SG created an interfaith space last year, now they’re turning it back into a lounge

Carter Mudgett, Editor in Chief

The prayer and meditation room in the University of North Florida’s Interfaith Center was originally built as a closet. The room is a box—approximately 10 feet by 10 feet—that can support about four people at once.

Nine months ago, then-Student Body President Nathaniel Rodefer worked out an agreement between Student Government, the Student Union and the Interfaith Center to transform a gray lounge in the Student Union’s West building into a larger space for students’ religious and non-religious needs. Since then, the room has been used over 550 times, according to Interfaith Center metrics, with 51 people using it repeatedly: 14 students used it five to 19 times; nine students used it 20 to 29 times; three students used it over 30 times. 

On Saturday, July 1, that room will be converted back to a gray lounge because the current SG executive administration has opted not to renew the agreement that created the space, citing a need for “more common spaces for students to gather.”

The Interfaith Space—as it was called—was created to fix a problem: students needed a larger, designated space to fulfill their religious, non-religious and meditative needs. Where the Interfaith Center is only open on traditional business weekdays, the Student Union has much more flexible hours.

According to the Student Union’s website, for the Summer B term, the building is open from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, from 12 to 6 p.m. on Saturday and closed Sunday. For those balancing hefty work and class schedules with their interfaith needs, it was an important accommodation.

Some students, like Louay Elimam, a second-year electrical engineering major and president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), said they used the room every single day they were on campus. 

“Me and all the other Muslim friends that I know that are on campus go there every day we’re on campus whenever the prayer time comes in,” said Elimam. “Closing the prayer room will definitely affect us […] we won’t have a secure space to pray in.”

The Interfaith Space was already in place when Elimam arrived last year. More than just a room, it delivered the message that their religion is respected, he said. With the Interfaith Space, Elimam said he didn’t feel segregated from everyone else; it meant people cared about them. 

Safety on campus

Of course, not having the Interfaith Space doesn’t mean they won’t pray, the MSA president said, but it does mean they may not feel as safe and comfortable as when they had a designated spot. 

That story remains true for other students like Samira Yssa, the former president of the MSA and a biomedical sciences student, who has attended UNF for three years and been on campus even when she was still in high school. 

“I remember when I didn’t know about the Interfaith Center, and I would have to pray in the corner with my jacket in the library and everybody just looking at me,” she said. 

The Interfaith Space helped fix that issue. The room was open to any members of the campus community, regardless of their faith. It also opened discourse between people of different faiths and beliefs, said MacKenzie York, a senior student at UNF studying history and member of the Jewish Student Union. 

Where the room’s existence sends a message, its removal sends one too. For Yssa, that message, in her words, is “UNF doesn’t really care if we’re there or not.”

But, students have other concerns now that the larger space in the Student Union is being discontinued. Mainly, that’s their safety on campus. 

“Without the prayer room, there is not really an institutionalized space for you to be able to pray on campus which leaves you obviously vulnerable if you feel like praying in public,” said York. 

York isn’t worried about being a victim of a hate crime on campus, but he said that having to pray on campus when classes are going on makes him uncomfortable. 

“It’s nice to have a private space where I can do that,” he said. 

A temporary fix

Summer is already more than half over, and UNF’s interfaith students are now left scrambling for a new space. Temporarily, this will be an unused classroom on campus, said Matt Hartley, the director of UNF’s Interfaith Center. Starting Monday, July 3, Room 1002A in Building 39 will be open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

However, because classes will begin soon for the fall semester, that classroom will inevitably need to be used during that time frame. The room will only be available until Aug. 4—a month. 

“This is, by all intents and purposes, what I view as a problem that has been restarted,” said Rodefer, who was an instrumental factor in getting the Interfaith Space created in the first place. 

Spinnaker requested an interview with Student Body President Grosso to learn more about this decision, but he said he was unavailable this week. Instead, Grosso gave the following statement:

The MOU was written with the understanding that SG will after a year, review and recommend the additional Interfaith Prayer and Reflection space. After reviewing the utilization from the reports and with consideration for the need for more common spaces for students to gather, the SG Executive Branch has decided to release the space back to the Student Union and no longer be under the purview of SG.”


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