EngagePerspectivesUnlikely Friendships: Shared Space Across Faith Traditions
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Unlikely Friendships: Shared Space Across Faith Traditions

For our third interview of The PARK series on “Unlikely Friendships” we turn to two incredible staff members who are part of the Penn Religious Communities Council out of the Office of the Chaplain. Megan LeCluyse and Patty Anton. Megan LeCluyse is an ordained Presbyterian minister and heads up the Christian Association, while Patty Anton is a chaplain to the Muslim Student Association.

Excerpts from Edited Transcript

Dr. Lia Howard: Welcome to the Park podcast, where dialogue across difference is vital to community wellness. I’m Dr. Lia Howard, your host in the space where open dialogue, the free exchange of ideas, and civil and robust expression of divergent views is valued. Here we will explore the research, the practical applications and the benefits of effective ethical and civil dialogue in a diverse world. We hope to model respectful conversation that accurately and authentically frames contentious issues, hoping to reach an ideologically diverse audience. As a reminder for Series 5 of the Park, we’re putting out a call to the entire Penn Community students, faculty, staff and alumni in order to gather together some living examples of unlikely friendships. We want to study friendship and learn about the qualities and characteristics that are embodied in and kindled by those that might be called unlikely. Our past two interviews have featured pairs of students who are in unlikely friendships. And for our third interview, we turned to two incredible staff members who are part of the Penn Religious Communities Council out of the office of the Chaplain. Megan LeCluyse and Patty Anton. Megan LeCluyse is an ordained Presbyterian minister and heads up the Christian Association. While Patty Anton is a chaplain to the Muslim Student Association. They both support students who share their own spiritual beliefs and traditions. Yet Megan, as a Christian and Patty as a Muslim, do not share the same religious beliefs. As you will hear in the conversation. They share space both housing their religious communities within the same space over at the Christian Association. This shared space has fostered a friendship where they have come to many profound realizations. One of them is that they actually have similar roles in students lives. Because of this, Patty and Megan are able to support each other as they are very proximate knowledge about what it means to be women religious leaders serving students at Penn. This has led to deeper shared understandings and the cultivation of generosity and a posture of wanting to learn from each other. We can learn larger lessons about friendship from their wisdom in this conversation.

Dr. Lia Howard: Welcome to The Park. I am delighted to be joined by two staff members who are part of the Penn Religious Communities Council, Megan LeCluyse and Patty Anton. Megan and Patty, thanks so much for joining our unlikely Friendship series. Would you introduce yourselves who you are? Can you give us your name, your role at Penn, your hometown, or anything else you’d like to share?

Megan LeCluyse: Sure. Thanks for having us both. We are excited to be here and join you. I’m Reverend Megan LeCluyse, and I am the director and campus minister of the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m also an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church USA. I was born in Kansas City, but grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, which I call my hometown. And I’m excited to be cheering for the University of Arizona Wildcats as March Madness begins, which is where I went for undergrad. Thank you for inviting us. It’s great to be here with you and with Megan.

Patty Anton: So I’m Patty Anton. I’m the chaplain with the Muslim Life Program on campus at Penn. So I support the MSA and work on programing for the Muslim community. I’m originally from Ohio, a small town called Medina.

Dr. Lia Howard: Well, excellent. Thank you so much for joining us. And I’d love to hear why is your friendship unlikely or unusual in some way?

Megan LeCluyse: Yeah, it’s a good question. And when we first got the email about this series, I think both of our initial response was that it doesn’t seem unlikely to both of us. Though as I thought about the question, I think it was when we were carpet shopping together one summer that we kind of did look at each other and say, I wonder what people think as they see the two of us out here together doing errands and such. So I think people might consider it unlikely because we do come from different faith traditions and because Patty does wear a hijab, you can physically tell that we may come from different faith traditions. And so for some people, that might seem like it would make friendship challenging. But for the two of us, and I think for both of us, how we understand our faith to shape and influence our lives, it actually makes our friendship stronger and it fits very compatibly into our understanding of living out our faith. And I think there’s a lot of other things that we’ll talk about that make our friendships strong in our benefits of our friendship. But I think that’s part of why people might consider it unlikely.

