Vanessa Avery, Denison’s inaugural “Interfaith Resident” sat down with Laurel Kennedy (VP, Student Development) to talk about Vanessa’s background and the work she hopes to do at the Center for Religious & Spiritual Life (also known as The Open House).
Laurel Kennedy: Vanessa, what brought you to Denison?
Vanessa Avery: I saw an announcement that had a very unique title, “Interfaith Resident.” I saw that it was at Denison, which has a great reputation as a small liberal arts college, and that the job was focused on engaging Denison’s students with the greater community. I’d never seen a job quite like that before.
LBK: What background do you bring to this work?
VA: I’m from New York City, so needless to say I grew up in a very diverse place! Nonetheless I didn’t think a lot about my religious identity or my social identity for a long time. It was when I entered divinity school and began to pursue various degrees that I found myself to be one of the generally two Jewish people in otherwise Christian institutions. This forced me to engage across boundaries in a way that I hadn’t before. Engaging others more intentionally and learning about their beliefs caused me to think about my own values and religious beliefs in new ways.
There were a lot of things that came out of that. One was that I got interested in cultural diversity training, especially around religious diversity. I started my own company providing religious diversity training for companies around the country. A few years later, I began my PhD and also accepted a position at Hartford Seminary, a Christian-Muslim institution whose primary foundation is interreligious dialogue and understanding. So I bring both scholarly and practical experience in this area.
LBK: How do you see your work unfolding with our students?
VA: I anticipate working to build awareness about dialogue opportunities for students. There’s a history of student leadership in interfaith dialogue at Denison. Phoebe (Myhrum) and I have talked about bringing greater awareness of what dialogue is as a sort of ritualized process, and how that process is different from just having a conversation.
We’d also like to extend the interreligious conversations to include more non-religious students. These students are a growing percentage of our population, not just at Denison but nationwide. How do we begin to include non-religious students in these conversations? Research shows that over 99 percent of people that engage in some kind of cross-cultural or interreligious dialogue wind up learning something important about their own values and about how they derive meaning from their life experiences. So we’d like to bring out that the benefits of dialogue are for the religious and non-religious alike.
LBK: Is that the reason to do interfaith dialogue?
VA: It’s definitely one reason to do it. You also gain skills through interfaith dialogue that you can apply to other settings throughout your life. A lot of us know about debate, for example, but you’re never going to create agreement through debate. Dialogue is a different process that can actually facilitate change. So this process is translatable to many different contexts, whether it’s peacemaking or law or politics and government or other fields that Denison students may be interested in.
LBK: Could you talk about the new Sharing Sacred Spaces program?
VA: We’re in the design phase of that program. We’ll be visiting different religious groups’ houses of worship in order to learn about the architecture of those sacred spaces. Our starting point is that we’re interested in what it means to live in a society. What virtues do we need to live together harmoniously? From there you can ask, how do religions embody some of those virtues in their very different physical spaces? The architecture of sacred spaces opens up a fascinating dialogue around that.
This is where our location in central Ohio comes in as well, because this is very diverse community, including in religious terms. The Sharing Sacred Spaces program creates opportunity to dialogue across difference. People normally don’t do that on their own, but if there’s an opportunity presented–an educational opportunity with a group of people they’re familiar with–then it becomes exciting.
LBK: Could you say more about embodying civic virtues through architecture?
VA: There is overlap between civic virtues and religious virtues, or sacred virtues. These are things like hospitality, empathy, courage, love, respect, compassion.
When you walk into any architectural space, you are struck with a feeling. It could come from how the space is designed or how people orchestrate themselves within the space. How do we begin to understand how the space is working? How are people in the space working to embody their values, both in the space and in themselves? If we can start to ask how a space has been designed to embody religious virtues, we can begin to think about how we might engage those virtues in our own lives and in public spaces as well as sacred ones.