Posted March 14, 2012

Students use spring break to explore faith

A group of Philadelphia college students skipped the surf and the slopes to immerse themselves in different faiths and religions over spring break. The trip, now in its seventh year, was sponsored by the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia (ICGP). Students from Saint Joseph’s University, Haverford College and Temple spent the week visiting different places of worship, including Catholic, Baha’i and Buddhist, while serving the community through work with Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based movement to end gun violence.

For Vikki Psomiadis, a senior biology major at Temple, the Interfaith Spring Break was a way to experience diversity she didn’t find in her hometown of Perkasie, Pa.

“I’m Greek Orthodox and I grew up in a town where there wasn’t a lot of diversity and people didn’t understand diversity,” said Psomiadis. “Through this experience, I have a chance to say, ‘This is my faith,’ and to learn about other people’s faiths.

Musu Jackson-Buckner, an academic advisor in Temple’s Honors Program who accompanied the students, said the goal is to foster understanding of other religious backgrounds so students are comfortable having dialogue with people who are different from them.

On Saturday, the students arrived at Mishkan Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue in Roxborough, their homebase for the week, and jumped right in with workshops on how to navigate interfaith experiences. They discussed how to have positive interfaith dialogue, how to ask questions in a curious, not judgmental way and most of all how to handle discomfort.

“This is not a trip that’s warm and fuzzy; it will challenge your comfort zone," said Rev. Nicole D. Diroff, director of outreach and innovations at the ICGP. “The experiences might evoke different kinds of feelings, so we invite the students to balance caring for themselves (by not participating in an activity if they don’t want to) with risk-taking. We encourage them to try on something new and see what it teaches.”

Each day, the students visited another faith or religion, either attending a service or meeting with followers. Activities ranged from mass at St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, to the Gaura Purnima festival at ISKCON Radha Krishna Temple, to Shabbat services at Mishkan Shalom and a meeting at the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Mosque.

Psomiadis found the experience so rewarding last year, that she participated a second time.

“What stuck with me the most was not only being able to see the beauty in other faiths, but having that turned around on my faith and people seeing the beauty of my faith,” said Psomiadis. “Why can’t everyone see that there are so many similarities and differences among the various faiths, and that’s what makes this world beautiful?”