A Place for Everyone

The new Emory Interfaith Center, opened this fall, offers students, faculty and staff space for “boundary-crossing” connections.

Peer leaders from the WISE pre-orientation program celebrate a successful week in the Interfaith Center’s commons.

Ikran Ismail’s first year at Emory started after moving from the small town of Marshall, Minnesota, where she practiced her Muslim faith among mostly Christian neighbors. She was curious about other religions, and so in mid-August this year she arrived at Emory early for the WISE pre-orientation program — a weeklong immersion on campus and in Atlanta for learning about an array of beliefs.

She and about 40 first-year students and peer leaders became some of the first seekers at the Emory Interfaith Center, designed to welcome people across all faiths (and even no faith at all) to foster better mutual understanding and find common ground.

“The Interfaith Center was a very welcoming place,” Ismail says. “One goal I have at Emory is to explore different concepts and ideas that I'm not really comfortable with and stay open-minded. Honestly, I was surprised how open Emory was to everyone, regardless of whatever religions they followed. At the Interfaith Center, they showed the same mutual respect and peace towards everyone. I wasn't expecting them to allow us to observe the practices of some other faiths, which was really fun.” 

The Interfaith Center is located in a renovated house on 1707 North Decatur Road.

The $3.3 million project, made possible in part by generous gifts from alumni and donors, included the purchase and renovation of a home at 1707 North Decatur Road. It is the blossoming of a vision planted about 25 years earlier by campus leaders who wanted everyone to feel welcome and supported at Emory. “One of Emory’s strengths is bringing students from different backgrounds together to learn from one another and share their experiences and perspectives,” says Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “The Emory Interfaith Center will be a community hub for dialogue and understanding — empowering students to explore faith and religious traditions that can inspire them in their lives.”

The center also visibly represents Emory’s leadership among a growing number of universities that seek to encourage strong relationships across differences of all kinds.

Especially among first-year students like Ismail, these “boundary-crossing relationships,” as they are called in research recently published in The Journal of Higher Education, increase empathy, openness and respect toward others. Such connections, the researchers concluded, “thrive when structures are in place to encourage social interactions and cooperation across worldview differences.” 


Although the official opening celebration will not be held until Oct. 21 during Homecoming and Family Weekend, the WISE pre-orientation program for students presented the perfect opportunity to start to put the center to use. For five days, it served as a home base for learning about different religions, interfaith work and social justice in the city of Atlanta. 

The WISE participants and leaders walked to Glenn Memorial Church, the University Catholic Center, Bread Coffeehouse and to the Marcus Hillel Center, where they shared a Shabbat dinner. They rode from the center to The Temple in Buckhead and Ebenezer Baptist Church, and then to a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara, a Buddhist monastery and a local mosque.

“The beautiful new Interfaith Center was pivotal to the preorientation experience,” says Neha Murthy 24C, co-president of the Emory Hindu Students Association and president of the Emory College Council, who helped lead some of the sessions. She also helped choose the center’s soothing earth-toned interior colors. Student input, including from the Inter-Religious Council and campus listening sessions, guided the center’s design. 

Sacred beauty is invoked through prominent images of Emory’s Living Mandala Garden outside of Cannon Chapel, a legacy of Emory’s relationship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama that was planted a decade ago. (Soil blessed by His Holiness for this purpose will be used in the center’s dedication in October.) Hand-carved shrines, statues and cabinets are being custom-made and shipped from India for use in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh rituals.

“Students have a space of their own with features oriented toward their specific faith needs, such as ablution stations, shoe racks, holy books and more,” said Brahmacharini Shweta Chaitanya, Emory’s Hindu chaplain. “Now that the semester has started, it has been wonderful to see students occupying it and embracing it.” 


The center’s kitchen was designed to be a hearth, inviting the preparation and sharing of dishes from various faith cultures. A large dining and conference room nearby seats 18 people.

“It’s so fitting that the Interfaith Center’s footprint is an old home that feels cozy, warm and welcoming,” says Paul Entis 92C, executive director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. “I couldn’t be more thrilled to see a physical space on campus that celebrates religious pluralism, interfaith friendship and holistic education.”

Dean of Religious Life Greg McGonigle led a session witih students during WISE pre-orientation.

