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Baccalaureate Service Celebrates All Faiths

Students give readings across faiths to help kick off commencement exercises

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University students from across the religious spectrum gave moving readings from their respective sacred texts as chants, chimes, the Jewish Shofar and the Muslim call to prayer echoed through Pick-Staiger Concert Hall during the 155th Annual Baccalaureate Service.

The annual service exemplifies the University's tradition of celebrating the world’s great religions, interfaith engagement and commitment to welcoming members of all faiths -- and those with no faith -- to the Northwestern family. 

It is a sacred space for students, faculty and staff to honor their faiths in all the different ways they worship and observe God, and several hundred people attended this year as the service helped kick off the University’s 155th Annual Commencement exercises.

Even the haunting sound of a Tibetan singing bowl pierced the air and lingered in the hall as the service got underway Thursday (June 20) with a prelude selection of concerto music from Handel and Mozart and a call to prayer featuring instruments from many religious faiths.

President Morton Schapiro opened the service with a reflection on how Northwestern’s approach to baccalaureate differs from the often gratuitous services at other secular universities that seem to pay lip service to faith only when parents are in town for commencement.

“While some schools define secular as meaning that there is no place for any religion, we define it as welcoming all religions, without favoring any one in particular,” Schapiro observed. “I love that definition, and I love the fact that at Northwestern religion is alive and very well.

“I see that when I am invited to engage with various faith-based communities, and I hear it over and over again from our students,” he added. “For them, as for me, faith provides two critical responses to a world often plagued by cynicism and by personal entitlement -- inspiration and humility.”

The president was followed by readings from various faith traditions, given by Sammie Offsay (Jewish), Laura Beckerman (Christian), Sasha Bayan (Baha’i), Krishni Metivier (Hindu) and Rayyan Najeeb and Meena Sayeed (Muslim).

Then came prayers and anthems performed by students, a musical reflection by Sasha Bayan on sitar and four student reflections by Ala Salameh, Leah North, Rachel Schwartz and Taylor Layton. 

Leah North told the most profound story of the service, talking about the heartbreak of losing her father to a sudden illness just as she was poised to start her freshman year in the summer of 2009. A religious person, she spoke of how it made her angry, bitter and unable to face God. 

Only time and the support of a faith community helped her inch her way back to a place where she could face her grief, manage her pain and start to move on. “There is a community around us who can help, but only if we have the faith to let them,” she said.

University Chaplain Rev. Timothy Stevens spoke eloquently of how all religions see God as our protector, even as we venture into danger, discomfort and uncertainty during our journeys -- much like the peregrine falcons practicing flying from atop the Evanston Public Library. He quoted from “The Book of Hours” by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke about Rilke’s vision of life as a series of ever-widening circles in which we also circle around God.

“Members of the Class of 2013, it is our hope that you will live your lives in widening circles, that you will find the special purpose and meaning of your own journeys, that you will discover the place of belonging,” Rev. Stevens said, urging graduates to wander beyond their comfort zones and off the well-worn paths. “Whether you know it or not, you are held in orbit by a gracious center. May that gracious center sustain you and guide your paths.

“Today we celebrate and give thanks together from our various religious traditions. All our religions teach us that we are cared for and supported in ways we don’t immediately perceive,” he added, “that we are protected and cherished and loved and respected.

“Imagine that!”

Music was performed by the Baccalaureate Choir and Orchestra, including graduating senior soloist Sofia Troncoso; violinist Jessica Ling, who just earned her Master’s Degree, and violinist Danika Pasvan, a junior. The choir was led by conductor Stephen Alltop, director of music at Alice Millar Chapel, and pianist Eric Budzynski, music associate at the chapel.

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