Students unite around shared beliefs at the Interfaith Leadership Institute, which took place at Penn this week.

Credit: Lin Zheng / The Daily Pennsylvanian

This week, college students of different faiths and religions united around a shared passion for serving the world.

The Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit organization promoting interfaith cooperation among youth, hosted a four-day Interfaith Leadership Institute at Penn from July 16 to 19.

The conference drew more than 100 college students and staff members from around the United States, including members of Programs in Religion, Interfaith and Spirituality Matters, Penn’s interfaith group.

Associate Chaplain Steve Kocher welcomed the attendees, encouraging them to “talk about the things that challenge us” in today’s society.

The IFYC’s founder and president, Eboo Patel — award-winning author and member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council — delivered the welcome address and was greeted by loud applause from his audience.

“It was absolutely inspirational,” said rising College sophomore and PRISM member Kerubo Mokaya, who stood in line to formally meet Patel.

His speech followed that of IFYC alumnus Chris Stedman, an interfaith and community service fellow at Harvard University Humanist Chaplaincy.

Stedman — who Patel describes as “a man who challenges the meaning of being an interfaith leader” by not fitting into the traditional archetype — spoke of his journey to determine his religious identity as well as his experience with Christianity and atheism.

He explained his drive as one that “fosters interfaith engagement and cooperation between the religious and the nonreligious. I am a Faitheist.”

Stedman, an atheist, said he has “found common ground with the religious” and wished more people understood that “you do not have to be anti-religious if you’re atheist.”

The IFYC, which is based in Chicago, Ill., holds an Interfaith Leadership Institute four times a year, with each conference taking place on a different university campus. Most recently, it took place at DePaul University and will take place at the University of Southern California in October.

“It’s our first time on the Northeast,” said IFYC’s campaign communications manager Mike Hammer. “Philly is definitely a rich interfaith area and Penn has a great history of interfaith work.”

Patel said Penn was an ideal location and called Philadelphia “the perfect city” for the initiative.

“This is a city that cultivates the notion of ‘Better Together,’ Ben Franklin having been a leader of interfaith himself.” He added that Franklin “significantly helped and contributed to all different religious communities in Philadelphia.”

Patel also called on attendees to spearhead the movement of religious pluralism and tell the story of interfaith cooperation. He also encouraged them to follow in the footsteps of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

Hammer said the organization’s “Better Together” campaign aims to train college students to become “new interfaith leaders, capable of tackling community problems at their universities from an interfaith perspective.”

“Trained and empowered,” he hopes students and staff participants selected to participate in these leadership conferences will not only network with future leaders “but also take everything they learn into broader society to make an impact.”

The training sessions that take place during the four days range from teaching participants how to tell their personal stories to how to create events to engage their peers in interfaith action.

“Our goal is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm on college campuses,” said Claire Albert, executive office associate at IFYC.

College students were interested in the conference for a variety of reasons.

Tyler McTigue, a rising junior at John Carroll University, hopes he can apply what he learned to “helping the people in his life and on his campus grow in their own way, in whatever faith they connect with.”

However, Mokaya — an international student from Kenya — said “the interfaith experience has been completely new and very important for her personal growth.”

She explained that many topics, especially those pertaining to religion, are often brushed aside as taboo in many parts of the world, including her home country.

“I really hope to take the idea of interfaith dialogue with me back to Kenya because it has [transformed] me from being initially unreceptive” to becoming knowledgeable about different belief systems and ideologies, she said.

“If you move the world a millionth of an inch, you’ve made a difference,” Patel added.

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