Happened to Religion On Campus? Everything!
gravely polite young woman went out of her way to walk
a visitor to Fairchild Chapel, which, for an hour on Sunday
mornings, becomes a Catholic space. "Well, this is it,"
she said, pausing on the stocky structure's steps. Muted
pre-mass strains started up behind the chapel's heavy
wood door. The student turned to go, then commented without
preamble, "so many churches for such a non-religious school."
She is wrong. The college owns two nondenominational chapels.
The churches on or near campus belong to the community.
And despite what the school's protestant chaplain, Rev.
Fred Lassen, calls "a mythology of militant secularism,"
those in the loop know that Oberlin is not an entirely
easy to see, though, why a non-religious student might
have that impression. While colleges across the country
are building multi-faith prayer centers, adding chaplains,
removing Christian symbols from their chapels, and dismantling
pews to make room for prayer rugs, Oberlin is holding
back. The administration is not indifferent; just unsure.
The devout here have been quiet, and largely uncomplaining.
No one can say yet where this relatively recent phenomenon--an
intense interest not just in "spirituality" (a buzzword
these days, many students agree) but in the rituals of
traditional faith--will lead. Or what students want, if
anything, to change. "A part of this is a reaction to
something that ended in the mid-'70s, the hyper-rationalism
that all religions suffered from," said Rabbi Shimon Brand,
the Jewish chaplain. "Everything had to be rational and
empirical. I think one strand of the word spiritual is
re-owning the experience of religiosity."
chaplains' office in Wilder Hall has long been the place
for comfortable discussion of personal concerns for
students in the Big Three, as the chaplains jokingly
call their Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic realm, as
well as for those who practice Oberlin's underrepresented
faiths. As most college chaplains do, they deal with
youthful resistance to the limitations that all religions
come with: "I don't want to be categorized." "I feel
closer to God walking in the woods." And the very popular,
"I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."
the shift toward expressing faith, which includes a
desire among students to understand and practice rituals
their own parents let slide, took the chaplains by surprise.
"Some of them are flipping back to the spiritual forms
of their grandparents," said Catholic chaplain Father
Edward Kordas, who was startled one day by a student
kneeling in church saying the rosary. Another student
told him she was "nostalgic" for the Latin Mass.
When Kordas tried to explain that nostalgic was probably
not the right word (Masses have been celebrated in English
for 35 years), the young woman said, "It's my family
keep asking me extremely basic questions," said Kordas.
"Why do we have the Stations of the Cross? Where does
the structure of the Mass come from? Why are we particularly
devoted to certain saints?"
too, said he's seeing fewer and fewer students arriving
without knowledge of the Bible and their own traditions.
The students he advises are eager to learn, but, with
the exception of deeply religious Pentecostals and Evangelical
Christians--and yes, Oberlin has them--most continue to
shun categorization. "I don't think they know what the
categories are," he said.
Jewish community is slightly different," said Brand,
whose students' choice of a subdivision is confined
to the categories within Judaism. "What I'm seeing now
is a desperation for religious experience. It's not
political. It's much more internal and personal." Brand
is hesitant to call the resurgence of faith among young
people a mere trend. "If it is," he said, smiling, "it's
10,000 years old."
has always attracted more than its share of foreign
students, for whom switching faiths or disowning religious
rituals is out of the question. A high-school applicant
from Taiwan, aware of the College's secular reputation,
told Brand, "I'm wondering if I can survive there."
the reason, this revival of sorts has not gone unnoticed,
especially among students who practice, or would like
to practice, openly and comfortably. The campus religious
report increased attendance at services, more participation
in events, and more seekers and samplers.
say the faith has always been there, but in the last
two years or so has simply become more visible, partly
because the weary devout see no reason to hide their
devotion in an institution that prides itself on embracing
a well-hidden secret that there are religious students
at Oberlin," said Erica Seager, a senior from California.
"When I came here, I didn't think Oberlin could offer
me as good a Jewish place as other schools. I was pleasantly
is a multicultural environment that tries to protect
students of any racial and ethnic background, sexuality,
and gender. But into that rhetoric of acceptance, religious
faith has not yet entered. It's really time to insert
religion into Oberlin's open, pluralistic mode."