Patty Anton: Yeah. So as Megan said, it was maybe we don’t experience it as unusual. It feels pretty normal for us. And for me, though, you know, I was thinking about it and I’ve been seeing relationships like this for more than 20 years, being in an American Muslim community, being engaged in national Muslim leadership. I am very active in interfaith. And so all my mentors, I’ve seen them having kind of relationships like this. My Imam, that that I look to as a mentor, he does work with evangelical Christians and they go on trips together. They have retreats together. They do so much partnering together and they have really deep friendship. One of my first, who taught me when I was doing my Masters in Islamic Studies, he had all these stories that when he lived in Iraq pre Saddam, that he would be giving the five minute Friday sermon. And it’s on this like kind of megaphone outside and people in the neighborhood could hear it. And so afterwards, he would go and have lunch with the local rabbi and they would discuss his sermon and they would have their own kind of friendship and interfaith discussion.

Others of my mentors, you know, I see them like, okay, and I’m going to golf together like the Imam and the priest. And I make these jokes that, oh, okay, we’re just going to tell everybody we’re trying to convert each other. But really, it’s a deep kind of respectful friendship. But, you know, I also kind of thought back. It’s been so normative for me to be in this space. As Muslim-Americans, we are not a majority in this country. We’re like 1-2% of the population. So in a country where not everybody necessarily has that same exposure and closeness, and the media doesn’t tell always the stories of the country, which is what these great kind of podcasts like this, these kind of friendships are actually happening all the time. But for people who aren’t in direct connection here, these kind of things in the media, I think it could be strange, and even for myself as kind of, you know, I converted to Islam, right? So there was there was a time that I didn’t know any Muslims. Perhaps I would have thought it was kind of more unique at that time in my life as well.

Dr. Lia Howard: Wow. Thank you so much. Really interesting, the interfaith connection. And I can’t wait to delve more into it. So would you tell us more about your friendship story? How did you first become friends?

Patty Anton: When I came to, you know, kind of Penn Campus, it was sort of like trying to create a space for the Muslim community. We were working with the chaplain’s office, but when I became kind of full time at Penn, I didn’t I didn’t have an office. I didn’t have a space. It was kind of like, can I borrow an office for a little while? Can I meet somebody in a coffee shop or a corner on campus? And so it was really kind of looking for like kind of a space and the kind of campus that Penn is, you know, there’s not a lot of availability of space. And we didn’t want to be in a place that was far and remote from where the students are that I’m like sitting in an office and there’s no students there.

And then just kind of the expense and availability question. And I think I was walking around kind of campus, right? Kind of coming back from lunch and I was part of a Penn Religious Communities Council. Megan and I had actually been on panels together. But I was I was walking by these churches and I was like, I wonder if anybody has like a room that they’re not using that I could use for an office or something. And part of the reason I thought of that is because of all the examples I had seen, like in the community that I came from. So the mosque that I had come from was very engaged in interfaith and had many interfaith partners. And when they found that they were overcrowded on Friday afternoons for the gym services, instead of building new buildings or trying to get a new space, they were able to just contract with their interfaith partners to use their halls on Friday afternoons. So this was a space that had the parking, it had the zoning, but for the churches and synagogues that they would partner with, that was unused space on a Friday afternoon. So it became kind of like a win win, sort of friendship and partnership to be able to do something. And so this had me thinking that this was a possibility. And so I approached, you know, the chaplain’s office sort of saying, you know, do you know anyone who might have space and be open to kind of sharing space like that? Meanwhile, Megan is having her own conversation, which I will let her tell you.

