Guest Blog: Interreligious Friendships and the Power of Shared Space

Guest blogger Jeff Nelson reflects on how shared space can foster interreligious friendships.

Bridging faith and learning in a university residence hall: this is the charge of a new interreligious community at Duke University called Eruditio et Religio Living Learning Community. It’s an experiment, to be sure. Eight undergraduates of differing religious and nonreligious backgrounds who have committed to sharing life for one academic year. They eat together, participate in a semester-long “house course” (a half-credit, student-taught class hosted in the residence halls), and develop friendships with each other (we hope!). This last thing, interreligious friendship, is at the heart of Eruditio et Religio. I wouldn’t say that we’re good at them yet—all friendships are difficult—but if friendships are the only thing we achieve this year, it will be a success. 

I work in university housing. I, and innumerable housing professionals around the world, believe in the power and possibilities of the living environment for shaping students’ experiences and outcomes. We have Resident Assistants design programs for residents in order to increase their sense of belonging. because research shows that increased sense of belonging helps students succeed at college and graduate on time. We try to connect them with adults on campus, because newer research shows that this builds resilience. 

Members of the  Eruditio et Religio Living Learning Community  at Duke University

Members of the Eruditio et Religio Living Learning Community at Duke University

We in housing also believe that university housing a microcosm of larger society. That is, whether or not you want it, you end up living next to and interacting with people who differ from you. On campus, daily life requires you to share space (a bedroom, the bathroom, a common room) and resources (toilets, water fountains, trash bins), and this very often leads to tension or conflict. I regularly hear complaints about noisy neighbors, nasty bathrooms, missing food (that’s always “stolen”), and abandoned belongings. Campus housing may be a simpler political organism than a city or country, but it’s good training ground for the students and staff who live here for life beyond the university.

If interreligious friendships are difficult to form in our community, it’s undoubtedly more challenging in larger society. Though we regularly share space and interact with folks of differing religious and nonreligious backgrounds—at Trader Joes or the corner gas station—these interactions are seldomly more than transactional. They are, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, “friendships of use.” Transactions can be the first step on the way to a friendship, but no friendship can remain at the level of “use” indefinitely. For friendships to be meaningful—to change our lives for the better—they must become (again, to borrow from Aristotle) “friendships of virtue.” One of the factors that affects how friendships of virtue form is space. Put another way, it is fitting and right for friends to share space with one another—to live near each other, to spend time with one another, to share life.

This brings up one of the great impediments to fostering rich interreligious friendships in, say, a city. The way most cities are configured (the reason why is beyond this article’s scope), we rarely interact with those who differ from us; and when we do, such as at work, friendship is less often an explicit goal of the context. But if interreligious friendships are possible, they are possible inasmuch as we seek to share physical space with those of other religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Interreligious space doesn’t need to be explicitly about worship, prayer, or the divine—and it’s probably a good idea for it not to be so (though some would disagree with me about this). What is required, however, is regular interaction, vulnerability, and risk. The possibilities of interreligious friendship are immense and deeply necessary for building bridges in communities where the powers want to construct walls; for building neighborhood communities where the powers want to sow division; for birthing life in places the powers bring death.

Our interreligious housing experiment at Duke has just begun, and while we do not know the short- or long-term impact yet, we commit ourselves daily to trying to figure out how to make friends with those who differ religiously, and to share our stories about why this matters for the world. 

Jeff Nelson Headshot.jpg

Guest blogger: Jeff Nelson serves as the Residence Coordinator of Keohane Quad at Duke University. He graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA with a B.A. in Philosophy/Theology and Psychology and earned a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Gender, Theology, and Ministry at Duke Divinity School. He is founder of The Mosaic, Duke's first residential space dedicated to prayer, practice, and meditation, and co-founder of the university's newest  Living Learning Community: Eruditio et Religio. Jeff is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene.

Jeff Nelson