Community through common ground: Religious life at Washington University

| Managing Editor

For many incoming freshmen, coming to college represents the idea of freedom, of a time to discover who they are, an exciting opportunity to explore their interests.

Religious students, like the president of Harambee Christian Ministries, senior Giselle Fuselier, note that this experience—while freeing—comes with difficult questions.

“I have been Christian for a long time. I was raised in the church. My family has been Christian for generations. It was already something that was pretty well-established for me, and then, when I came to college I was like, ‘What’s going to happen?’”

For those that choose to make religion a part of their college experience, Washington University plays host to a rich, vibrant community of religious students of every faith.

The University as a whole, however, has been a self-designated nonsectarian institution for the majority of its lifetime—a distinction insisted upon by one of its founders, Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot Jr., a man dubbed “the Saint of the West” and to whom the University’s original name of “Eliot Seminary” is owed.

Now home to more than 20 religious groups, the University’s students have taken the organizing and encouragement of religious life into their own hands.

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A place of solace

Religious communities at Washington University remain, by and large, tight-knit groups. Organizations can range from 200 to fewer than 10 active participants, with the size varying year to year depending on the number of graduates and incoming students.

For some, participation in these communities serves an educational purpose. Coming to Washington University is often the first time many students’ religions are no longer the dominant practice in their community. Even within the groups themselves, members learn from each other, and often find their religious beliefs strengthened.

“Coming here, I learn the most from my peers. They’d bring up holidays like Day of Ashura, where some sects choose to fast, and I had never even heard of it before. Now, we fast for it every year,” Fatima Anwar, junior and co-president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), said. “It was definitely a product of meeting different kinds of people with different practices.”

In other cases, this strengthening can result in a change in beliefs entirely.

“I’ve become much more observant during college, and a lot of that was fostered by Chabad. I’ve received a lot of support from them, and they’ve really taught me so much. My family is traditionally Reform, and I would say right now I’d most likely be identified as Orthodox,” Chabad Student Association president and senior Stephen Yoffie explained.

For those in the smaller groups, finding their way on campus can, at times, feel isolating.

“My freshman year, I was the only active undergrad member [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] on campus. There are several faculty members, there are several grad students, but…I was the only active undergrad, which was extremely lonely and difficult,” senior and Latter-Day Saint Student Association president Grant Owen explained. “While we are a Christian faith and there are other Christians on campus—and that’s good to connect with them through other groups and whatnot—it was lonely.”

To help bridge this gap, some religious groups try to encompass multiple sects of Christianity, with most inviting members from all faiths to participate in meetings and activities. Two groups in particular, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Harambee Christian Ministries, link non-religious aspects of students’ identities to their spiritual beliefs.

For senior Jason Singer, president of FCA, “the athlete thing is just to have something in common. You don’t have to be [an athlete], some of the people we have played sports in high school or something and they just stopped in college…We want to reach to non-Christians, too. So, we always say, ‘Bring a friend, [someone who] might not be Christian; they can hang out with us.’

“[Harambee] kind of sits at this intersection: It’s for any and all black students, however they identify, and also any and all Christian students if they want to come, but anyone really can come if they just have questions or want talk to us,” Fuselier explained.

Another group that invites all students is Overflow, a nondenominational Christian group on campus. Senior Katie Balfany, president of Overflow, describes their members as participants in a community, not a club.

“There are no requirements for entry; there are no requirements for attendance or anything. We’re more of a space for people to come learn about their own faith, or for them to learn about the Christian faith if they’re not Christians,” Balfany said. “Anyone who goes to any church or no church at all is welcome to come to Overflow.”

Even groups for specific sects, like Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), encounter differing belief systems and practices.

“Within the Eastern Orthodox Church, you have the ‘typical’ Eastern Orthodox, and then you also have the Coptic Church, which is a bit different but also under that umbrella,” Michael Almisry, senior and OCF treasurer, said. “We actually have people who are Coptic and people who are Eastern Orthodox in our group, but we don’t even really communicate that much because we technically go to two different churches.”

For students coming from families and communities with strong religious ties, many from religiously-affiliated high schools, the transition to Washington University presents an opportunity: a new way to practice their faith and a time for personal growth.

