Near the beginning of January, campus employees removed the sacred contents of the Common’s Interfaith Reflection Room in order to make space for new Sodexo offices. These actions occurred without the knowledge or consent of Better Together, the club affiliated with the room, and sparked backlash from students, professors and religious leaders around the country.
“The interfaith room is such a sacred, safe space for students on campus, particularly for international students,” senior Grace Ahles, the interim president of Better Together, said. “It’s the one place where they can safely practice their faith without feeling like they don’t belong. Moving a space like that, especially without consulting any of the student leaders, was wrong.”
Religion professor Richard Swanson said he also believes that the interfaith room was moved in a problematic way.
“There were sacred pieces that were handled by people who didn’t see them as sacred,” Swanson said. “If the space was to be moved, the pieces that are crucial to Muslims should be moved by Muslims. The pieces sacred to Hindus should be moved by Hindus.”
Augustana students and faculty were not the only people speaking out about what happened to the interfaith room. The Argus Leader wrote an article on the incident which featured an email sent to Augustana administration. In this email, religious leaders from Nevada and California stated that Augustana wasn’t upholding its values.
“By dismantling the interfaith space without students’ consent, Augustana was blatantly contradicting its own core values of welcoming all faiths, respecting human differences and centering on worship,” the email said.
After backlash from students, the interfaith room has been temporarily restored. Student leaders said they plan to have a conversation with administrators about the future of the interfaith room, but a date for the meeting hasn’t been set.
The exact date of the removal and the involved people remain unknown. Augustana Student Association President Sara Alhasnawi said she recalls walking with Vice President Tsegab Arega at the end of winter break and noticing the room had been cleared.
“We just happened to be walking across the second floor here, and we noticed that the room was basically empty,” Alhasnawi said. “We knew that Sodexo wanted more space somewhere in the Commons [for offices], and the interfaith room had come up.”
However, Alhasnawi said she was told a meeting with representatives and students would happen before changes were officially made.
When she discovered the state of the interfaith room, Alhasnawi reached out to graduate Barsha Shah, the president of Better Together at the time, to ask if they knew anything about the missing items. At that point, Shah hadn’t known that someone had dismantled the interfaith room, and they were “very shocked” to learn of the state of the room.
“We immediately started reaching out to anybody that we could think of that might have answers,” Alhasnawi said. “We reached out to [Dean of Students] Mark Blackburn. We talked to a couple of Sodexo workers, and by the end of it, we realized that it was most likely someone from their group that had decided that they were going to remove the items.”
Representatives from Sodexo declined to comment on the interfaith room. Blackburn is currently on professional development leave and unavailable for comment. Checka Leinwall, the acting dean of students, said her office is not providing interviews on the topic either.
Jonathan Splichal Larson, the campus pastor who was involved in discussion about the room, also declined to comment.
Students located the missing holy items in the Wagoner meditation room and were upset to find the items had been placed all over the floor.
“None of the holy books can touch the ground,” Alhasnawi said. “I found the Quran lying on the floor, and the first thing I did before I even processed [everything] was pick it up and put it on the bookshelf. That’s something you just can’t do. It’s so utterly disrespectful.”
While she said she was relieved to have found the missing holy items, Alhasnawi said “it was like a slap to the face” to see how the sacred items had been treated.
After students reached out to administration, the interfaith room was restored by the second week of January.
“Essentially what we were told was that it was a miscommunication,” junior Tom King, the vice president of Better Together, said. “They had plans for a while to make [the interfaith room] into Sodexo offices, but it kind of went ahead without the approval of anyone.”
Both Alhasnawi and King said they hope the incident happened due to a misunderstanding rather than a spiteful act.
In response to the backlash, President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin sent out a campus-wide statement apologizing for the incident.
“I acknowledge more questions should have been asked, and I apologize to all students, faculty and staff for the harm this matter has caused, especially to those students for whom the interfaith room is a welcoming and spiritual space on our campus,” Herseth Sandlin’s statement said.
Ahles said the actions over January are disconcerting for the future.
“Moving a space like that, especially without consulting any of the student leaders, would be like converting the chapel to Sodexo,” Ahles said. “I worry for the safety and security of the interfaith room going forward because it seems like they have already made a decision about getting rid of it, which would be a huge loss.”
While student leaders are willing to discuss converting the interfaith room into Sodexo space, some worry about the potential new location of the room.
King said they believe that the room in the Commons might be merged with the Wagoner meditation room, but they worry the interfaith room would no longer be at the center of campus.
“If you live in the towers, getting to Wagoner for your five daily prayers if you’re a Muslim, or your three if you are Baha’i, there are a bunch of different religious groups that need a space to pray that can’t pray in the chapel, going to Wagoner when it’s negative 25 degrees Fahrenheit doesn’t seem like the best option,” King said.
King said Better Together is willing to compromise and give up their specific room in the Commons, but the organization hopes to talk with administration to still keep the interfaith room somewhere in the building.
Some student leaders said they wonder how this incident reflects Augustana’s core value of diversity.
“If we want to claim that AU is a diverse place, then we need to protect that diversity,” Ahles said. “This isn’t something that should be left up to student leaders, but something that our administration stands for.”
Swanson said that the interfaith room is vital in fostering the religious diversity that Augustana strives for.
“You can say anything you want about being welcoming, but if those ideas don’t actually yield facts, then it doesn’t mean much,” he said.
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