As a community that boasts an increasingly large number of international students from around the globe, Gannon University has recently taken a step forward in promoting the spiritual well-being of its diverse student body.
The new Interfaith Prayer Space, which is located on the third floor of the Zurn Science Center, was opened up to the Gannon community at the Oct. 5 blessing that was led by the Rev. Michael Kesicki, Abrar Rahman, the head of the Muslim Student Association, and Melanie Hatch, dean of the College of Engineering and Business.
The idea for the space came from Hatch, who said that she had been noticing a number of her students, many of whom are international, praying in the hallways of Zurn. She said she was inspired to “carve out a private space” where students could pray without having to leave the building or find themselves cramped in a corridor.
“I know that some of our students require them to pray multiple times a day,” she said. “They aren’t always able to get over to the chapel or another place of worship in between classes.”
The simplistic, inviting space was designed by Michael DeSanctis, director of the Honors Program, who said he has experience in both liturgical design and consulting.
DeSanctis said he was approached by Hatch back in February, when she was just beginning to put the idea together. According to DeSanctis, the ideas “needed time to percolate.”
A committee was then put together that included Hatch, DeSanctis and Deacon Steve Washek as they began to move forward in planning a nondenominational space geared toward prayer, solitude and respectful reflection. The money for the construction of the space was set aside by the College of Engineering and Business.
The space’s location in the science hub of Gannon’s campus makes perfect sense to Hatch.
“I don’t see a lot of separation between science and religion,” she said. “I certainly think they coexist and feed into each other.”
Kesicki, who was once a math major, said he too sees the space as a unification of two important spheres in students’ lives, and DeSanctis said it exemplifies Gannon’s mission.
“It’s a sacred space in a building devoted to science and engineering,” he said. “It shows that we don’t subdivide or compartmentalize.”
DeSanctis, who recently traveled to Italy with a group of faculty members, said that in his trip to Assisi, Italy, he saw that some of the same interfaith values that the committee hoped to endow the prayer space with were also manifest in the Basilica of St. Francis. According to DeSanctis, an area of the tile floor in the upper part of the basilica is in the shape of a Muslim prayer rug.
“Church, when it does it right, really understands the prayer needs of a lot of folks,” he said.
Kesicki also noted the space’s purpose as being a welcoming place for students of any faith.
“It says, what is important to you in your worship is important to us,” he said. “It also gives an appreciation of what diversity is. It doesn’t mean we put a lid on our differences, it means we take an interest in what makes each of us unique.”
This sense of inclusion and welcome is one that is felt not only by the creators of the space, but by the International Student Office, as well.
Chris Vilevac and Jason Steinberg, associate directors of the International Student Office, both acknowledged the space as a unique way to show international students that they play an integral role in what makes Gannon tick.
“It shows a lot of respect to our diverse students,” Steinberg said. “I think it sends a clear message that all are welcome.”
The space is currently adorned very simplistically. Kesicki said that it is “tasteful” and “simple in every good way.”
Different faiths’ traditions, or certain aspects of them, tend to use more objects and some tend to use less, and the goal of the space is to remain open to both styles, according to Kesicki.
Vilevac also said that putting too many icons or objects in general in the room would not be consistent with the beliefs of some faiths.
“Christians tend to be more icon-based, but Muslim students have a more simplistic style,” he said.
However, he said that students who do wish to worship with an object that is comforting to them should feel free to do so.
One of the features Kesicki said he finds most welcoming is the large plate glass window on the northeast wall.
“Natural light is huge,” he said. “It’s hard to stay in a space where you can’t see what’s outside – you really can’t stay there that long.”
Hatch also got pillows for the seats there, and though they are simple, she said they transformed the space from feeling too stark to feeling comfortable. Though she said she and her assistant were in charge of picking out the room’s color scheme, she said this was not without its difficulties.
“I had to laugh,” she said. “I’m actually color blind. I find that ironic.”
Perhaps the most significant feature, though, lies emblazoned on the tiled floor of the room. The compass points allow Muslim students to easily locate east, as they must face both Mecca and the rising sun during their prayers.
Hatch said she and the rest of the committee have discussed ways of adding to the space as time progresses. Some future additions may include disconnecting the room’s lighting from being hardwired into the building’s to allow for a dimmer, as well as some type of ledger containing multiple different sacred texts, according to DeSanctis. Hatch added that she has considered adding a piece of artwork or some type of etching that would be agreeable to all students wishing to use the space.
Another important feature that the committee hopes to possibly add at some point is an area for Muslim students to wash their feet before entering, as this is a typical practice in their worship.
“With the way the plumbing was, there was no way to do that,” Kesicki said. “But this is a beginning for us. They don’t seem to mind. Everyone seems to be appreciative.”
Hatch also said that she has spoken to both of the other deans regarding the space, and said she believes they seemed interested in creating a similar environment in other campus buildings in the future.
Even as the excitement around the future of this concept grows, Hatch said the way the space is right now has exceeded her expectations.
“When I first saw the drawings from Dr. DeSanctis, I thought they were such great concepts,” she said. “I imagined it, but when I finally saw it coming to life, I thought it turned out fabulously.”
As with any new space, Kesicki said he anticipates students visiting it out of pure curiosity, which he said “would be wonderful.”
“The main thing will be to maintain a sense of respect,” he said. “It’s not exactly a place to go and have a chat or phone conversation, but if someone wanted to sit and read something that was inspiring to them, or simply wanted a place to sit in quiet reflection. I wouldn’t anticipate any difficulty with that, though.”
The space is already having affects on both the students who have used it as well as those who have helped breathe life into it.
“I sat in there myself and it’s amazing the sense of peace that comes over you,” Hatch said. “I just hope that the students feel the benefits.”
DeSanctis also said that he would feel most affirmed to know that students are using the space on a regular basis, which is something Hatch said she has already been noticing.
“As I walk the hall and see students go in there, I’ve noted that it is being used by a variety of students,” she said.
Perhaps the most important thing students of all faiths can take away from the space and what it stands for is the sense of acceptance and respect that it is meant to promote.
“I would never expect to have to put down what’s very dear to me and what I give my life for, I would not expect anyone else to do that either,” Kesicki said. “This is very important to these students, and so it’s important to Gannon.”