephens (editor, ABC Religion and Ethics)
- Greg Clarke (journalist and CEO of the Bible Society Australia)
- Avril Alba (Director of Education at the Sydney Jewish Museum)
- Peter Bowditch (immediate past president of the Australian Skeptics Association)
- Martin Hadley (Barrister)

Wednesday - Faith Fair
In a strong display of community, the faith based societies gathered outside the law lawns in celebration of their beliefs, accompanied with food, music and cultural expressions of faith.

Thursday - Religion and LGTBIQ
In a true display of diversity, speakers from different Christian and Jewish communities came to address a full Isabel Fiddler room on the issues of sexuality and spirituality with;

- Amy McBurney (EU)
- Curtis Dickson (CSU exec)
- Brandon Srot (Head of Youth Dayenu, the Jewish LGBT community)

Friday - Poetry Slam 
As a conclusion to the week, real dosh was put up as winnings for the poetry competition. 14 contestants went to heads for a $500 first prize, a $250 second and $100 third prize.

Apart from the range of USU organised events, clubs and societies were called to organise their own events. 
Notable events were SUMSA's 'Islam: a fundamental discussion', the combined event 'The Historical Jesus: Does he have a leg to stand on' run by the EU, Catholic Society (CSSP) and Fellowship of Orthodox Christian University Students (FOCUS). Likewise AUJS held '10 Things i hate about Jews', CSU "Is Jesus the only saviour' and 'Buddhism in the Modern Word' by Unibodhi.

It was a successful week and a strong start to a new addition to the USU calendar, but the week never ends. The strength of Interfaith week testifies to the energetic nature of the religious societies on campus, who work tirelessly to help students better understand faith and religion year round. If you have further interest or desire more discussion, make sure to get in contact with your society of choice through; http://www.usuonline.com/find_a_club/

James Flynn
Board Director

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