This, My Belief: UCLA’s first-ever interfaith storytelling event

On Nov. 19, 2019, UCLA held its first-ever interfaith storytelling event called, This, My Belief. Organized by student leaders, Sonia Wraich and myself, the event brought attention to different religious groups and student leaders around campus, sharing experiences and stories based on their faith identities.

Styled after a TEDx event, “This, My Belief” sought to highlight religious diversity on the UCLA campus, an aspect often overlooked by many when considering an individual’s salient identity. For many Bruins, their religious identity is their most salient identity. It is important to create spaces and promote environments that honor these identities in the same way other identities are honored.

The event honored Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu speakers. Ambika Pandey (Hindu) started off the event during the refreshments and meet and greet portion with a song with a religious connotation. The Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs, Monroe Gorden, formally opened the event with Jeanne Roe Smith, the President of the University Religious Conference

Then, Rocky Klein (Jewish) shared a story of celebrating a Jewish traditional holiday, hopping from synagogue to synagogue. Nanki Bhullar (Sikh) sang a shabad (Sikh religious hymn) and explained its historical significance and ties to social justice-a path she is pursuing. Abdullah Nadir (Muslim) shared his experiences growing up Muslim in a post 9-11 era and the struggles he and his community faced. Keiana Snell (Half-Jewish and Half-Buddhist) shared her perception of the duality of living with both religious identities and what it meant to her. At intermission, Ambika sang another song about the acceptance of God’s order in terms of prayer. After, Manaal Sayed (Muslim) shared a story about car accidents and the power of prayer. Last but not least, Trevor De La Houssaye (Christian) shared his journey into Christianity and his mission for empowering all individuals regardless of faith. 

With over 100 people in attendance, this event bridged gaps between the institution and the needs and voices of religious communities. It is important to reduce the negative stigma of seeing religion as some sort of “hot-topic,” and instead focus on the integrity and soulfulness of intentionally sitting down and understanding each others’ narratives and experiences. Coalition-building, allyship, and empowerment were all values taken away by the audience and speakers. 

Despite this event, religious groups are constantly struggling to be recognized equally in comparison to other groups on the diversity spectrum. Many Muslim students pray behind Kerckhoff by the dumpsters without an adequate prayer space. Many Sikhs choose not to pray in the congregation for congregational prayers due to the limited spaces available that can be regularly booked at a certain time. 

However, UCLA has made huge progress in honoring religious individuals. A prayer space on the Hill has opened up, and another in the John Wooden Recreation Center (The Legacy Room) has also opened. It’s beyond amazing to see the effort and the passion that Professional Staff on the Hill in Residential Life and Student Affairs have put in to making UCLA diverse and unique for all groups and communities. It’s a revolutionary time to be at UCLA right now, not just because there’s an administration that’s listening, but also because of the students whose voices and ambitions rise higher than skyscrapers. 

As an organizer of this event, I could not have been more blessed to have this opportunity to equally and fairly represent faith traditions and community members on this campus. As an individual belonging to a minority religion myself, Sikhi, I understand and know what it means to be unfairly represented by other individuals claiming to know the faith and the media. I owe a lot of this event’s success and equity to Assistant Vice Chancellor, Mick DeLuca and the University Religious Conference, along with the UCLA Sikh Student Association

This, My Belief is one of many revolutionary interfaith events to start to change the landscape at UCLA. As I believe, there are a hundred ways to kneel before God and to kiss the ground. However, to be intentional in fighting for someone who is of different origin and kneels differently than you, by all aspects is faith and love. I am blessed to be surrounded by Bruins, my family, my community, administration, who all practice these values and keep this mindset. 

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