The Colgate Scene
November 2007

Seeking Spirituality
What's up with religious life on campus? Plenty.

Friday Jumaa prayers in the Muslim prayer room [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

You might call Kaela Chow '10 a seeker.

She participates in the Muslim Student Association, Hindu Student Association, Asian Awareness Coalition, and Colgate International Community. In September, she decided to fast for Ramadan. But there's one more thing to know about her.

She's a Christian who attends University Church (UC) and sometimes sings with the Sojourners Gospel Choir. So why did she decide to observe the Muslim holy month?

"Traditions teach you the meaning of a religion or culture," said the sociology and anthropology major. "The only things I knew about Islam and Muslims were what the media had told me post 9/11, which were less than flattering." Although she fell ill and had to end her religious observance early, Chow said, "I learned more in the week that I fasted than any time prior in my life.

"I think that by exploring things outside your zone, you can understand yourself and your culture a lot better. But I'm not only doing it to broaden my scope on the world, it's more than that. It's like building myself by incorporating a bit of everything."

Chow, who also attends the Heretics Club (a weekly gathering for discussions about spirituality and religion), and took a World Religions class last year, may be the epitome of a student on a spiritual journey, but she's got plenty of company among her peers, who across the country are showing rising interest in matters of religion and spiritual life in one form or another.

A recent article in the New York Times explored this trend among college students today: "Matters of Faith Find a New Prominence on Campus" was informed by a 2004 national survey that revealed more than two-thirds of first-year students said they prayed; almost 80 percent believed in God; and nearly half were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually. Colgate was one of the schools spotlighted in the article, and for good reason.

The trend is revealing itself in a variety of new and interesting ways at Colgate, both in student engagement in religious and spiritual life, and in how the university supports their development both personally and intellectually.

Students, staff, and faculty members observe Good Friday by praying the Stations of the Cross on campus. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Practice and exploration
Although her spiritual sojourn comes first out of her personal interest in world affairs, religions, and cultures, Chow remarked that the climate at Colgate is such that students can practice their religion and step outside their traditions to experience others. Not only has every religious group on campus seen growth both in the number of students participating and in the amount of programming each group undertakes, but also, religious groups have been collaborating together and with other people and entities on campus like never before.

"The university religious community is very knit together," she said.

Swetha Peteru '08, co-president of the Hindu Student Association (HSA), agrees. Founded in 2002, the HSA aims to aid Hindu students in strengthening their faith and better understanding their religion, and to make the campus more aware about it, she said. Among their 12 active members are not only practicing Hindus but also several who are simply interested in learning more about Hinduism; as well, the annual Diwali festival of lights attracted more than 170 people last year.

This year, the group added topical discussions to their weekly meetings, which are "open and fun and help put a framework on what Hinduism means," said Peteru. "For example, with the recent festival of which celebrates Lord Ganesh's birthday,

"Our education is very driven. You're here to succeed in life, but I think most people have a general understanding that there's more to it," said Julia Gooding '08, who is president of the Buddhist Student Association (BSA). "Most of my friends aren't necessarily religious, but most would consider themselves spiritual. It might not come out in them going to a religious service or being involved in a religious community, but in different ways like art, or volunteering."

As for herself, Gooding was raised Episcopalian, but a visit to Bodhgaya — the site where the Buddha obtained enlightenment — while on a "gap year" before coming to Colgate led her to take a new spiritual path.

She found in Buddhism "a much deeper sense of self and religious identity that's not based on doctrines, but about how you live life, and I liked that." The main focus of college life, which is very much about serving individual needs, she said, can sometimes fall into conflict with the principles of Buddhism. Her involvement in the BSA provides an anchor.

The BSA, which was founded in 2003 and last year had approximately 15 participants, she said, is a mix of "aspiring Buddhists" (as she calls herself), a few who are native to the Buddhist tradition, and others who are exploring it. They hold weekly meditation, and sponsor a retreat each semester to a Rinzai Zen monastery in the Catskills.

"We live a very different life for two days," said Gooding. "We wake up at 5:30 a.m., sit with the residents for two hours through their traditional rituals, and do the work that they do during the day. For a lot of people, it's their first experience in Buddhism, and it's nothing like they've ever experienced."

Gooding and other students also frequent Chapel House, Colgate's spiritual sanctuary and retreat house.

"I go up there to get away from the rush of life at Colgate," she said. "I meditate there sometimes. Friday afternoons, I go up there and cool off from the hectic week behind me."

Weekly lunchtime Bible study sponsored by University Church [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Colgate Christian Fellowship's Wednesday night worship service [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Colgate's chaplaincy
That students have created several new organizations such as the Buddhist and Hindu associations, Orthodox Christian Fellowship, and an Episcopal group in recent years reflects both the increase in interest in spiritual matters and the increasingly pluralistic nature of the campus population. The highest numbers in terms of student population and involvement in religious life at Colgate occur within the Newman Community (Catholic), Colgate Christian Fellowship (evangelical), Colgate Jewish Union (CJU), and University Church (Protestant); participation is also increasing in the Muslim Student Association (MSA).