Megan LeCluyse: Yeah. So we had at the Christian Association, or the CA is what we call it for short, gone from two full time staff to just me in the fall of 2017. And while students would come in and study and be around the building, so also I was often alone in the building and we had space and we’re wondering kind of how it could be better used. And I was also in conversation with the Chaplains office, and especially Steve, who was not wanting me to be so alone in that space over there and also in conversation with Patty and knowing she was looking for space. So I think in about January 2018, he connected us with the idea of us getting together for coffee first and seeing what we thought, how we connected, how we felt about potentially sharing the space. And then we decided to try it out for that semester. And that first semester was really like, Could this work? A lot of dialogues about how we make the space work and friendly for both of our groups, respecting both of our traditions? And then that summer is when we really did kind of decide to settle into this and see it as something longer term, which is why we went carpet shopping. We did a lot of renovating around the space, which probably was a bonding experience in and of itself, from recarpeting, to having the spaces painted and to reorganizing the structure. We moved my office from one floor to another so that we could make the third floor a shoeless floor and I just thought about how could we use this space in a way that is best compatible with looking at it as a shared space. And so, yeah, we got to know each other a lot through that process. And our own friendship, I would say, started developing and forming a lot more as we did.

Dr. Lia Howard: Such a great story about space. And I know how precious space is here at Penn. So I love that story that it brought you together. Now, how do you maintain your friendship and then are people ever surprised that you’re friends and if they are, what do they say?

Megan LeCluyse: One of the things that jumps to mind, and I think it represents a lot in terms of maintaining our friendship, is painting nails in Patty’s office. Patty when did you get the nail polish, was that pre or post COVID?

Patty Anton: Actually, I think it was it was post. Yeah. But the chaplain that had previously been at Columbia had the halal nail polish in her office, and like students would drop by and paint their nails and talk to her and things. And I was having an intense color craving that summer right before we came back. And so I got nail polish into my office

Megan LeCluyse: And so now, like I think the week before spring break here at Penn, Patty and I had a meeting. And so our meetings are often begin with kind of catching up and picking nail polish that will match what we’re both wearing. And so in a sense, I think to me that kind of elicits the idea of female friends talking it. And I think that is a powerful piece of our friendship as both women in religious work. But we talk I mean, so we do share about our lives and what’s going on and things outside of work. But we are also people and friends who are able to share about our work and who understand what our work is and entails. Which I think is a little bit unique and campus ministry to have people who really kind of understand what this work can be like. And so I think a lot of how we maintain our friendship is just through that spending time with one another and supporting one another and sharing joys or frustrations or challenges, all of which get shared. Yeah, and we get advice from one another to like, can I talk through this situation or what’s going on. And we also do though, like mundane, like all right, let’s look at the building schedule and who’s doing what when and making sure it all works out.

Patty Anton: We both have this kind of a little bit of chaplaincy training as part of our religious ministry training, and we look at each other as sort of like kind of team members and partners. In that sense, even though we are kind of serving like different communities, we’re really kind of doing it together so we can do the sharing ideas as well. But like, you know, sometimes when you just needed a counseling session yourself or a processing session, we’re able to really be there for one another.

And, you know, there’s a lot of things that we’ve been able to do kind of over the years that kind of bring our communities together and have good dialogues, right? So some of that has been book clubs and some of that has been movie nights and other kinds of shared things that allow us to kind of like share experiences and have some kind of good conversations along the way.

Megan LeCluyse: Yup, A number of shared meals between our communities as well. Which allows for good dialogue and good food.

Patty Anton: And Megan was like kind of amazing because she actually downloaded, the year that we moved in together around the time that we were shopping for carpet, she downloaded Halal scanner app so that we could make sure that all the snacks kind of in the CA in the shared space was halal. So there’s no alcohol in the space, there’s no pork in the space. But she also, you know, the chips that we have, she runs them through the scanner before she gets them, which just beautifully mindful and really helps make it a great space for everyone who comes there.

Dr. Lia Howard: These are wonderful stories and I’m so glad your students get to see your friendship and that there’s such fruit from it and programing and scanning the chips are so wonderful that, thank you. And so what are some of the things that you most value about your friendship and how does this friendship contribute to your well-being?

Patty Anton: I think we really have busy schedules. And so, you know, just having someone that you share space with. If you have to schedule anything addition, to just have somebody there to be able to like process and to talk and kind of discuss these things as well. Whether that’s the latest episode of Mandalorian or something like that.