SUNDAY MASS, "FATHER ED" AND A GROUP OF CATHOLIC STUDENTS
MET for their customary pizza in the Religious Life
Center at Lewis House. The Mass had been what one student
termed "Oberlin-specific." The school name is often
used as an adjective--Oberlinesque, Oberlin-y--and everyone
knows what is meant. In this case: no crosses, no kneelers,
and a plain dais in place of the altar, where Kordas
celebrated the Eucharist surrounded by students holding
hands. Those uncomfortable with the deviation remained
in the pews.
don't think we're as well-accepted as other religions,"
said senior Andrea Ahne of Illinois. "During my freshman
year, someone asked me, 'If you're Catholic, why did
you come to Oberlin?'" Another student, Jane, got tired
of being "picked at" by an atheist classmate. ("He kept
asking me how I can believe in God.") Her answer was
to join the Newman Community. "I figured,
if I have to keep defending my faith, I may as well
start practicing it," she said.
say my experience here caused me to grow strong,"
another student offered. "To defend your faith, you
have to know about it, so I learned more."
added, wryly, "I've always said Oberlin is one of
the best places for Catholics to be." It would be
wrong to suggest malice, or anything worse than misunderstanding,
the students made clear. As Rabbi Brand put it, "What's
the dirtiest word on this campus? Exclusion." Religious
students of all faiths tend to support each other
and would probably do so without the various "crossover"
campus organizations such as Oberlin Christian Fellowship
and the fledgling Oberlin Interfaith Community.
have never encountered anyone from another faith who
hasn't invited me to one of their services," Ahne
said. "I'm openly Catholic, and I eat in the Kosher
Co-op because I like the company and the food," said
senior Criss Porterfield of Oregon. "And everybody
there wished me happy Easter."
Throughout this age group's childhood, the Church's
focus was on building community and social relevance,
"which left less time for the basics," Kordas explained.
"This is happening all over the country, so I'm not
so surprised at their questions anymore. They just want
to know more about their own faith."
no religion predominates, the college has a strong
Jewish presence (about 25 to 30 percent of the student
population) and a very active Hillel. In a sort of
role reversal, these students have shouldered much
of the job of making sure the school's liberal, pluralistic
spirit is preserved while the dust of these new matters
of faith settles.
has always been spirituality here," said Erica Seager.
"Ties to nature, service to others, people doing yoga.
But definitely, in the last several years, there has
been more interest in traditional religion and, along
with that, an increasing desire of religions to work
Oberlin Catholic community," she observed, "is very
liberal and open to Oberlin ideals, but a lot of people
feel institutions in general are a negative force.
They're not trusted by the student body. That's just
the way Oberlin is. What these people don't realize
is that religious students don't fall into any particular
mold. The Jewish community, for example, is a mix
of the very observant who keep kosher, to people who
describe themselves as secular Jews and don't believe
in God," she said.
Friday nights, Jews and Muslims share the Sabbath
meal in Talcott Hall. The Kosher Co-op prepares the
food. Someone always reads from the Koran.
Jewish holiday services are held at Wilder. There is
no synagogue nearby, no special space on campus, and
not much griping about the fact. (At some schools, students
have campaigned for equal accommodations and refused
to meet even in symbol-stripped chapels on ideological
can get a little crowded, but I personally feel comfortable,"
Seager said. "Talcott is the only place available.
there are logistical problems. We can't carry food
(on the Sabbath) from one building to another." Muslim
students also follow similar dietary restrictions,
she said. Dining jointly just made sense.
in the majority is odd, she added. "I didn't grow
up in a Jewish community, so it was a big shift coming
to a place where there are a lot of Jews. I wasn't
as observant when I was younger as I am now, partly
because of this community and this rabbi. Shimon is
willing to meet students on whatever level they're
Morris Levin of Philadelphia had a like experience.
"I became more observant here. Much more than my parents,"
whom, he admitted, view his devotion with some trepidation.
"The Jewish community here has always been strong,
but recently, among the people I know, I've encountered
a search for spirituality, a yearning. It's almost
as though people are having everyday experiences that
we don't have language for. Even so," added Levin,
who got a laugh this spring when he prayed to "God,
who may or may not be in heaven" before a sporting
event, "it's still more OK to be a cultural Jew here,
or an ethnic Jew, than to be a religious Jew."
to the next page...