Paulina Abaunza is a Mexican American who grew up in a Texas town that’s predominantly Catholic.
Ariel Ennis is a Jewish American who grew up in a Jewish enclave in New Jersey.
Now both scholars are interfaith leaders at the Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership at New York University. They were in Columbus Thursday to promote religious literacy, tolerance and inclusion as part of a Diversity Conference held at Columbus State University.
About 150 people attended the day-long conference, which included workshops and a keynote address presented by Abaunza and Ennis. The event was followed in the evening by a Diversity Legacy Banquet, held at the Lumpkin Center. More than 375 tickets had been sold by Thursday afternoon, said Paula Adams, conference organizer.
The keynote speaker for the banquet was Eric Thomas, an internationally renowned author, educator, pastor and motivational speaker, known as the “Hip-Hop Preacher.” The university recognized 10 award recipients in categories ranging from community outreach to women’s leadership.
Columbus State University President Chris Markwood said the day-long emphasis on diversity was an effort to bring together people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds for mutual understanding.
“This year’s event is asking people to think more broadly about diversity and inclusion,” he said. “And I think in this day and time in our history, and in our political system, it is a perfect theme.
“I think it speaks to all of our need to really reach out and be inclusive, not just to have balance of numbers of different groups and types of people,” he said, “but to really empower and understand each other so we as a society can be the type of society that we need to be.”
Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership is part of the Office of Global Spiritual Life, a division at NYU that works with different religious and spiritual groups on campus. The founding fellows of the institute are Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khaid Latif, two NYU chaplains who have been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue.
Sarna and Latif are featured in a video, titled “Of Many,” that was co-produced by Chelsea Clinton, who chairs the institute’s advisory board. The two men, who have been building bridges between the Muslim and Jewish communities in New York City, were originally scheduled to be the keynote speakers at Thursday’s conference. However, there was a conflict in schedule, Ennis said.
During a break-out session, Ennis and Abaunza presented the video to a small group of participants. Some said they were inspired by the story of the two religious leaders working together, despite the decades-long conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and the 9-11 terrorist attack.
Cylina Velazquez, 22, is a senior marketing major at CSU. She said her boyfriend’s stepmother is Muslim, and that has given her respect for the faith. She said the video was refreshing.
“It’s really cool when you see everybody on the same side for once,” she said. “In the movie, they mentioned, ‘It’s not a Muslim helped me. It’s a person helped me.’ So looking past that, and seeing that they’re a person first, is very cool.”
Abaunza, a doctoral student at NYU, is a research assistant working with the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey. Previously, she was associate director of the university’s Center for Multicultural Education and Programs.
Ennis is the senior multi-faith educator at the Office of Global Spiritual Life. He is responsible for NYU’s religious literacy workshops, which were awarded the Inaugural Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Outstanding Spiritual Initiative Award in 2014.
Ennis said NYU is one of the few universities in the country with a full-time imam, an Islamic center, prayer rooms, and other resources for Muslims. Yet, Muslim students come to his office every day complaining of Islamophobia in the city.
“If that’s happening to Muslim students at NYU where the resources are so extraordinary then I can’t imagine what it’s like at other places,” he said. “I don’t think that the current political rhetoric is helping at all. I think it’s pretty disastrous.”
Abaunza said religious, racial and ethnic tensions tend to run in cycles. The response is usually activism, which is erupting on campuses across the country. She said Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has fanned flames of intolerance, which has resulted in more negativity towards Muslims, immigrants and blacks.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the big wall type of debate that’s happening and it goes beyond the notion of creating a wall,” she said. “When Donald Trump calls Mexicans rapists, and says they’re sending the worse people, I think that seeps into society as well.”