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New UNL religion course embraces diversity, looks to propose common worship place

New UNL religion course embraces diversity, looks to propose common worship place

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City Campus Gateway / Entrance

About five times a day, Rahma Abuzaho and other Muslim students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln congregate together to pray according to their Islamic tradition in the basement of Love Library, or in an empty room in the Nebraska Union.

There are no mosques near campus, yet students like Abuzaho, who is among about 15 members of the Muslim Student Association, continue to find secluded places on campus to be close to their faith.

"I'm obligated to pray those prayers, but it gives me an opportunity to just take a step back from work or school, and concentrate on God," Abuzaho said.

While she could be perceived differently due to her faith or her choice of wearing hijab, she says she believes people in the Lincoln community have accepted her culture and tradition.

Only 4% of people in Nebraska identify as religious and non-Christian, according to a Pew Research Center study, but an influx of immigrants and refugees has created more religious diversity in Lincoln, said Max Mueller, an assistant professor of Classics and Religious Studies at UNL.

That's why Mueller will lead a new course in the spring of 2020, "When the World's Religions Came to Lincoln." Students will research the needs and traditions of various faith communities in Lincoln and apply the knowledge to propose a common worship space on campus.

"There are other communities that don’t have a space," Mueller said of the lack of non-Christian worship spaces on or near campus. "They have to find space, sometimes, literally, in the corners, in the hallways, in the stacks, or in the library, to pray together."

Students in the new class will also compare how other public universities accommodate non-Christian students, especially when some religions have different ways of practicing their faith — for instance, women and men do not pray in the same place in some religions.

Mueller said the space that students will propose to university stakeholders will ideally be able to serve various religions. He encourages students to engage with those who have different beliefs to gather ideas on how to make the space more inclusive.

"How do you navigate who gets the access to the space?" Mueller said. "How do you make it suitable for one religious community and then unmake it very quickly to get ready for another religious community?"

At times, students steer away from a religion because they think religious communities only accept those who have similar views, said Corinne Lee, a senior communications major who grew up with family and friends who are Mormon, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim.

A new common space would build more understanding and acceptance on campus, said Lee, who doesn't identify with a specific religion.

"I recognize that religion has a big role to play in our politics and how our societies run, what is deemed appropriate and inappropriate," she said.

The key to understanding different religions and combating stereotypes is to ask questions and listen, said Tessa Faust, a senior majoring in Classics and Religious Studies who has signed up for Mueller's class in the spring.

“If you start every conversation with a debate, you’re not going anywhere,” Faust said. “And you’re not going to have a sense of community.”

As a Lutheran, she said she feels fortunate to find a faith-based community on campus. However, she realizes that some students are struggling to find a similar sense of community and she hopes to help solve the issue.

Rachel Crable, a senior psychology major, said she and other students who identify as Jewish are working to get more members to join Hillel, also known as the UNL Jewish Student Association.

Some may not know there is a small Jewish community on campus, she said. But if students have easier access to a space to share their faith together, more students will embrace their identity.

Through the class, Mueller hopes to teach students about the experiences of immigrants and refugees who have shaped Lincoln’s culture.

While each faith has a different tradition, communities must accommodate and welcome those who have left their birthplace to escape religious persecution, he said.

“The heart of what America is is a place for those who seek, especially religious freedom, but freedom from persecution and repression of all kinds," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or mazizah@journalstar.com. On Twitter @mia_azizah11

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