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Religious differences foster dinner discussions

By Michelle Phillips     11/19/09 6:00pm

For the first time in the university's history, the Rice Interfaith Dialogue Association, in conjunction with the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, hosted dinner talks Thursday at two residential colleges to discuss students' religious differences. The two sections, held at Brown College and Wiess College, accommodated eight and 12 students, respectively. The talks were led by RIDA moderators: Lovett College sophomore Katie Jenson at Brown and Martel College junior David Sorge at Wiess.

After having participants speak about their religious backgrounds, the moderators passed around a deck of cards featuring religious questions about handling evil, the specificity of prayer, questioning faith and changing beliefs.

Students were given five minutes to speak on their topic. The questions were followed by several minutes of free discussion.

"We wanted to generate an open, accepting environment in which people felt free to share their opinions," Sorge said. "We felt that the structured format was the best way to achieve that."

Wiess senior Alex Tseng, who attended the Wiess dialogue section, said he found the discussion engaging and a departure from Rice's supposed anti-religion vibe.

"This is something no one on campus is really accustomed to, I think," Tseng said. "I didn't know what to expect from people being open about their faith."

RIDA President Selim Sheikh said the talk was a success.

"Although it took a while for the participants to open up [in the Brown dinner], once the debriefing session started, everyone really got into it and started sharing personal experiences," Sheikh, a Martel junior, said.

Lovett College sophomore Kristen Gagalis, who attended the Wiess section, said she found the event inspiring.

"I was hoping to see what I could learn from the other religions that were represented there," Gagalis said. "I was really inspired to see strong believers from other religions share their beliefs."

Though such dinner dialogues have been hosted before by RIDA, Sheikh, a Martel junior, said they have never taken place on campus. Instead, they have been designated Houston community events, open to anyone.

He said the turnout for the dialogue was high, and the event cost little to coordinate. Participants ate servery food and RIDA subsidized meals for off-campus students. Sheikh said RIDA plans to host these dialogues once each year, though depending upon student feedback, RIDA might consider hosting the dinners each semester.

Sorge said the feedback has been positive.

"We certainly weren't expecting participants to want to continue the discussion over Wednesday lunch," Sorge said after the Wiess section concluded.

However, that is what several students suggested as they parted, Sorge said.

"Now that we've had the formal introductions, we can be more open with each other," Tseng said. "It would be good to have a real discussion rather than just giving opinions.

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