9/20/17 – Medford/Somerville, MA - Co-Presidents of CAFE Andrew Schloss and Ann-Marie Lee have a discussion about religion and spiritual life. (Jiayi (Frank) Ma / The Tufts Daily)

CAFE discussion group supports interfaith identity, social change at Tufts

Upon entering Goddard Chapel at 8 p.m. last Wednesday night, a small group of students was sitting on the plushy carpet by the altar, arranged around a bucket of individually wrapped twizzlers. This group is an interfaith discussion organization called CAFE, and they have gathered to discuss the intersections between faith and the environment.

The conversation flows naturally among the students. Andrew Schloss, a sophomore and CAFE’s co-president begins a discussion about the distinction between religious leaders having similar opinions on better protecting the environment and some Christian people who don’t believe in that value. However, the conversation transitions into the Rosh Hashanah tradition of dipping apples into honey, and then transforms into analyzing the interesting origins of some biblical names.

Schloss explains that this free-form conversation is exactly the mood that he and co-president Ann-Marie Lee are trying to create.

“Our job as co-facilitators of CAFE is to be the logistical force behind CAFE and make sure that we have a space and that we’re having some sort of curriculum,” Schloss said. “We’ll try to make sure the conversation doesn’t go too offhand, but it’s not our place to drive the conversation in a particular way.”

Lee, a sophomore, echoed this sentiment, explaining that CAFE is meant to be a space for intentionally structured open discussion. Lee explains that she and Schloss achieve this through the marriage of this loose curriculum with strong community guidelines.

“Speak from I statements, don’t be a voice for other people who have your identity, only speak from your own experiences, try to call people in, not call people out, all those [are] really basic things we try to emphasize a lot,” Lee said.

One might recognize the acronym CAFE, or Conversation, Action, Faith and Education, from the pre-orientation. However, while the two share the same name, CAFE the pre-orientation is a separate entity from CAFE the interfaith discussion group Schloss compares their relationship to that of Tufts Wilderness Orientation and Tufts Mountain Club, or FOCUS and Leonard Carmichael Society.

Lee explains that she and Schloss started CAFE the interfaith discussion group after completing the CAFE pre-orientation as first-years. Lee wanted to continue the interfaith work she started through pre-orientation, yet found that the interfaith discussion group promised to her didn’t actually exist anymore.

“After the CAFE pre-orientation ended, which was interfaith and social justice, and it still is, I kept poking the Chaplaincy and being like ‘where’s your interfaith group?’” Lee said. “What happened was the [Tufts Community Union (TCU)] lost all of the paperwork regarding the CAFE student group’s existence.”

For Lee and Schloss, this meant that in order to start the CAFE student group, the two had to take it through a tricky, highly bureaucratic club re-recognition process as first-semester first-years. While the task seemed daunting, Schloss and Lee succeeded in recreating CAFE through the support of TCU, the Office for Campus Life and the Chaplaincy.

Now that CAFE has officially existed for one year, Lee and Schloss are determined to serve as a support group for students from all different religious backgrounds. They hope to emphasize that CAFE the interfaith group is for everyone, not just pre-orientation alums or those who necessarily identify as religious, according to Lee.

Interfaith’ is not a perfect term because it includes spiritual identities that are not faiths,” Schloss said. “We realize that that’s not a perfect word, and it’s why we work really hard to expand the definition of what our group is.”

One way Lee and Schloss encourage this engagement is through sharing their own diverse experience with what interfaith means. Schloss grew up in an interfaith family, and therefore has experienced firsthand that people from different faiths can coexist.

“My dad is a Reform Jew and my mom is a Roman Catholic, and we celebrated holidays of both religions,” Schloss said. “I saw in my experience that this kind of space can exist, a space for people of different religions and different spiritual identities [to] come together and put aside their differences.”

Lee, on the other hand, describes herself as an interfaith individual, meaning she identifies with multiple religious traditions — in her case Roman Catholicism, Taoism and Chan Buddhism.

According to Reverend Greg McGonigle, the University Chaplain, Lee is not alone in this identity — a significant portion of the student body identifies as interfaith individuals.

“About 20 percent of incoming students now claim more than one religious and philosophical background, which is interesting, so they are interfaith even within themselves even, however they engage with others,” McGonigle said.

Lee reflects this philosophy in her own concept of what interfaith means. She believes that all work is ultimately interfaith work, as it’s impossible to separate oneself from one’s values.

“You don’t leave your identities at the door, you are always going to bring your mindset, your ethics, your values with you everywhere you go, so any work you do is interfaith work; any time you work with somebody else, it’s interfaith work,” Lee said.

McGonigle explains that the rise in people identifying with multiple religious traditions likely has to do with increased geographic dispersion of religious ideas.

“It used to be that most Hindus lived in a certain part of the world and most Christians lived in another part and most Muslims another part,” McGonigle said. “There’s kind of a currency in religious and philosophical ideas and theological materials that is pretty unprecedented, that’s probably contributing to this idea that people can be deeply shaped by more than one tradition.”

Not only does the mixing of religious traditions create complex new religious identities, but McGonigle also asserts that interfaith work can contribute to social change.

“I do think there’s a tremendous capacity for social change that exists in religious and nonreligious communities, working together there’s a kind of moral force and a depth of ethical thought that comes down to us through religious traditions that I think is really powerful to tap into,” McGonigle said.

McGonigle explains that CAFE, as a group, is committed to serving those of all religious identities from Atheism to devout Catholicism and has a valuable role to play in promoting social change through interfaith cooperation.

“It’s really valuable to have a kind of open student discussion space — a kind of coalition-building space — so we want to put whatever institutional support behind it that we can, while also really supporting and empowering the student leadership to take it in the direction that they should,” McGonigle said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mentioned Chong Buddhism as one of the religious traditions that Ann-Marie Lee identifies with, when Lee actually identifies with Chan Buddhism. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.

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