New UVU reflection center to be model for others, interfaith leader says
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
OREM — As legend goes, a Hindu maharaja in Gujarat once discovered that a Sufi community had come to his area.
The Maharaja sent a messenger who gave a glass full of milk to the sheikh of the Sufi community. This was to indicate that the area was full and did not need new people.
In one version of the story, the sheikh puts a rose petal on top of the milk. In another, he stirs sugar into the drink, to symbolize that they have come to bring peace and add beauty and sweetness.
This symbolizes what Utah Valley University did by creating its reflection center, said Interfaith Youth Core founder and President Eboo Patel. Interfaith Youth Core is a nonprofit organization that reaches out to American students to train them to be leaders who build bridges instead of barriers between religions.
At Utah Valley University, students of all faiths can use one of three rooms dedicated to discussing religion, praying and meditating.
"You are the ones with the full glass of milk who have deliberately, proactively, looked around and said, 'There are rose petals here. There is sugar here. We are going to take it upon ourselves to stir the sugar in, to put the rose petals on,'" Patel told civic, religious and university leaders, along with a handful of students, at the Reflection Center ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday afternoon.
"It is when diversity is welcome, it is when you accept the people around you to add beauty and sweetness that you get a cup full of milk with sugar inside instead of salt, that you get roses on top instead of thorns."
Other events Wednesday included a lecture Patel gave to a crowd of more than 400 students, a speed-faithing activity where students were able to rapidly learn about others' religious beliefs, and a screening of the film "Us and Them: Religious Rivalry in America."
For Faisal Dul, a Muslim student at UVU, the reflection center is a set place where he can go for one of his five daily prayers. Without prayer, "I think my life would be a mess," he said. Before the reflection center was built, he would wander for up to 30 minutes some days, trying to find an empty classroom. Since the new Student Wellness Center was built in spring, he and other Muslim students have been able to meet each Friday for Jumu'ah, or congregational prayers.
On Friday, a group from Indonesia visited the reflection center during their time in the state.
"They marveled at this facility and the fact that we would allow this kind of freedom," according to Linda Walton, co-chairwoman of the reflection center advisory board and Utah Valley Ministerial Association president.
This new center puts Utah on the map with the handful of other universities that excel in creating religiously tolerant and inclusive university communities, Patel said. This is no small feat considering that the school's ombudsman survey estimates that 80 percent of its students are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"You're integrating a reflection center grounded in your values of inclusion and wellness with an academic program. You're defining part of being an educated person as having some degree of literacy in the great religious traditions and the practices of large religious communities that make up our country and our world," Patel said.
The reflection center is part of university President Matt Holland's push for interfaith understanding and is a project Holland said he has wanted to do since he became president in 2009. Under his watch the school has also created an interfaith student council that seeks to bring together and represent students of all faiths.
"As you look around the world today we are facing challenges that are on the wax not the wane, so to speak. Religious conflict is increasing in the world. It continues to be a problem even here domestically," Holland said after the ceremony.
"We need the students who graduate from Utah Valley University to come out of this institution understanding how other people think, reflect and understand the world around them. Interreligious understanding needs to form a central part of that education."
Creating a space for spiritual growth and nourishment is as vital as having places for athletics and exercise, Holland said.
"(The center) reflects I think an aching need all across our country and our academic institutions. I think it's important for our academic institutions to do something they're not inclined to do, which is recognize that spirituality is a vital part of most people's lives, whatever their religion may or may not be."
In 10 to 15 years, other schools will see the need for religious tolerance and inclusion and likely look to Utah Valley University as a model, Patel said.
"The space where other people build bombs, other people build barriers you at Utah Valley University are committing to raise up a generation of people who will build bridges," Patel said.
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