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Baccalaureate service: An interfaith celebration of diversity

Embracing Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Baha'i faiths
Reflection was inspired in part by student performance. Photo by Storer H. Rowley

Northwestern’s 161st annual Baccalaureate Service kicked off Thursday (June 20) with majestic music and a call to prayer from different faiths, giving graduating seniors, their parents and guests a time to reflect on the eve of Commencement. 

The interfaith celebration of diversity included the sounds of a Tibetan singing bowl humming for several minutes as members of three other faiths took turns interjecting the sounds of their own religious traditions: Christian church chimes, a Muslim call to prayer and the Jewish shofar.

President Morton Schapiro, dressed in his purple regalia, welcomed some 600 guests in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, praising the power of the interfaith assembly and observing, “How beautiful is it to celebrate in one space the world’s greatest religions?”

The annual service welcomes all members of the University community, honoring multiple faith traditions. Above the stage hung seven flags representing Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism and the Baha'i faith — some of the many faiths represented on campus. An eighth flag had a Northwestern ‘N.’

The President noted that other “secular” Universities are sometimes known to avoid faith, but “at Northwestern, we interpret secular as meaning welcoming all religions equally, too, and watching these religious traditions thrive here.”

President Schapiro evoked a passage from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 23, “The Death of Sarah,” and he spoke of her age, recorded in the Bible to be 127 years at her passing. He talked about teaching his students how a life can be broken down into stages at which people learn different things. As they get older, they incorporate the knowledge gained from each of those stages, he said.

“May each stage of your life make you happier and more fulfilled than ever before,” he told the graduating seniors, adding that he hoped their faith would grow deeper over the years and that it would help light their way to “a life of service and justice.”

The student-designed program gave Northwestern graduates the opportunity to give thanks for their time here through diverse readings of sacred scripture, inspiring student reflections and musical interludes provided by a student choir and orchestra.

A Christian, William Delaluwe; a Jew, Mara Cohen; and two Muslims, Suhaib Khan and Ayesha Rahman, read from their sacred texts, while Aishwarya Chenji sang a hauntingly beautiful song from the Hindu tradition.

Kahn later spoke about how his faith had kept him centered and helped him through the different challenges he faced at Northwestern.

He remembered one poignant moment his sophomore year when he and fellow Muslims were praying on campus after a disturbing incident, and around them other students gathered and held hands in a sign of support and protection.

“There was almost a sense of safety and security,” he said, recalling the gesture, “a sense of, ‘We’ll have your back.’ ” He added, “And that’s why I love religions.”

Katherine Coughlin, who is Catholic, recalled coming to the realization that her faith could help her through the stress of focusing almost entirely on academics to the exclusion of everything else. She resolved to follow advice she had been given: “The most important things in life are hardly ever urgent.” 

Coughlin urged her classmates to remember that advice as they moved on from Northwestern and ventured back out into the world -- and when they do, to “make time for the most important things in life.”