Christian church chimes, the Jewish shofar, a Muslim call to prayer and a Tibetan singing bowl sounded at Northwestern University's 160th annual Baccalaureate Service June 21, highlighting a celebration of interfaith backgrounds on the eve of Commencement.
The annual interfaith service welcomed participation by all members of the University community, honoring multiple faith traditions and allowing for a moment of reflection before graduating seniors moved on to the following day to receive their degrees.
Around the stage, in a nod to those diverse backgrounds, hung seven flags representing Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism and the Baha'i faith — some of the many faiths represented on campus.
“How beautiful it is to celebrate all the world’s religions here,” Northwestern President Morton Schapiro told the enthusiastic audience at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, noting that many universities around the nation define themselves as “secular,” avoiding faith.
“At Northwestern, we define that word as welcoming all religions equally and watching all our faiths thrive,” the president said. “It’s one of my greatest joys as president.”
The president spoke of how Jews read through the Torah, the first five books of Hebrew scripture, then begin anew, and he declared, “The Bible story stays the same, year after year, but how we relate to it changes as we change, year after year.
"May your love of all faith become stronger, and may the light lead you to a life of service and justice." - President Morton Schapiro
“This is my hope: May each transition leave you happier and more fulfilled,” he told graduating seniors, along with family members and friends, University staff and faculty on hand. “May your love of all faith become stronger, and may the light lead you to a life of service and justice.”
This student-designed program gave Northwestern graduates the opportunity to give thanks for their time in the University community through diverse readings of sacred scripture, inspiring student reflections and musical interludes provided by a student choir and orchestra.
One student, Sarah Khan, spoke of her Muslim background, noting that when she arrived at Northwestern she felt that “faith and society were often said to be opposing forces. My goal here was to pursue all my dreams, and this institution fostered the space for me to do that. Students here strive for greatness, and that is pivotal in Islam.”
Khan spent some of her time at Northwestern working as a leader of the Muslim Student Association, she said, spreading the word about Islam and explaining, “I am a Muslim because of social justice. I need to utilize my faith and put it into action.”
University Chaplain Rev. Timothy Stevens, who is retiring this year, gave a moving appeal to students and others in the audience to focus on their connections with others, quoting a famous phrase from the epigraph to the novel “Howards End” by E. M. Forster: “Only Connect.”
Stevens explained that human beings can get a glimpse of God in how they connect with other people. “Only connect,” he said. “Connecting to others is the only way we can make a difference to ourselves and others. Your life is not just about you, it is about giving yourself to something else.”
Another student, Adina Goldman, put it a different way, discussing in the context of her Jewish faith how she found a sense of belonging in the Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern.
“The starting point for community is simply showing up,” she said. “I want to bless us all for actively supporting our communities, and sometimes, all that means is showing up.”
Under the direction of Stephen Alltop, director of music at Alice Millar Chapel, the Baccalaureate Choir, String Ensemble and the Millar Brass Quartet performed an array music, from Mozart and Torelli to Gabrieli and the University Alma Mater.
The audience sang the alma mater and recited a call and response version of the University litany, beginning with the familiar, “Whatsoever things are true, think on these things.”
Associate University Chaplain Tahera Ahmad, director of interfaith engagement, helped conclude the service by giving a rousing benediction and calling on the graduating seniors, in particular, to take advantage of their precious time on Earth by living and breathing every moment.
“Rise above tribalism,” Ahmad said. “May injustice trouble you. May your every day thrive with success. Go out now and build the world with your purple passion and your purple pride, and blessed be your every day, with time.”