Megan LeCluyse: Yeah, Marvel, Mandalorian, all of that we do enjoy and talking about TV and stuff. But we also sometimes have really heavy conversations with students and just sitting with that, it’s nice to have somebody that you can go and be with and have support. Because we often are carrying things that we need to keep confidential and we can understand that and respect that and each other and also know when somebody just needs to have some extra support. And it is nice just to have somebody you can float into in their office and bounce off ideas. Or just say hi, or go grab lunch, or a snack, or coffee together, or thinking of how to articulate this best. But having a friend who understands and also like understands why you do what you do and has the same thing driving.

It’s really cool that a lot of people, I would say out in the world don’t understand people who give their lives to religious work and much less specifically working with the college age group and all that that brings as they grow and become adults. I would say there’s a lot of joys and challenges in working with this age group and even for grad students, and it’s wonderful just to have somebody who gets what makes you tick and it makes them tick too, even if it is from different faith perspectives and faith traditions. I feel like that allows us to understand each other and connect in a way that we don’t get to connect with many other people.

Lia Howard: Hmm. So well said, and I appreciate hearing it too. So how do you think the Penn community makes it easy for friendships like yours to develop and grow? And then how does it make it hard for unusual friendships to develop and grow?

Megan LeCluyse: I think there’s a lot and I’ll come back to it that can make it easier. Of course, I like jump to what makes it hard when I read the questions. Because, I think I think they’re still using the term “Penn face” these days? But I think genuine friendships probably period, but especially ones across differences, require vulnerability and openness and sharing and “Penn face” pushes people not to want to be vulnerable. And so I think that can be one of the challenging things in a setting like this, and especially sometimes when those differences students feel like they have to compensate for in the first place. Be it race or gender or religion or having a disability, to open up and share with somebody some of your experiences in that identity requires a lot of trust and vulnerability. And so I think creating that at Penn and in this kind of setting of competition, that can be very kind of competitive and it’s driven by a certain definition of success can be hard.

I think there are a lot of ways and opportunities for students to meet each other and connect with people who may be different in certain ways than themselves. And I think one of the things in both our communities is that we have places and spaces where undergraduate and graduate students both attend and can mix and get to meet each other. And I know that’s one of the things students have said to me is that the students they get to meet at the CA are not students they would get too often meet elsewhere. So I think it is easy to seek out spaces where you can meet people at Penn. But I think it’s an environment that can make it hard to really create those strong friendships.

Patty Anton: I think there’s a lot of spaces beginning with just kind of moving into the dorms where people have opportunities to kind of like meet and connect. One of the things that I think I’ve become kind of increasingly aware of over the years is just how that is experienced differently between people who feel that they’re part of the majority and those that feel that they might be having a minority identity as well. You know, how do we make that engagement kind of equitable? The burden isn’t heavy on the minority groups. I mean, you know, kind of going back to my interfaith experience is in the wake of September 11th. We did so much interfaith and every Muslim I knew did so much interfaith. Like it was you know, it was very time consuming. Our mosque that I had, had like 100 congregations that it was partnering with, you know, And again, that’s sort of you’re 1-2% of the population. And there’s a lot of people who are wanting to get to know you and wanting to get engaged with you. And so how do you make that that sort of equitable, right. So that it’s not like, you know, it can be sometimes exhausting for the people who are coming from a minority group. They feel that they have to be the ones explaining all the time or the bandwidth that that sort of takes to share the experience that they have with people who who may not have got it right and just, you know, and sometimes, I mean, and again, this is when we’re talking about, you know, kind of dialogue and the differences, the resources and the power dynamics that sometimes go into this kind of encounters are not necessarily always equitable.

And so I think that that’s something to be aware of, of just how people experience that differently. For some people that can actually be fatiguing. And it’s not that they don’t want to engage across difference, it’s just that they’re doing it all the time.And so that’s why I think you also see sometimes you end up having, you know, affinity groups that come on campus, right in the school. Sometimes students need to be in places where they don’t have to explain. But I think that’s one of the challenges. And just of course, you know, the schedules that our students have that they can they can be very focused on kind of what they’re doing and not have the bandwidth sometimes to kind of step out of the box.

