Hope College’s mission statement includes the phrase, “in the context of historic Christian faith,” and, without a doubt, Hope is a Christian institution. Indeed, many students are drawn to Hope precisely because of the emphasis on faith. However, not everyone at Hope is a Christian, and these students may struggle to feel as though they belong on campus.
Hope Interfaith Youth Alliance (HIYA) aims to change this. HIYA is a relatively new student organization whose mission is to “foster a community of people that have all these different kinds of religious backgrounds or non-religious backgrounds [… ] and not let [these differences] divide us,” said HIYA’s Vice President, Natalie Gest (’24).
After reading Eboo Patel’s monumental book about interfaith and religious pluralism, “Acts of Faith,” HIYA was founded by a group of Phelps Scholars led by Sarah Pelyhes. They thought that an interfaith group was “a need of Hope’s campus,” said Gest, especially for students who are not Christain.
“It’s very hard for students to be in such a religiously focused environment and not have that be part of their life as much, so maybe they don’t feel as much a part of the Hope community,” Gest explained. “With such a primarily Christian campus, I think there has been discrimination of students, just like judgment of students, from religiously-based students towards non-religiously based students.”
This is where HIYA comes in: “We will be there for students, and just be a resource for students,” Gest said.
While the idea of an interfaith alliance may seem unusual at an institution that prides itself on its Christian heritage, Gest emphasized that “the last thing we want to do is create division.”
A former Phelps Scholar herself, Gest also became passionate about interfaith after reading “Acts of Faith” and realized “[interfaith] is an issue and something that can be solved and worked on.”
“I just learned so much more about the world, about myself, about my own culture,” Gest said in reference to her time as a Phelps Scholar and in HIYA.
So far, many on Hope’s campus have agreed with Gest and HIYA’s view on the importance of interfaith. While Gest said it has been hard to gauge reaction because the coronavirus has kept the club unknown to many students, the feedback HIYA has received has been positive.
Gest cited a meeting with Ellen Awad, who works in Student Development and Student Life, as one such example of positive reception. After speaking with Awad about some of HIYA’s upcoming events, Gest said she responded encouragingly.
On the other hand, Gest did say HIYA hopes to involve Campus Ministries and is “a little worried […] about how to navigate those waters.”
Nevertheless, HIYA is gearing up for expansion this year as Hope looks forward to a new, close-to-normal school year after the coronavirus derailed plans last year.
So far, HIYA has hosted one event this year — an introductory trivia night — but they have a slew of new events lined up. For example, next week HIYA is hosting a Secular Social, designed for agnostic, atheist, questioning and non-faith students.
“On Hope’s campus it can be really hard when you don’t have a faith, or are agnostic, or atheist,” Gest said. “That’s a huge area we’re really focusing on and prioritizing.”
In addition, HIYA hopes to hold an “interfaith potluck” with foods from different religions and cultures, as well as collaborate with the Asian Student Union on a lantern festival celebration.
Gest also shared HIYA’s hopes to incorporate a service component into the club.
“In the broad scheme of things, we just want to figure out more events, general meetings and volunteer opportunities,” said Gest.
HIYA, Gest made sure to emphasize, is welcome to all students. “We’re here as a resource and a support system for any student that is questioning, or from different religions and backgrounds,” Gest said. “We just want to be here for you, support you, and we really hope you come to our events.”