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A Special Blend

CAFÉ cooks up a recipe of conversation, action, spirituality and education to immerse new undergraduates in interfaith dialogue

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.29.10] For some freshmen, leaving for college means leaving behind the faith communities they have belonged to their entire lives. Others may arrive on campus with a heap of questions about life, religion and everything in between. The transition can be challenging. But one pre-orientation program centered on interfaith dialogue aims to make that adjustment a bit easier.

CAFÉ (which stands for Conversation Action Faith Education) is entering its second year as a pre-orientation program. Enrollment has nearly doubled, from five in 2009 to nine this year. CAFÉ also functions as a student group during the academic year, and the five members of the first pre-orientation group continued with the yearlong program.

"One of our main goals is to bring people together, and one of the easiest ways we thought of doing that was to get freshmen together," explains Kasey Mitchell (A'11), a founding member and program coordinator for CAFÉ, a name chosen to evoke the idea of comfortable chats in a friendly environment. "That's when people are exploring the most. They're at their most curious."

In this group, religion is not a black or white proposition, but a foundation for discussion.

"One of our basic guidelines is you don't represent your religion, nor does your religion represent you," says program coordinator and founding member Elliott McCarthy (A'12). "Everybody has their own take on what it means to be religious and spiritual."

The small numbers make for a tight-knit group, but the trend points to continued growth and interest in interfaith experiences by Tufts students. 

"This is what college is about: different exposures," says the Rev. David O'Leary, university chaplain and the group's faculty advisor. "[Students] like the idea of going into a group knowing that they are going to learn something about another group."

"We want to show students all the options that are available to them and [encourage them] to take advantage of being in a diverse community," says Mitchell.

A New Path

CAFÉ grew out of Pathways, an initiative funded with a grant from the Academic Affairs Office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to promote interfaith dialogue at the nation's colleges and universities. Once that program ended, Tufts launched CAFÉ.

"We discovered with Pathways that we were able to get through some serious issues," says O'Leary. "Because we were talking it out, people felt acknowledged, people felt listened to. That's where CAFÉ came from, the understanding of having people feel valued-their position, their identities, their faith and spiritual tradition-and then saying, okay, now how can we work to build the common good."

Duncan MacLaury, a sophomore who participated in the first CAFÉ pre-orientation session and is an orientation leader this year, says the group was attractive because it embodied his existing interest in multifaith communities.

 

CAFE freshmen in 2009 preparing sandwiches to give away to the homeless at the Outdoor Church in Cambridge. From left to right: Nadav Hirsh, Duncan MacLaury, Nicholas Marshall, Emily Kaplan, Rebeccah Marrero.

"This is something I really feel strongly about. I just didn't know what to call it or that it had a movement and a voice about it already," he says.

The pre-orientation program is built around different service opportunities, which also introduce the new undergraduates to Boston. Each day has a theme that anchors the day's activities and discussions. "One of the day's themes is the interaction of faith, service and social change," says McCarthy. "Another day is faith and Tufts and Boston."

One of the highlights of the pre-orientation program, which the group is repeating this year, is a visit to the Outdoor Church, held in Harvard Square every Sunday to provide the homeless with food, clothing and a spiritual community.

"It was a powerful experience that showed the value of service work and getting to know the people you're working for and with," says Mitchell.

Other activities from last year's pre-orientation included a tour of the Christian Science Center in Boston, a campus scavenger hunt and discussions with each of the Tufts chaplains. This year, the group is visiting an Islamic community center in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood and working on an environmental service project with the Grace Episcopal Church in Medford.

Talking It Out

CAFÉ's efforts are centered on conversation-the kind says McCarthy, that are the heart of the college experience.

"The way I've described it to freshman coming in this year is the conversations we have are like the conversations you have with your friends at 3 a.m. when you're tired but you have a moment of revelation, and you wake up the next morning and you realize you talked about God and the universe and life and society and these really broad, abstract topics," says McCarthy. "We all learn from each other, and we all learn about ourselves."

Mitchell adds that CAFÉ helps uncover the common ground we all stand upon.

"By working together and talking about the little things that make us different, we also see the big picture of how alike and similar we are as well."

The spirited discussions have taught MacLaury about the value of listening.

"That is probably the most important thing I've gotten out of this," he says. "I've been more conscious of verbal communication and how it works in society and how it could be bettered by more listening."

Listening also means learning. And for O'Leary, the highlight of the program is seeing the students learn that they're all on the same journey of discovery, treading that common ground together.

"It is very exciting to see them say, ‘We have a lot of questions and not too many answers, and that's okay.' "

Profile by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications 

Goddard Chapel photo by Alonso Nichols, Tufts Photo. CAFE photo courtesy of Katie Vogel (A'10).

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