Megan LeCluyse: As you’re saying that, Patty, I’m thinking like there has been a lot of education throughout our friendship, but I think that’s also why it’s so important to highlight things that, like our friendship is not always my learning about Islam. But it also is like talking about whatever movie, just like those things you were just talking about, like talking about The Mandalorian or whatever show we’re bingeing. Friendships with people from different backgrounds aren’t always about those differences. So often the friendships are about the things that we share and that are the same amongst us. Sometimes we may make assumptions that we wouldn’t have the same interests, which is often an error on our own side, and something I think to be aware of in these kind of friendships. But there is so much at the time that you can spend it in the things that are shared that it doesn’t. You don’t have to assume that it’s going to be this relationship that’s always just about educating.

Patty Anton: And then I’ve sort of heard from students is that in some of the ways that they’re experiencing the diversity of conversations in different ways, whether that’s deferment on campus or whatever, makes it feel like they’re having more shallow relationships. Somehow they’re being encouraged to just be so careful that they’re not getting into actual intimacy, you know, knowing people at a real personal level. And so sometimes, you know, I have people saying like ‘hey I do, I work in a diverse, for instance, lab on campus.’ But so much of our conversation is just about work because something in the culture is not really encouraging us to to get to know each other better at a personal kind of level.

Dr. Lia Howard: Wow, thank you so much for all the nuance you’ve brought to that that question. I appreciate that. So what advice would you give to other members of the Penn community who might want to have friendships that might be unlikely? And I mean, here are like, you know, other staff members out there, students, other faculty, like where do they find folks? And then how do they cultivate personal dispositions, like many of the ones you’ve already described today, that might make them open to unusual friendships?

Patty Anton: Part of it is an orientation of your heart. You know, this idea of of just kind of wanting good for others. And I also think that, you know, to start with the things that you kind of care about and look for those spaces of shared interests, people do have busy schedules and there’s a lot that can demand your time. And a lot of that can demand you energy. And in it is I think it’s you know I always and recommending with pretty much everybody I talk to is we have to find those self care spaces right. We have to find those things that nurture us and that need to restore us. So, you know, kind of doubling it up, finding the things that you’re passionate about that might that you can get involved and connect with other people.

Megan and I have gone to the gym together. We’ve gone swimming together. Allowing those kind of connections, you know, to be there. And the other thing is to, you know, kind of initiate, right? You know, if you if you find that you yourself are wanting something, you know, if you’re going to the kitchen for a glass of water because you’re thirsty, to get the water for other people, too, because you might not be the only one that’s thirsty. Right. So, you know, initiate an invitation, you know, create a space if you want to be able to see something happen and just invite people into it. And you may find that there’s other people that are wanting what you’re wanting as well.

Megan LeCluyse: I think in terms of the how to meet people, I think it’s gotten a little trickier in certain aspects.
post-COVID, because I feel like when I think of some of the spaces I’m in on campus, when like I’m on a conference committee, planning or conference planning committee, and when we met in person, you could have some of those kind of conversations in that pre and post meeting time or like walking back to your office with someone when we’re meeting on Zoom. I feel like less of that space is happening naturally. And so I think there may have to be a little bit more intentionality in seeking spaces to meet people. I think Penn is also a place where there are umpteen offerings that you could find that would bring you to those kind of spaces and allow you to meet people. For introverts like me it also may, as Patty was kind of saying, require you to go a little outside your comfort zone and initiate conversations. I would happily go to a program and sit and listen and leave. But if you really want to start to have some of those relationships and try to develop some friendships, it does require you to put yourself out there a little bit and maybe be the one to walk up and start a conversation with somebody.

