By SUSAN JONES
Emiola Jay Oriola is on a mission, and it’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm.
Oriola is the program manager of Pitt’s new Office of Interfaith Dialogue and Engagement, which is designed to serve staff, faculty and students.
“The vision of the office is to be a proactive trailblazer when it comes to turning interfaith walls into doors and ceilings into floors,” says Oriola, who came to the office after 4.5 years as associate director of a pre-college STEM program at the Swanson School of Engineering. “Once you can connect with somebody, you can let them know who you are; they can know who you are. You can debunk stereotypes; you can bridge gaps; you can bring clarity.”
Oriola says the idea for the interfaith office came from Swanson School alum Leonard Berenfield (mechanical engineering, 1964), who has given substantial donations to the University in the past. Berenfield saw a similar center at Xavier University in Cincinnati and got in touch with senior leadership to see if something like it could be created at Pitt.
Oriola, who came to the office in December, seemed like a perfect match for the job.
Originally from Nigeria, he was raised in the Washington, D.C., area by his missionary mother. He said they moved around a lot and interacted and lived with people of all different faiths — Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. At the fourth high school he attended, the principal, who always looked out for him, was a Pitt alumnus, which is what brought him to the University as an undergrad.
He’s had a lifelong interest in world religions, which led him to get his masters at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and he’s just started a doctoral program in the School of Education, focusing on out of school learning.
During his first months on the job, Oriola has been going out and introducing himself to faith-based and other groups on campus — the Ryan Catholic Newman Center, Hillel Jewish Student Union, Chabad House, the Hindu student association, the Pitt Association of Chaplaincies and the Religious Studies department — along with people at neighboring universities and in the community. He wants to build relationships before he starts planning any programming.
The outreach paid off when a steady stream of people showed up for a recent open house at the office on the eighth floor of the William Pitt Union.
His goal is to create a space where people can “build bridges for relationships to develop, encourage people to strive for the unity in diversity, not uniformity and diversity.”
And while the Tree of Life tragedy may have served as a spark for the office, Oriola says he wants to bring people together when there aren’t funerals — “blood doesn’t have to be shed for people to see you as human.”
Politics and religion are often “no-fly zones” in conversations, Oriola says, but “how do you not address things that affect people so deeply?” The important question, he says, is to figure out “how” to have these conversations, and it starts with learning about the person before dealing with ideologies. “Many times we want to address ideologies first and it’s like, no, you have a name, you have a story.”
Sometimes, he says, he has to tell people what the office isn’t before explaining what it is. It isn’t a mashing up of religions.
“The inter- is for interaction and faith is for worldview. We can even deal with students who may be atheists or agnostics or may not have a traditional nominal faith in a religion, but they still have a worldview. The goal is not to win an argument, it’s to understand the person.”
For the rest of the semester, Oriola plans to continue meeting with people and “establishing relationships, because I want the office to be sustainable. Going up too quickly may mean you go down quickly. I want the office to grow up so we can stay up.”
He also wants to create student, staff and faculty and community advisory boards.
In the fall, he hopes to hold more events, including an interfaith student religious organization mixer, a relaxed Coffee and Conversation series and a Building Bridges workshop series.
Anyone interested in the office can go to interfaith.pitt.edu. You’ll find information about Oriola and the goals of the office. You also can sign up to be a member of one of the advisory boards.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.
Correction: An earlier version of the article said Oriola's office was located on the eighth floor of the Cathedral of Higher Learning. It has been corrected to the eighth floor of the William Pitt Union.