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Better Together ND aims to foster religious dialogue, community

| Tuesday, February 11, 2020

While Notre Dame is a Catholic university, the students and community members that make up the Notre Dame community are not all of one faith or background. Better Together ND, a leadership program sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns (CSC), aims to foster conversations between people of different religious and humanistic beliefs through workshops and events. 

“It’s [a] leadership program that trains and prepares students for an environment containing people with multiple intersectionalities,” sophomore and student leader for Better Together ND Meenu Selvan said. “It’s a series of workshops that teaches students how to interact with other leaders from different backgrounds to unite in solidarity for a common cause and to organize.”

Director of leadership formation for the CSC Melissa Marley Bonnichsen said the groups are made up of undergraduate and graduate students who meet up to discuss their different life experiences and how they have impacted their beliefs — religious or otherwise. 

“The groups are open to anyone who [welcomes] interfaith dialogue and collaboration including students who come from any religious experience or non-religious experiences and or who identify as atheist, agnostic or secular humanist,” Marley Bonnichsen said in an email.

Senior and student leader Heather DiLallo said the only requirement is the willingness to have a conversation with people who may have vastly different beliefs than what one is used to.

“All we ask is that every student has ears to hear what others have to say and respect for the dignity of each person, no matter how different they are from you,” DiLallo said in an email. 

Photo courtesy of Melissa Marley Bi

Members of Better Together ND gathered for a winter celebration dinner in November. The club has its first spring meeting Thursday.

Selvan said she decided to become involved with Better Together ND because she currently serves as the director of faith and service for student government and wanted to improve her ability to work with people who have different beliefs. 

“I wanted to be equipped with the skills to collaborate with leaders who [represent] individuals with specific faith-based identities,” Selvan said in an email. “I wanted to transform Student Government’s space intended for faith to be more inclusive of interfaith work. Better Together ND has provided me [with] the skills, resources and platform to accomplish this.”

Marley Bonnichsen said that amid a divisive political climate in the United States, it is important to focus on what brings us together. 

“We must be able to get to know people who are different from us, who may agree and disagree and have different lives in order to understand our shared and partnered future together,” she said. “It is in this place that I believe that we can then strive together for the common good regardless of our background or story, race, ethnicity, religion or political alignment … But mutual respect and understanding are necessary and critical first steps in the process if we are to go far together.”

Senior and student leader for Better Together ND Isabel Weber said the initiative can help to demonstrate that there are lots of different ways to be religious — or even to simply care about the world at large.

“Reaching out to different world view communities helps us create lasting solutions that foster unity rather than division,” Weber said in an email. “I also think Better Together will help people see that faith is not so homogenous here as people might think. Even within Catholicism, there is a wide diversity of faith practices, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to help others.”

Weber said one of the reasons she decided to get involved with Better Together ND was because her parents are an interreligious couple and she grew up celebrating both the Catholic and Jewish faiths.

“I know firsthand how much goodness and love can come from interfaith dialogue,” Weber said in an email. “My parents have so much more that unifies them than makes them different, and I firmly believe that holds true for all humans of all belief systems.”

DiLallo said she is part of a minority faith tradition at Notre Dame and that during her time at the University she has learned extensively about Catholicism, but not much about other faiths or beliefs. This, she said, fuels her belief that Better Together ND is an important initiative at Notre Dame today. 

“This is a great way to start dialogue and help people who may have never deeply interacted with someone outside their own faith background to really learn and grow,” DiLallo said. 

Marley Bonnichsen said the ultimate objective of Better Together ND has been to facilitate conversations between people of different beliefs, faiths and backgrounds. 

“This goal highlights the importance of relationships and my hope is that the participants will remember this each time they engage in a larger conversation or debate about what’s happening in our world, that they’ll remember it when they vote, that they will remember it when there is conflict around them and when it seems so hard to understand the others’ point of view,” Bonnichsen said. 

Better Together ND will be hosting its spring launch meeting Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in the Geddes Hall Coffeehouse. 

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About Claire Rafford

Claire is a senior from Tempe, Arizona majoring in English and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Business-Economics. She peaked when her team won the Battle of the Books state championship in 2011.

Contact Claire