Sarah Canak (23), a junior at the University of Nevada Reno (UNR) and leader of an effort to introduce an interfaith prayer room on campus, knows how it feels to be in a minority – not only as a second-generation Unificationist, but also as a religious student.
“I have experienced discrimination for being religious,” she said. “In a class I took in my sophomore year, the professor had a biased slant on what she was teaching. She showed a video in class against extremist religions, and I thought, ‘This has nothing to do with the subject!’ I felt she was creating a stereotype of religious people as small-minded bigots that no one should take seriously. Throughout her course, there were many things that I disagreed with. I expressed that. I was not rude about it, but I was clear about my beliefs. She graded me unfairly because she didn’t agree with my beliefs.”
Another rude awakening came on September 28, 2011. Canak organized an on-campus conference on sex trafficking that drew subject experts such as Tiffany Short, Victims Specialist for the FBI, Kari Ramos, board member of Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence, Beni Hernandez, Shelter Program Coordinator for CAST LA (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) and John Hambrick, Las Vegas assemblyman. The conference was held on the same day that a former professor at UNR was indicted for sex trafficking an 18-year-old California woman, so it wasn’t surprising that the conference was reported on TV news that night.
Yet, astonishingly, the Sagebrush, the UNR student-run newspaper, refused to even send a reporter to the conference, despite Canak's making personal visits to their office to tip them off. Editors of the campus literary journal, which had featured columns by nude dancers and self-proclaimed gays, sat in the front row of the conference but reported nary a word of it in their magazine. For three years Canak has encountered faculty and student journalists who prided themselves on their “pro-sex voices.”
But Canak, a two-year veteran of Special Task Force (now Generation Peace Academy), was undeterred. Snubs by student presses and a widespread attitude of condescension toward religious people motivated her to organize a coalition of religious student leaders to establish an interfaith prayer room on campus. Canak’s efforts, which have drawn national and international media attention, resulted in the cooperation of her university’s interim president, Marc Johnson, and seventeen religious and spiritual leaders in Reno.
“Tacos with the President”
Canak says, humorously enough, that her journey started with tacos.
She said: “I was studying one day, and I started getting hungry and a bit restless. I had heard about an event called ‘Tacos with the President,’ at which students to talk to university President Johnson and eat free tacos. So, I thought, ‘I’ll go to that!’ At the event, many students and special-interest groups were asking questions, wanting to know how the President planned to serve the students. One person asked about veteran services for students. When another asked about campus diversity, I had an inspiration and felt I had to say something. Therefore, I asked, ‘What are you doing to meet the spiritual need of students on campus?’ I felt that President Johnson had to fish for an answer, that he didn’t necessarily know what was going on in that regard.
“After the event, the Vice President of Student Services and the leader of Student Cultural Diversity on campus approached me. I was told, ‘If you ever want to start an interfaith initiative on campus, please let us know if there’s anything we can do for you.’”
Keeping those words in mind, Canak decided to start an interfaith prayer group. Together with fellow Unificationist Stephen Child, whose daughter is currently attending UNR as well, she undertook the mission of creating an interfaith chapel on the UNR campus.
“We met right before Christmas with about 10 people representing different faiths,” she said. “Child mentioned this idea of an interfaith chapel to Rajan Zed, a Hindu leader active in the interfaith community in Nevada, who was very inspired by it. The two of them worked together to get about 20 signatures from different faith leaders in the community, including those of Jewish, Buddhist, Latter Day Saints, Muslim, even Baha’i and pagan affiliations. I was responsible for getting the signatures of different faith groups on campus.”
Canak and her supporters wrote a proposal for the interfaith worship room and arranged a meeting with President Johnson and representatives of different faith groups on campus. In order to raise awareness about the efforts toward interreligious harmony, Rev. Child gave a presentation about the interfaith chapels at other universities.
“President Johnson seemed very supportive of the idea, and he told us that he would help us,” Canak explained, adding: “It will be somewhat of a challenge to get a permit for space on campus, which is always in demand, but I’m very enthusiastic about it. This process has taught me that in working with the student government – and I’m sure it’s the same with any form of government – there is a lot of bureaucracy. There are a lot of hoops you have to jump though. You have to be persistent. You have to find supportive people, because not everyone will be.
“Before we even met with President Marc Johnson, we got coverage in local television stations and in newspapers around the nation, even internationally. I was surprised at the amount of attention we got. However, the student newspaper here, the Nevada Sagebrush, was pretty negative in their coverage. I think that, especially on university campuses and especially in my state, there is a real prejudice against faithful people. I’ve experienced it with both my professors and my peers.
“Despite that, I see that God has been working this entire time. It’s amazing how quickly everything came together.”
When asked about her identity as a Unificationist, Canak is quick to count it as one of her many blessings. “It’s really been a huge gift in my life,” she said. “My experience at school has been enhanced by my faith and this interfaith work. I feel that I’m making a difference right now, and I’ve been able to deepen my life of faith more than I could ever have imagined. It’s easy to get disillusioned when you’re just going to classes. You can get caught up in books and lectures. But I’ve learned that real learning comes through experience. My activities on campus have strengthened my spiritual life not just through study, but more through real challenges, real interaction.
“I don’t want to be isolated within our church. Sometimes we get too comfortable staying in our own church communities, and then we can miss out on really wonderful experiences with non-Unificationists. I met people whom I treasure so much, and I’ve created a lot of deep friendships at my school. I never would have met these people if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone.”
As a result of organizing the sex-trafficking conference, she was asked to speak on a local interfaith radio show called "The House of Savoy" hosted by Reverend Gene Savoy. After the taping of the show, Canak met a member of the show’s audience, Isaiah Sowle Price, who was so impressed with her articulateness that he invited her to be the host of his show “The Stimulus” on 99.1 FM Talk, Fox News Radio. Canak credits the Women's Federation for World Peace (WFWP), founded by Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, wife of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, for helping her partake in such events and strengthen her life of faith. She has also established a WFWP club on her college campus.
Words of Advice
Canak also encouraged young activists around the country to recognize the power in not just the individual, but also the community. She said: “You can only do so much on your own. I’ve tried to work alone in various things and I’ve failed many times. The times I was successful were when I found another group who had the same interest and was willing to support me. Now, wherever I go, I talk to people. We should all make connections so we can use them to do bigger things.
“Historically, a lot of great social movements have been started by young people on college campuses. There are so many resources on campuses that we should take advantage of and therefore, I really encourage young Unificationists to get involved in their campus communities. They need you, and you need them too.
“We have such a wonderful gift in the Unification faith. The understanding that there should be interfaith efforts and that we should all love each other is something many people did not grow up with. When we were planning the interfaith prayer room, people were afraid that our differences were too big, that the interfaith dialogue would not work. Our ideas are revolutionary to others, but to me, it’s just what I’ve been taught! Therefore, never be afraid to speak out.”
Contributed by Yoshie Manaka.