The USU Interfaith Council and how it seeks to empower USYD Interfaith Community
Words by Jacob Masina
Amidst a challenging time for religious-based discourse in Australia, the campus interfaith community at the University of Sydney is thriving. Being responsible for the constant improvement of our campus life, the USU hopes to promote wellbeing by contributing to an inclusive environment through such initiatives as the Interfaith Council.
The status of interfaith dialogue, and the tensions of secular and non-secular Australia has been at the forefront of public discourse in the past year with the occasion of the marriage-equality plebiscite, the legalisation of same-sex marriage, as well as the recent release of the Ruddock Inquiry into Religious Freedoms. The sensitivity and complexity of issues affecting the interfaith community as well as religious discourse in Australia is not foreign to those of us studying at Sydney University. We may recall the heated stand-off in 2015 between the University of Sydney Union (USU) and the Evangelical Union (EU) over the EU’s faith-based membership policies; the ongoing challenge to the status of LifeChoice — a registered USU club that advocates a pro-life message; and clashes between Queer Collective protestors and the Catholic Society in late 2017, during the marriage equality plebiscite.
Undeniably, there are nuanced points to draw from each instance an interfaith issue splashes across the headlines of student media. However, what can often be missed is the work and dedication of those members both inside and outside of the USYD Interfaith Community that strive to enrich the discourse, rather than shut down debate; to improve the inclusiveness of our campus environment, rather than exclude and ostracise. Worthy recipients of recognition are the many faith-based clubs and societies who are willing to engage with students of different viewpoints with regular or semi-regular events such as the Evangelical Union's 'What are you longing for? Festival’, the Catholic Society’s ‘Christ Week’, and the Sydney University Muslim Students’ Association’s (SUMSA) ‘Islamic Awareness Week’. Shout-out as well to the Ahlulbayt Society, Australian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS), Baha’i Society, Catholic Asian Students Society, Orthodox Christian Fellowship (SOPHIA), UniBodhi, and the Sikh Society, as well as our many other faith-based clubs and societies.
A notable milestone in the journey of the campus interfaith community was an initiative driven by former USU President, Michael Rees, to establish the USU Interfaith Council in 2016, following the tensions between the USU and the EU over the Club’s constitution. Michael Rees says “the reestablishment of the Council was driven by an honest admission that the USU needed to improve its understanding of the perspectives of religious societies.” There was a sense that the Board and the USU had lost touch with this community, its interests and concerns. Rees observes that with the introduction of the Council, the relationship dynamic between the Board and faith-based leaders became more collaborative and respectful, as it gave the Board an opportunity to listen, and for those representative voices of the community to be heard.
The Charter of the Council was adopted by the USU Board to provide a forum for members of the campus interfaith community. These members continue to be invited as delegated representatives of faith-based clubs and society executives and are offered an opportunity through the Council to liaise with each other and representatives of the USU on joint initiatives and concerns. The Council Charter specifies that the USU President, or a delegated Board Director, serves as Chair of the Council. Current USU President, Liliana Tai, states that the Council serves as a “unique place to congregate student voices...on a campus that is rapidly developing in diversity of thought and faith.”
As the organisation responsible for enhancing campus life, including the coordination of the Clubs and Societies program, the USU was the most appropriate mechanism to coordinate the Council. Figures from the Clubs and Societies office confirm that in 2018 over 1,200 students were members of faith-based clubs and societies. Tai comments that “it is important that what the USU provides and does can cater for all students.” After all, as a non-profit organisation it has a duty to reinvest all income received in the organisation for the benefit of current and future members of the University community. As stated in the USU Strategic Plan, 2017-2020, it is the mission of the University of Sydney Union (USU) to “celebrate the diversity of our communities and engage with them to deliver inclusive programs, events and services in our safe and welcoming spaces.”
Since the establishment of the Interfaith Council, regular meetings have been held and discussions had across a broad range of topics and initiatives. For example, Interfaith Week was a great success in Semester 1 of 2018, having been re-introduced into the USU’s Festival Calendar after several years off the schedule. Events included daily Interfaith Discussion Panels as well as an Interfaith Trivia Night and an Interfaith Picnic. Moreover, there is research currently being undertaken by members of the Council in coordination with USU staff about opportunities to improve accessibility by providing kosher and halal food options in campus outlets. Notably, the Council’s Charter also provides for the issuing of statements on behalf of the interfaith community. This action was considered by the Council several months ago when anti-Semitic messages were found on campus, however, in this instance, a statement was not issued.
As a multicultural nation, a great success of Australia is an earnest admiration for the power of community and belonging. The importance of religion and a respectful interfaith dialogue is critical to the prosperity of our nation, especially in a challenging age of religious persecution and oppression around the world. The ongoing conversation between those inside and outside the interfaith community cannot be alien to the University of Sydney campus and it should be our badge of honour that we seek to empower individual participation in a welcoming environment that embraces tolerance, dialogue and vibrancy.