The Interfaith Center’s warmth is meant to invite anyone in the Emory community to tangle with some of life’s most vexing questions: What do I believe? Can I make a difference? What does flourishing mean to me and what is my purpose? 

“We are finding our independence on campus; that's the unifying experience,” Murthy says. “Whether it is a spiritual experience or a religious-based experience, a common thread is being able to explore your faith in a safe space — and figuring out how you want to take that into your daily life. If you like these experiences, then you're more than welcome.”

Interfaith exploration relates to academic and professional growth as well. As a senior majoring in quantitative sciences and French, Murthy sees herself becoming a global health consultant. “I love looking at the bigger picture and meeting people from different walks of life and understanding that our own experiences are so valid,” she said. “Because of the people I've met at Emory, interfaith engagement is much more important to me. It’s informed how I want to be a leader this year as well as how I want to be in the future.”


Decades ago, Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe 76T, Emory dean of religious life emerita began advocating for a space like the Interfaith Center. “In some ways it’s needed even more today, because we need to learn how to be together,” she says. “I think that's the genius of an interfaith space.”

Over the years, many Emory students and alumni have understood the need for and embraced that vision. “We can be proud that our alma mater is committed to the whole person,” says Isam Vaid 93Ox 95C 99PH, the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life’s Muslim Religious Life Scholar, co-founder of the Emory Muslim Students Association and a devoted advocate for the center’s creation over the years. “Alumni like me have been shaped by interfaith experiences on campus, and we share this hope for current and future students.” 

Maysam Elghazali 26C is one grateful beneficiary of a project seeded before she was born.  “With a spacious prayer/lecture room and meditation room on the upper floor, the Interfaith Center serves as a place for Muslim students to engage with the apex of our religious practices, salat or prayer,” Elghazali says. “This space also allows for another crucial aspect of Islam — knowledge seeking — as we can use this room to hear a khutba or religious sermon."

As Emory’s religious diversity and activity has grown, it has filled and exceeded the capacity of Cannon Chapel, the multireligious chapel at the heart of Emory’s Atlanta campus, which opened in 1981. Cannon will continue to be used for many large prayer services and gatherings, and it has many academic uses as well, being shared with Emory’s Candler School of Theology

Emory’s multifaith chaplaincy team members – spanning Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim faiths – now have offices in the Interfaith Center near where they can hold gatherings and services with students. They are faces of support for spiritual seeking and engagement in social issues. Interfaith exploration is one way to practice gaining “knowledge in the service of humanity” that is core to Emory’s mission and a way to engage in the work of bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice for all.  


The Interfaith Center is an outgrowth of Emory’s founding in 1836 by the Methodist Church and the legacy of its students, faculty and staff who have been attracted to that vision and now represent the world’s great religions and secular questioning. It is aligned with the Emory Identity Spaces Project about to be unveiled in Cox Hall, which has improved the feel, functionality and visibility of the Emory Black Student Union, Centro Latinx, Center for Women, Center for LGBT Life, and new identity spaces for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American students and first-generation students. All are close partner offices to the work of the Interfaith Center. 

The Interfaith Center features a cozy library and study room.

Inside the Interfaith Center, “Some people wear shoes and some don't. For some, worship is a quiet experience, and for others, it’s really loud,” notes the Rev. Dr. Gregory W. McGonigle, Emory’s dean of religious life and university chaplain. 

“Some of our communities venerate images, and others don’t use images at all,” McGonigle says. “As we explore our differences and similarities, in a context that honors our shared humanity, I think everyone is eager to learn how it will work, how it will play out. Emory is increasingly reflecting who we are as a country and a wider world and seeking to advance wellbeing, justice and peace. Our prayer is that this new center will support us in these pursuits and be a workshop for these common endeavors.”


Join President Gregory L. Fenves, Dean Gregory W. McGonigle, and the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life on Oct. 21 for the opening of a new center dedicated to spiritual practice, study, dialogue, understanding, peace and service. Enjoy music, prayers, brief remarks, tours, refreshments and interfaith community.

Opening Celebration Details

Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023

3:00-4:30 p.m.

1707 N.Decatur Rd.

Atlanta, GA 30322

RSVP at bit.ly/EmoryIFCOpening

No parking is available on site; the nearest Emory parking is Fishburne Parking Deck across the street. For more information, contact religiouslife@emory.edu.

Email the Editor