The university recently realigned the chaplain's office and budget to address the wider array of religious needs and provide spaces that are welcoming to all groups. Even the university organist's role is broader today, and includes preparing music for the Catholic masses and directing the Sojourners Gospel Choir and UC worship band.

Pulling it all together are the three chaplains: Mark Mann, protestant campus minister, who also supports the Muslim students; David Levy, director of Jewish life, who also supports the Hindu students; and Mark Shiner, Catholic campus minister who supports the Buddhist students and is also currently the university chaplain (the role as head of the chaplaincy rotates amongst the three on a two-year basis). They collaborate on a full menu of religious events, many sponsored by individual groups, but many interfaith.

The heart of campus religious life beats in the garden level of Memorial Chapel. A common room with tables, countertops, and a lounge area is flanked by the chaplain's offices, a kitchen, the Muslim prayer room, and the interfaith Judd Chapel.

"The chapel garden level is kind of like a bullpen," said Levy. "We stick our heads out of our offices, singing to each other, calling to each other about program ideas, and looking for opportunities to mix things up. It's really fertile ground because students are always hanging around, going into each of our offices — I'll walk into Mark Shiner's and one of my Jewish students is talking to him about an idea."

Their mission: the spiritual well-being of Colgate's students, which means not only to help Jews become better Jews, or Christians become better Christians, for example, but also to foster the growth of any students who come their way into compassionate, healthy, concerned adults.

Shiner has been known to kiddingly call their work the "chaplain's meal plan" because of the number of gatherings that offer food — including four different weekly lunchtime discussion groups — but it's no joke. Their events provide multiple entry points for students, in addition to members of the faculty and staff, to get involved in religious life at Colgate. As well, pursuing another goal of the chaplain's office, to participate fully in the intellectual life of the university, led to more than 35 collaborations with faculty members just last year.

The Newman Lunch Series, for example, provides students and professors an opportunity to explore the intersection of faith and learning. At one recent gathering, economics professor Chad Sparber discussed Catholic charity and the problem of poverty in the developing world from an economist's perspective. With all the groups and events, a clear message comes through: no matter what your beliefs, you are welcome to participate at whatever level you are comfortable.

In working with the student religious organizations, the chaplains follow the model of the university's residential education plan: they coach and advise, but the students make their own decisions about their activities, and it's up to them to make them happen. They also encourage collaboration with nonreligious people and secular organizations in order to provide broader opportunities for meaningful activities, such as sponsoring last year's bus trip to the Save Darfur rally in New York City.

"We welcomed anybody to come," Shiner commented, "so there were people of faith on the bus, but also atheists and agnostics. You have to go where there is common ground.

"One of the interesting things is that each religious community on campus has a pretty clear center," said Shiner, "but there are real blurry edges for almost all of them." The Sojourners Gospel Choir, for example, often performs at UC services, but its members are made up of people of faith as well as those not practicing any religion.

Mann, who joined the chaplaincy in 2005, sees himself as "responsible for all things Protestant." Ordained in the Church of the Nazarene, with a PhD in religious studies from Boston University (he also teaches Core 151: Western Traditions), Mann is the pastor of UC, working with the student board of deacons to plan weekly worship services.

"We try to offer a worship experience where there is something for everyone," Mann said, "so if they come from a black Baptist church, or a Lutheran Church, or a Presbyterian church, there's something they will connect with."

He also works with the Colgate Christian Fellowship (CCF) chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational Christian organization that is technically independent from the university and is served by its own staff person, Amber Nelson. According to Mann, "Most CCF members see me as their chaplain, too. Many are quite active in University Church, regularly attend Sunday services, weekly Bible studies, and other activities, and seek me out for pastoral guidance, even if they attend another church on Sundays. We even have one student who serves on the leadership boards for both UC and CCF. This relationship has grown very close the past few years and it seems to have benefited both communities tremendously."

The CCF, which also has a growing active membership (more than 50), sponsors a number of weekly activities, including a contemporary Saturday night worship service called theJourney, several small groups, and a daily prayer meeting. They have also recently become much more involved in interfaith activities, and have hosted lectures and panel discussions ranging in topic from Christian responses to modernity to the problem of human sex trafficking.

Mann also cited the creation of the Colgate Christian Athlete Fellowship organization and weekly Episcopal Communion services, instituted this year, as examples of how the chaplaincy is supporting specific religious needs in new ways.

Colgate's Newman Community, which has been the largest single denomination represented in the student body for a number of years, is supported by Shiner as full-time campus minister. A graduate of Luther Seminary who also studied at St. Paul Seminary, Shiner came to Colgate in 2004, bringing significant ministry experience.

Weekly Sunday night masses are conducted by a priest from Syracuse — a traditional evening service, and a 10:30 p.m. contemporary service with its post-service wings-and-pizza tradition. Special initiatives include an annual silent weekend retreat at an abbey, and active service such as supporting Hamilton's Friendship Inn meal program and spring break trips to repair houses for the needy with Nazareth Farm.

In addition to serving as rabbi, conducting Friday Shabbat services, and ensuring that the basic needs of the Jewish community on campus are met, Levy (the students call him "Rabbi Dave") advises the CJU and its affiliated groups, and also teaches in the Jewish Studies Program. He graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinical school, and earned a master's in rabbinic literature.

