RENEWED INTEREST IN RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY ON CAMPUSES, MOST
STUDENTS AGREED, IS NOT A REACTION TO THE WORLD OUTSIDE, to violence,
disintegrating family structure, overwhelming responsibilities,
to any of the things driving the previous generation back to their
childhood faiths, or to the new "mega-churches." For the younger
group, the siren is from within.
a faith "might be that one quiet moment away from the chaos,"
conceded junior Jennifer Miller, co-chair of Oberlin Interfaith
Community, founded last year. "I'm in my Oberlin bubble, so it's
hard to say. From the real world, my escape is college. From college,
my escape is church."
of New York, had an eye-opening experience during her freshman
year, when she attended a national conference titled "Religious
Pluralism, Spirituality and Higher Education," the inaugural event
of Wellesley College's Education and Transformation Project. Oberlin
was one of 250 schools to send a group. She was impressed by the
school's seven-year-old Office of Spiritual and Religious Life,
headed by a separate dean and supported by teams of students,
chaplains, and advisors. Nearly a dozen religious traditions are
represented, including Baha'i, Buddhist, Native African, Native
American, Pagan, Sikh, and Zoroastrian. Services are available
to faculty and the community as well as to every interested student.
found out we're not so diverse as we thought we were, and I remember
thinking, 'Yes, but we're Oberlin.' But some of the other schools
did offer more, said Miller, whose group made the trip on behalf
of Oberlin's Middle Eastern students and others practicing underrepresented
religions, "the ones quietly finding their own space." Miller,
a Catholic, is involved with three of Oberlin's student religious
organizations. "That would have surprised me in high school,"
she said. "But I'm different here. I think more about what I believe
in. I take more ownership. Now, it's a choice to go to Mass, which
at Newman we help plan, and not a family decision. People are
drawn here because there is a place for everybody," she said.
"This (embracing religious pluralism) is one of the true tests."
while Miller is one of several students who said they would like
to see more support from the administration, no one has a handle
on what form it should take--a program like Wellesley's, more
advisors of various faiths, more meeting space.
Interfaith Community is still "trying to get a picture of who
is practicing what, and what they need," Miller said. "Some are
happy practicing on their own. Some don't want a place on campus,
and we have to respect that, but the situation changes every year."
official-group status allows us to apply for money, but we don't
need money," said sophomore Anne Royer of Oberlin Young Friends.
"We have dinners, but all we really need is room to meet. We're
having trouble with meeting space, a problem we haven't had for
Quaker community has grown, she believes, "because we've gotten
a lot of people in our group just looking for a different way
to go." Oberlin's Society of Friends includes community members;
the Young Friends group, chartered last year, is for students.
Friends meeting is not a service per se, but an hour of silent
worship broken by a "clerk." The faith appeals to those
by the meeting's meditative form and inspired by the Friends'
tradition of service to the community. It is pleasant to be a
Quaker on campus because, as one student explained, "it's progressive,
appealing, according to Royer, is the open-mindedness. "This is
a community where you can share your spirituality without being
told what to believe. I think there's more of an urge to break
with your faith if the structure is restrictive."
Pagan Awareness Network attracts seekers for the same reason.
"Obviously, for everyone it's different, but from what I've read
and my own experience, a lot of people have trouble finding their
spirituality in the religion they grew up in," said Joe Adriano,
a former Catholic who describes himself as an agnostic pagan.
get people who come to our group from so many backgrounds," he
said. "Christian, Jewish, atheist. It's very comfortable to be
pagan in Oberlin." That wasn't always the case, and Adriano said
his experiences--he has been asked more than once if pagans sacrifice
animals--have made him more understanding.
here don't seem to have faith in traditional religions," Adriano
said. "In Oberlin, 'religious' is a minority class in a way. So
the most important thing is that everybody respect everybody else's
way of finding spirituality. If you take that away, you're undermining
Lane, like most of the other seniors involved in student religious
organizations, has observed religious life in Oberlin long enough
to sense the shift. Lane, whose father is an Episcopal minister,
co-leads Oberlin Christian Athletes and is also active in Unity,
an umbrella organization that encourages the school's religious
groups to work together on events.
group alone has grown and OCF (Oberlin Christian Fellowship) has
also increased," she said. Since her freshman year, the organizations
have welcomed more younger members and more who attend regularly.
few years ago when I arrived, people looked at Christians as historical
tyrants, so you didn't talk about religion much because you didn't
know what kind of reaction you'd get," she said. "The Christian
groups then were really splintered and losing membership. We are
doing more to attract students--coffee houses, parties, Christian
bands--but it's not only that. This seems to fulfill a need for
them that they can't fill anywhere else."
to so many faith traditions has enriched her spiritual life, said
Lane. "My religious experience at Oberlin has been an integral
part of my college experience. Looking back, I can't imagine what
college would have been like without that."
WILL EITHER STRENGTHEN YOUR FAITH OR BREAK IT" SAID ONE STUDENT.
while it's true that no one alights on this campus because it's
a fine place to practice rituals, "people do want to be public
about their faith," he said. "It is much easier to be a Buddhist
here than a denominational Christian. On this campus, race and
ethnicity are more analyzed, more on the public agenda than religion,
even among those people who are being analyzed."
faith as a subject is popular. Oberlin's department of religion
claims the highest enrollment per-professor among the humanities
and graduates about 35 majors each year. Most students taking
classes are not religion majors, department chair Grover Zinn
do see a greater interest in religion as an experience, not
just as an abstract idea, and some students are interested on
both a personal and an academic level," he said. "We have people
in classes now actively discovering the roots of their Catholicism.
We want to help people understand the traditional religions
of the world from the aspect of academic study," he said. "But
there is nothing to preclude anyone from enriching one's own
personal religious life."
Rester, who graduated last year and plans to enter the University
of Chicago's Divinity School this fall, said he has seen the
academic study of religion and the social experience of being
religious at Oberlin both shake and strengthen faith. "My sense
is that people come to class with certain religious views,"
said Rester, who designed his own major in comparative mythology.
"Some emerge grounded, with a better understanding of how they
developed their views. Others are left with the angst of pondering
the authenticity of suppressed Gospels. But, definitely, there
are certain religions in vogue here--paganism and Eastern religions--although
not so much as in the '60s and '70s."
don't see any difference now from how it has been," said Rev.
Steve Hammond, pastor of Oberlin's First Baptist Church, who,
with his minister wife, Mary, is a Protestant chaplain affiliate
at the school. "When I arrived 20 years ago, I was told there
wasn't much of a religious presence here, but I didn't find
that to be true. It's just easy for religious people to keep
kind of a low profile."
Lesie is a freelance writer who formerly worked as a journalist
for Cleveland's Plain Dealer.