J.T. Do can be blunt. "I don't get this discussion topic," he announces only a few minutes into a Sunday night gathering at Brown University's Interfaith House. The subject this week: the difference between religious belief and practice.
"I don't see how someone can practice but not believe. That seems a little hollow," he says, sitting on a folding chair drawn into a wide circle of couches, a black visor cocked on his head. "And if you believe in something, wouldn't that compel you to do something about it?"
None of the 15 participants rushes in with a defensive comment. The conversation flows quietly on, responding to his question indirectly, like a river parting around a rock. A few jump up to reach for snacks on a table in the middle, literally breaking bread together as they talk.
By now they all know J.T., a Catholic who says faith is "the most important thing" to him and directs his life.Living here, they've learned to manage the extremes and the nuances of dialogue among people of different faiths, people of wavering faith, and people of no faith at all.
The pressure valves sometimes take the form of a tense but humorous exchange, like this one that occurs about an hour into the discussion, whenJ.T. admits: "I take communion and I'm not really sure it's the body and blood of Christ."
Eli Braun, a senior who renounced his Judaism last spring and is known as a "house skeptic," can't resist a quip as he's about to slip out the door of the dorm lounge: "Bite your lip; then you'll get some blood."
J.T. joins the staccato laughter, but follows it up with a glare and a wave: "Feel free to leave."
The son of Vietnamese immigrants, J.T. says he's sometimes baffled that people who enjoy debunking religion would want to live here. But if the house has one cardinal rule, it's respect, and he knows that genuinely underlies the sparring.
For the most part, he sees the house as "a kind of bastion of spirituality - a place where I can be comfortable with being an Ivy League student and a person of faith at the same time." Now a junior, it's his second yearliving here. He attended Catholic schools and opted for a secular college, but found Brown to be "a little hostile to ideas of faith," even in some of his religious-studies classes.
That's not to say there aren't other outlets for people to hash out spiritual issues. Brown has a 40-year tradition of interfaith supper, held every Thursday at the chaplain's home.
House founders wanted "to create an environment where ... we could have conversations about God in the hallway at 2 in the morning," says Julian Leichty, who grew up in a Mennonite family. He helped write the proposal for the house in 2002 after he and a few others attending a multifaith retreat realized that sharing a home would take the experience to a new level.
The house has grown in its first three years from 16 to 33 residents, attracting everyone from Hindus to Lutherans. Eli, who has lived in the house since the beginning, recalls how a cluster would often head to the bathroom, ostensibly to brush their teeth, and stay for more than half an hour to talk about things like liberation theology. The spontaneous gatherings were dubbed the "toothbrush debates."
Living together seems to be the new wave of multifaith activity on college campuses. For more than a decade, schools have been diversifying their chaplaincies and tapping more into students' interest in the spiritual side of life. In the past three years, the trend has given rise to interfaith dorms not only at Brown, but at Syracuse University in New York State, Northwestern in Chicago, and Wellesley College near Boston.
The Brown Interfaith House isn't "a little oasis" apart from the rest of campus, says Rabbi Alan Flam, a senior associate university chaplain and a house adviser. Because of the trust they build, residents can take on the "high-voltage" conversations that tend to swirl at colleges. "They reach out and amplify those conversations."
The group lives in Diman, a rosy-brick dorm where, on the opposite end, members of Kappa Alpha Theta carry on sorority life.
Weekly student-led interfaith discussions, open to any student, take place in the group's spacious lounge. Topics have ranged from the variety within Judaism to beliefs about an afterlife.
Among residents, there's a wide continuum, between J.T.'s rock-solid faith and Eli's atheism (actually, he says, sometimes he's more "ignostic," a term in "humanistic Judaism" suggesting that the question of whether there's a God doesn't really matter and can't be known). Many house members unite in a commitment to social justice, such as advocacy work for the homeless.
Melissa Kline, house president, says coming to college and attending services on her own confirmed her embrace of the Episcopal religion. She's studying cognitive science, and enjoys talking about her identity as a scientist and a person of faith. The two don't conflict, she says, but she ponders "how you keep those things separate, and what it means for your religion and your science."
Alex Surasky-Ysasi, a junior who attends Catholic services at the chapel, appreciates that she can disagree with church doctrine on issues such as its refusal to ordain women, but still be understood as devoted. "The crux of my faith is about who is God in my life, what does that mean for how I live my life," she says.
Alex signed up for a "faith-sharing buddy." These pairs - including Eli and his "doubt- sharing buddy" - meet to talk one-on-one. The daughter of a Catholic-Jewish marriage, Alex is buddies with Yael Richardson, one of the leaders of the campus Jewish center. She peppered Yael with questions so she'd better understand her father's Jewish side of the family. Now, when she goes to a Shabbat service, he playfully asks if she's going to convert. No, she says. "That would scare my mom's side of the family a lot."
While studying in Israel last year, Eli renounced his "communal connection to Jews." Participating in meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, he found he didn't have any more sympathy for one group than the other: "I realized I had crossed over when I started speaking of Israelis as 'they.' "
Despite his tendency to impishly needle people, he appreciates how the house exposes him to "the richness outside the Jewish tradition." The value of it, he notes, came home to him on the plane to Israel, when a Jewish teen next to him glanced at a magazine article about the tsunami disaster and commented that God was angry with the Muslims. "I was shocked," Eli says. "I said, 'Have you ever even met a Muslim?' And he was shocked I was even asking!"
Eli had. He worked closely with Muslims on Brown's Multi-Faith Council, and would be returning to a dorm that includes both Yael, an observant Jew, and Atena Asiaii, an observant Muslim. Not only do the two women live in the same house, but in the same room up on the second floor. Occasionally they even pray at the same time, one facing Jerusalem and the other facing Mecca.
• Tuesday ... their story.