Yeah, and a couple things in those relationships. I would say similar to what Patty was saying, be curious is something. Which is a tattoo my sister wants to get. After kind of after the scene in Ted Lasso. So yes, but and that curiosity, I think spans everything from some of the things we’ve talked about, where you do talk and learn about each other’s lives and cultures and backgrounds. But also when you’re a friend, like be curious why your friend doesn’t seem happy today or seems like they’re carrying something heavy and ask that question. And also, I think active listening is so critical. And when Patty was talking a little bit ago about the perspective of being in the minority position, especially in the differences in our friendship with my coming from the Christian, the more majority background, I think active listening is really critical for me to do my part in the friendship so that Patty’s not explaining the same thing to me a dozen times because I didn’t listen. I think part of my role is to listen and to learn, and sometimes I may forget and have a question again. And of course that’s okay. But there are things that I have learned and can do my part to make our friendship better and our lives easier. By doing that act of listening is just yeah, in these situations. And also just it’s something I think is a lot of us struggle with as humans. We ask somebody, How are you doing today? And then don’t pay attention. And I think all of our relationships that we care about deserve the time for us to pay attention.

Dr. Lia Howard: Well, such good advice. I’m just jotting it all down here. Orientations of the Heart, initiative, creating space, intentionality, be curious, active listening. On a podcast, really very deep. So thank you for that. And is there anything else either of you would like to share as we close?

Megan LeCluyse: Oh, that was one other thing. I was like, there was something else I was thinking with that last question. Don’t run away from difficulties. I think that happens not just in friendship that might be considered unlikely, but in a lot of our relationships. One of the thing or one of the reality is, I would say, of us sharing space is that there are there have been and are continue to be growing pains. And sometimes that does mean sitting down and having conversations that can feel a little bit uncomfortable. And that doesn’t mean that we should just quit and walk away and be like, I don’t want to do that. Because I think that is something that ultimately benefits us all, is to have those sometimes challenging or uncomfortable conversations and learn and grow ourselves through them and come out better in terms of your relationship, but also how our communities might work together.

Patty Anton: You know, these grounds where we share space, right? And we’re in relationship, they’re training grounds for all of us spiritually and and just this personally. And something that we need to be mentoring to our communities, right. So, you know, this act of listening, it’s like this is what I want for them, for their own relationships. Again, whether that’s professionally or in their friendships or their families that they have or that they may have in the future. So we hope that, you know, we’re trying to create a space and model all of these things together. And when I start my my sessions with the students every night, it’s like, you know, I’m reminding myself and reminding others as part of intention, right? So we’re always kind of like working on ourselves at the same time that we’re trying to encourage and mentor those that are around us as well.

Dr. Lia Howard: Megan and Patty, I can’t thank you enough for joining us today and for letting us in to your friendship and sharing your wisdom and just so generously telling us about how you are friends, thank you.

From Patty and Megan, we are reminded of the many benefits that unlikely friendships can provide. Their friendship highlights specific expressions of general themes that we can learn from. Ideas such as the importance of shared space with others, and how by sharing physical space, deeper relationships can grow by working together on a shared goal, such as buying carpet and planning out renovations.

Together, you can learn to consider the needs of folks who are different from yourselves. The importance of taking time to bond over relaxing and self-care experiences like shared meals or book clubs, or applying nail polish, or watching episodes of The Mandalorian, all humanizing. Being generous and willing to learn, providing advice and support for each other as women in religious work.

Being hospitable, and even downloading the Halal scanning app to make sure shared snacks are halal. The orientation of your heart utilizing active listening and desiring to be vulnerable. Across the world and within the U.S. religious beliefs sharply divide folks. But Patty and Megan’s friendship models the beauty of interfaith relationships. They’ve learned a lot about their similarities and have found how special it is to have someone who, to quote Megan, understands why you do what you do and has the same thing driving them.

I want to leave you with the advice that Patty gives us around how to cultivate unlikely friendships, she says initiate. If you find you yourself are wanting something, like a cup of water, get that for someone else. Initiate an invitation or create space. Maybe this made you think about a friendship you have. If so, please respond to our call for Unlikely Friendships at Penn. The link is on the SNF Paideia website. Just go to engage and you will see a link to The Park. Join us next time to hear from another group of friends that call their friendship an unlikely one.

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