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Festival of religions connects cultures

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Students gather around a table excitedly awaiting for the event to start

Students gather around a table excitedly awaiting for the event to start

The Festival of Lights, a celebration of the many religions that are practiced on campus, is one of Drew’s efforts to increase diversity. While this big project is still a work in progress, the Religious Life Council’s Annual Festival of Lights is moving in the right direction.

University Chaplain Tanya Bennett explains that when Festival of Lights became her project in 2005, she felt it needed some re-evaluation. “I inherited the Festival of Lights when I became the University Chaplain,” she stated. “Back then, it was quite simply, a ‘festival of lights.’ It was the University’s job to find a symbol of each religion that could be lit up. For example,” she said, “the University had a yule log, a menorah, things like that.”

After becoming Chaplain, Bennett asked the students if this program was one that really spoke to them. “I thought the program could be brought to life a little more than it was,” she stated, “but I wanted to know what the students wanted. I didn’t want to impose my will on them.”

Since this conversation, the Festival of Lights has become a completely different program. “It still takes place during the Winter Solstice time, but it’s much more reflective of each religious tradition.”  This year’s Festival of Lights took place on Wednesday evening in the Rotunda of the DoYo. The two-hour long program consisted of the reading of significant passages by all of the campus’ religious groups. There were also musical performances by the Pan-Af Choir, as well as last year’s Arts of Respect Contest winner, Rachel Schacter (’14). The DoYo was filled with conversation, food and instructions on how to make an origami peace crane. In between each group’s reading was a short group sing along of “Lean on Me.” In between each group’s reading was a short group sing along of “Lean on Me.”

This year’s festival theme was “The Holy One is Our Refuge,” and short passages were read by Hillel, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship members, Catholic Campus Ministry members, members of the Theological Student Association and the Muslim Student Association. All of the readings reflected a connection between each group’s faith and their relationship to their Holy One. The relationship was described  as being a place of safety and refuge.

Karina Russ (’14), the president of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship explained that “The Holy One is Our Refuge,” theme came from the post-Sandy suffering that has been seen in recent months. “We are hoping to give everyone a bit of hope following the hurricane before the holidays.

While there has been a lot of loss and sadness in the world recently, our program’s aim is to prove that there is always a place of refuge within your Holy One,” she stated. After Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowships’ reading of Psalm 46, Russ explained the Psalm, “is all about how even when everything is falling apart around you, you can lean on God at anytime.” Lindsey Fisher, the advisor of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, followed up on Russ’ initial point. “Every year, the Festival of Lights has a theme,”she stated. “This year, after we did some volunteering in Long Island to help the victims of Sandy, we thought “The Holy One is Our Refuge,” would be extremely fitting. We were in awe at the devastation we saw in Long Island and wanted to encourage the necessity of taking refuge in your holy one, during times of heartache.”

While “The Holy One is Our Refuge” was the official theme of Festival of Lights, it is very obvious the underlying theme of the program is coming together in peace and unity. In addition to all of the chosen passages reflecting this message, the Pan-African choir’s song selection also represented coming together in peace.

The first song’s lyrics consisting of repetition of, “I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining. I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it, I believe in God even when God is silent,” reflected the theme of the night.

Their other song choices included, “Sing til’ the Spirit comes home,” and “Draw the Circle Wide.” Andrew McGibbon (’14), Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship’s treasurer, stated that, “the Pan-Af Choir’s performance brought a lot of energy and excitement to the program, as well as embodied the ‘Holy One is Our Refuge’ theme and encouraged coming together in peace.”

“When we start putting this program together,” Bennett said, “and looking more closely at the intersections of the beliefs of all of our campuses’ religious groups, it’s amazing to see how many intersections there really are. That’s the overarching theme we are working with.” She continued, “we want to examine and explain the function of all of the groups’ sacred texts, and define how they are connected. Our program is about understanding the diversity and connectivity of the Religious Life Council and all of our groups.”

According to Bennett, the Religious Life Council is “one of the most diverse groups on campus. Not only through religious beliefs, but through culture, ethnicity, and language.” She added, “We want to reflect that diversity and allow it to live on, continue to grow. Festival of Lights speaks kindly and carefully to that.”

Since 2005, Bennett explained that the only major change to the Festival of Lights has been the inclusion of students from the Theological School.“The Religious Life Council is a place where all three of Drew’s schools should be able to come together. We aim to cut across the boundaries of the CLA, Caspersen, and Theological schools as separate and want everyone to get to know each other.”

In agreement with this point, Hillel’s President, Julia Friedman (’13) explained that Bennett’s plan has been very effective.“Through being a part of the Religious Life Council, and specifically, through planning Festival of Lights,” I’ve gotten to know people that are a part of other religious groups. Hillel and the Muslim Student Association work very closely together, but I hadn’t really ever had the chance to get to know the Christian groups on campus, until Festival of Lights.”

“It’s really great to have an event that involves all of the campus’ religious groups because Hillel and the Muslim Student Association have a bunch of events together, as do the Christian groups, but getting all of us together makes for a very inspiring and unique experience,” Friedman continued. “The intermingling of all of these groups is truly touching, It’s super cool to work with other religious leaders on campus, to receive and share advice, to acknowledge how similar we all really are.”

In line with the themes of “The Holy One is Our Refuge,” and coming together in peace and unity, Hillel Director Jonathan Golden introduced this year’s Arts of Respect Program. Arts of Respect is a program that allows students to submit works of art related to respect and anti-discrimination projects for a monetary prize.

Schacter played her song, “Beauty for Ashes.” According to Schacter, her song is about “peace-building and knowing that even amidst terrible situations, there is love somewhere.” Schacter used her prize money to go on tours of coffeehouses around the country to spread her message.

At the program’s close, Bennett encouraged attendees to, “go in peace, go knowing you are protected by someone bigger than you. The Holy One is Our refuge.”