Last winter break, 10 students traveled with Levy on a service trip to New Orleans.

"We did hurricane relief from a Jewish perspective," Levy said, "doing the work during the day, and then in the evening studying traditional Jewish texts that talk about service."

The CJU recently re-affiliated with Hillel, the national foundation for Jewish campus life, and a subgroup of CJU members recently founded the Colgate American Jewish Committee Society, which has hosted speakers including Holocaust survivor Bill Donat '60, and visited the United Nations and Jewish Museum, among other sites, in New York City. (The AJC is an international nonprofit social justice organization.)

Buddhist meditation in the interfaith sanctuary, Judd Chapel [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Through Hillel, 33 members of the Colgate Jewish Union and Jewish chaplain David Levy participated with Taglit-birthright israel on a 10-day summertime peer trip to Israel, which included a chance to pray at the Western Wall. [Photo courtesy of David Levy]

Growing in faith, sharing traditions
Ceci Sibony '08 is one of the 15 or so leaders of the CJU, which has grown significantly in recent years. As a first-year student, she got involved with the CJU right away, but she had no idea where it would take her.

"For me, Friday night Shabbat dinner is a really important family tradition that I wanted to continue," she said. "My first week at Colgate, I came to dinner and said, `I want to help.' Literally from the next week on, I have been cooking Shabbat dinner here every Friday.

"The funny thing is," said Sibony, "I was not very religious before I came to school. But I started getting more interested. On campus we have a pretty broad range of Jewish affiliations, but it's a real community, a nice open atmosphere." Her involvement soon grew.

That year, Sibony said, "our new elected CJU presidents, Allie Weinreb '07 and Ben Suarato '07, said, `let's make something of this.'" The group started with getting more people to attend Shabbat dinner and bagel brunches. They celebrated Purim. Then they set their sights higher, spending four months planning a large event.

"We had Israel Week to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Rabin," said Sibony, "and it was an absolute success. After that, the level of activity and passion has gone up tremendously. We get at least sixty to eighty people at Shabbat dinners, from just ten three years ago. Rabbi Dave lets us have our own sovereignty, but his guidance has made an incredible amount of difference."

Sibony, a peace and conflict studies major/Middle Eastern studies minor, said her experience in the CJU — everything from working as a host/monitor at the Saperstein Jewish Center to planning a concert on campus by Jewish rap star Remedy Ross — led to her growth outside of her religious involvements.

"It's helped me to learn the skills you need to be a leader, how to get people engaged, and reach out to people, how to trust people enough to delegate." Her junior year, she was elected vice president of her class council, and she became involved in getting the Progressive Student Network approved as a Student Government Association—recognized organization.

The Saperstein Jewish Center, on the hill overlooking Hamilton Street, just past the Sigma Chi house, with its central worship area, living room, Kosher kitchen, and dining room, is the home of Jewish life at Colgate — but it is also a welcoming place for anyone who wishes to see what that might mean, Sibony said.

"I'd guess about a third of the people who come to Shabbat dinners are not Jewish. If you want to test out the service, go ahead, but if just dinner is for you, why not? If you want to come to a social or activist event, whatever your journey is, give it a shot."

Sibony also stressed the power of interfaith events the CJU has taken part in.

"One of our biggest successes was for Welcome Back Week last year. We put together a falafel stand on the Quad with the Muslim Student Association. Hundreds of people came, and we ran out of falafel within half an hour. I got interviewed by National Public Radio. People were so excited to see that spirit of openness and cooperation between two historically and politically adversarial groups. It was incredible."

Kashif Ahmed '08, a chemistry major and economics minor from Fairport, N.Y., is co-president of the MSA and also participated in the falafel stand. He noted that it was important to him to get involved in religious life when he came to Colgate.

"I've become much more religious since coming here," he said. "In terms of the five pillars of Islam, the prayers are the most important so you always have Allah with you. It makes me feel better about myself."

Ahmed sometimes leads the Friday Jumaa prayers, and said that he is proud of the growth of the MSA, which is in the process of joining MSA National — on occasion, he said, the group is too large to worship in the Muslim prayer room and moves to Judd Chapel.

"We had 15 people at our last meeting, and the students come from all over the world. My sophomore year I was the only kid born in America."

During Ramadan this year the MSA sponsored weekly iftars (breaking fast), which were open to the public and included discussion, at the ALANA Cultural Center. He finds those events to be the most satisfying. "People get to learn about Islam but also have a fun time."

Ahmed concurs with Sibony that interfaith efforts are among the most exciting outcomes of the growth of interest in religion on campus. On Sept. 11 this year, the student Interfaith Council, which he leads, sponsored "A Date with Faith," a banquet on the Quad to welcome the first-year class and introduce them to the various faith communities on campus. The event drew nearly 300 people, including many faculty and staff members as well as students.

"I feel like this was a big event for Colgate," Ahmed said. "We're from different faiths, but in the end, we're friends doing this."

Top of page
Table of contents
  Next: Meaning and purpose... >>