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Baccalaureate Service Celebrates Diversity, Love, All Faiths

President, chaplain, students honor interfaith engagement on eve of 157th commencement

  • President Schapiro: ‘Be respectful of all faiths and cherish your own’
  • Tibetan singing bowl, Muslim call to prayer, Christian chimes, Jewish shofar ring out
  • Chaplain: ‘May your hearts be open to forgiveness, gratitude, humility, compassion’
  • Principal faith traditions honored from Baha’i to Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University students from multiple faith traditions gathered together for reflections Thursday (June 18) at the 157th Annual Baccalaureate Service to celebrate the importance of interfaith engagement, inclusion and mutual understanding.

Student representatives read moving passages from their respective sacred texts -- Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. A student choir sang hymns, anthems and choral music from global religions, while a string ensemble and a brass quartet performed selections from Vivaldi, Grieg and Bach, along with other music. Students also played traditional faith-oriented instruments in succession that echoed hauntingly through Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on the Evanston campus.

As one student stirred a Tibetan singing bowl into a steady hum on stage, other students interjected alternating tones from the balcony, one singing a Muslim call to prayer, one sounding chimes from Christian tradition, another playing the shofar of the Jewish faith.

“What I’m really proud of is that at Northwestern, we don’t simply restrict religion to graduation,” President Morton Schapiro told the audience in his reflection. “We embrace faith year-round.”

Noting that his own Jewish faith is what defines him, he observed that also is true for people of many faiths. He emphasized that many universities embrace a secular tradition, while Northwestern stands apart.

“Rather than defining secular as having no place for any religions, we welcome all religions without favoring any one in particular,” President Schapiro said. “And, as a result, I’ve never seen a secular college or university with a more vigorous faith-based community. They’re alive, and they’re very well.”

Nearly 500 members of the University community, parents and friends attended the service, a student-designed program giving graduates a chance to give thanks for their time in the Northwestern community and to hear student reflections from their respective faith traditions.

The president and others spoke beneath colored banners depicting seven principal faith traditions: Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.

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 the service helped kick off the University’s 157th Annual Commencement Exercises.

The president was followed by readings from various faith traditions’ sacred texts, given by Alexandra Becker (Christian), Brian Lasman and Devora Isseroff (Jewish), Prathyusha Chenji (Hindu), Arkar Hein (Buddhist) and Sara Abu-Ghaim and Umer Zakaria (Muslim).

Then came reflections from five students representing different faiths, each in their own way underscoring the importance of their own faith and of interfaith understanding: Lydia Ramsey, Karen Wilber, Avanti Chatrahthi, Ali Filouji and Julie Lunde.

Speaking together, Wilber and Chatrahthi alternated in their remarks and focused on the lessons they learned in the hundreds of hours they spent here on interfaith discussion and learning. They both emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue, including the impetus for such engagement that often happens over a shared meal.

“Food is love,” Chatrahthi said, drawing approving laughter from the audience.

“Free food is even better,” Wilber added.

“Interfaith engagement is a lifelong journey,” observed Chatrahthi. “It became a way of thinking about the world and the people different from you.”

Lunde echoed that in her remarks, noting, “I hope we will always connect to things larger than ourselves, knowing that we have the support of Northwestern University always behind us.”

University Chaplain Rev. Timothy Stevens gave a moving reflection honoring the graduates and their academic and other achievements, yet also encouraging them to continue pursuing those things in life that are “unseen.” He noted, “We shed light on many things, but we still remain surrounded by a great mystery.”

He exhorted the graduates to remember: “To be spiritually alive, you have to be aware of that which is hidden from our senses. May your hearts be open to forgiveness, to gratitude, to humility and to compassion.”

Music was conducted by Stephen Alltop and performed by students of the Baccalaureate Choir, the Baccalaureate String Ensemble and the Millar Brass Quartet. Their selections included an anthem arranged from “Psalm 100,” an anthem with an Indian arrangement and a choral response written by Peter Christian Lutkin (1858 to 1931), who was dean of Northwestern’s School of Music from 1896 to 1928.

The invocation was given by Rev. Julie Windsor Mitchell, University Christian Ministry, and the benediction was given in English and Arabic by Tahera Ahmad, associate University chaplain.

Ahmad challenged the students always to work for justice and respond with love, noting, “Regardless of your faith, ethnicity or socioeconomic background, you are now Northwestern University graduates. May injustice trouble you, and may your faith guide you.”

President Schapiro also had a message for those who were graduating Friday (June 19), underscoring the importance of the inner light each person has within, which he called “the light that makes us human.”

“Here’s my wish for the graduates and their families, as well,” he declared. “I congratulate our students on their extraordinary achievements. I am really thankful to be part of a community where that internal light is kindled and nurtured in so many.

“May everyone in this room be blessed with every imaginable personal and professional success. And let’s always remember to respect all faiths, while, of course, cherishing our own.”

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