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Voices raised in unity, song, prayer at baccalaureate service

Northwestern celebrates diversity of faiths and interfaith understanding at annual event

EVANSTON - The simultaneous sounds of a Tibetan singing bowl, a Muslim call to prayer, Christian church chimes and a Jewish shofar echoed through Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Thursday (June 15) to launch Northwestern University’s 159th annual Baccalaureate Service.

President Morton Schapiro joined University Chaplain Rev. Timothy Stevens and hundreds of students, faculty, staff, parents and other guests for a multifaith service to kick off the 159th annual Commencement celebration. They also underscored Northwestern’s commitment to honor students and people of all faiths and no faith.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if faith brought us all together, brought the world together, instead of drawing us apart?” President Schapiro asked, emphasizing that Northwestern embraces all faith traditions equally year-round, not just when parents are in town for graduation.

“We celebrate the world’s religions throughout the year,” he said, adding that Northwestern doesn’t define “secular” as no religion, like many colleges and universities, but as “welcoming all religions equally.”

Northwestern Associate University Chaplain Tahera Ahmed, director of interfaith engagement, spoke of her Muslim faith in the invocation and recited a passage from the Koran that echoed strongly and clearly through the hall. The invocation sought to inspire students moving into the next phase of their lives. 

Under the direction of conductor Stephen Alltop, director of music at Alice Millar Chapel, students in the Baccalaureate Choir, the Baccalaureate String Ensemble and the Millar Brass Quartet sang haunting hymns and played moving selections from Edvard Grieg, Antonio Vivaldi and Franz Joseph Haydn, among others.

Seven students from different faith traditions — Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh — read passages from their sacred texts, and three students gave reflections on their religious experiences that gave them strength and comfort at Northwestern. Banners with the symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths lined the walls around the stage.

Among the student speakers, Medha Imam drew warm applause after she spoke of her early struggle to find her footing when she first came to Northwestern, remembering how when she read the Koran and prayed it always reminded her of home. Later, as her circle of friends grew, she found support.

“I found my home with strangers at Norris who became kin,” she said. Others stood by her when she found her voice to speak out against the proposed Muslim travel ban. “Faith to me brought together people from all walks of life on campus,” she said. “And I am now unapologetically an American Muslim Wildcat.”

Chaplain Stevens won approving smiles from the crowd when he quoted actor comedian Groucho Marx and poet T.S. Eliot in his reflection.

He recalled a funny song performed by Marx in the movie “Animal Crackers” that repeats the refrain, “Hello, I must be going,” using the theme of comings and goings to reflect on how that constitutes a large part of college and life in general.

Stevens advised students to pack their bags carefully but not too tightly — in order to leave room for the next treasures and chapters in their lives. Yet, he observed, “Our desire or our need to stay is always in tension with our desire or need to go.”

“It is faith that makes sense of our meanderings, our arrivals and departures,” Stevens observed, “and it is faith that enables us to reach out to other sojourners and pilgrims whose paths cross our own, so that we can become companions, bound together in mutual care.”

Wishing the students well with their plans, dreams and journeys, he also noted that we often find ourselves coming back to our origins as we travel through life. Illustrating that theme, Stevens quoted Eliot’s lines from the “Four Quartets” that read:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Quoting the final lines, Stevens noted, “And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

He concluded, “On this evening before commencement, may you be richly blessed as you go forth from this place and in all your journeys.”

As the service concluded, the audience rose and sang the University Hymn. Father Kevin Feeney, chaplain and director of the Sheil Catholic Center, gave the benediction.

Addressing the soon-to-be graduates in the audience, President Schapiro concluded his remarks by declaring, “May you all be blessed with every possible success while respecting all faiths and cherishing your own.”

Topics: Commencement

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