“In the Christian faith, you’re always taught to love your neighbor, and you think of different ways to do that—it can take a lot of forms,” Owen, who watched his friends and family members attend predominantly-Mormon colleges like Brigham Young University, explained. “Especially being in college, at a place where everyone’s stressed out, everyone’s got a lot of things going on, I’m surrounded by people every day who don’t necessarily believe the same things that I believe, but those people are still my neighbors. Finding ways to practice my religion has changed for the better.”

“The way that I look at religion is that I want it to be something more applied to my life, not necessarily my life,” sophomore Auriann Sehi, who is Muslim but not a member of a religious group on campus, said. “I practice more spiritually…There are things that I do practice, but for me, it’s more of a ‘pick and choose’ kind of thing.”

Life outside of religious groups

Despite differing beliefs, participation in and observance of religion provides an escape for students of all faiths—but often at a cost. Many of the largest courses at Washington University, often taken by underclassmen, schedule exams for late evenings to accommodate the number of students.

“[Muslims] have to pray five times a day, which is easier in some months when you don’t have classes, but when you have a four-hour physics exam, you have to make some sacrifices,” senior and MSA co-president Rehan Choudhury explained. “I had a hard time, and it was a long-fought battle to be able to step out of my chem final just to pray, which takes three minutes. It was a lot of emails back and forth, same thing for a bio final. It eventually [resulted in] one of the teachers ‘proctoring’ our prayer, which was just…I mean that’s fine, but it is a sacrifice we have to make as we don’t get that time back—the exam can’t be moved.”

While providing logistical benefits for the University, the evening exams often interfere with religious observance.

“[Jewish] students who have an exam that starts at 6 p.m. and a holiday ends at 8 p.m. have to sit in the room from 6 to 8 with nothing available to them. They start the exam as soon as the holiday ends, which is not a good way to end a holiday,” Yoffie said. “It’s just very, very stressful because most of the holidays last about two days; so, for the two days prior to the exam, they’re not really studying because they’re observing the holiday, and then they have to go straight from that into the exam.”

Other events, like club meetings and social activities, are often scheduled to not interfere with religious holidays for groups with higher representation on campus, occasionally leaving smaller groups by the wayside. For Eastern Orthodox students, who use the Julian calendar, this becomes a challenge, as most people follow the Gregorian calendar.

“One time WILD was on Good Friday [as designated by the Eastern Orthodox calendar]. I ended up going to the Good Friday services as opposed to going to WILD,” Almisry said. “It was my own decision to not go, it wasn’t like I was forced to. If we were a larger number [on campus], perhaps it would be something that people factored in, but there just obviously aren’t that many of us who would be going to a Good Friday service that particular day.”

On a more day-to-day basis, in many classes, the topic of religion can pose difficult questions, often leading to difficult discussions.

“The ‘Muslim struggle’ or like things people have been facing have been publicized a lot. People bring that up even when they’re not Muslim…Whenever someone does, you kind of perk up a little. You raise a red flag in your mind like ‘Oh, OK, this person’s kind of speaking on your behalf,’” Anwar said. “And [what they say is] not necessarily always true, and they’re taking up more space than you are. You know, you kind of get silent on Muslim issues.”

Religious groups and the university community as a whole provide support while on the Danforth Campus, but for many students, like freshman Noor Ghanam, traversing outside of the “Wash. U. Bubble” poses its own set of considerations.

“I feel like, as a Muslim woman, I have to really watch the way I behave in public,” Ghanam said. “Every single thing I do does not necessarily just reflect on me as an individual but on all Muslim women and all Muslims.

Likewise, Sehi, who is a Persian Muslim, experiences similar judgments, regardless of her decision not to wear a headscarf.

“Visually, you don’t see me as Muslim…[but] when you are an underrepresented minority, or just a minority in general, people have that expectation that you are representing a larger group,” she said. “When people ask me what religion I am, I try to qualify it as much as I can with like ‘I’m Muslim, but I’m a spiritual Muslim, I practice this way.’”

Organizational structure

A number of campus groups are affiliated with faith-specific or generally religious national or international organizations, a characteristic often wrongly assumed to be a major factor in their day-to-day functioning.

“Our chapter’s involvement with the National Chabad Student Association group is very limited. Every year, they have a national conference [and] we usually send a small contingent, usually like two or three people,” Yoffie, who has been involved with Chabad for four years and attended the 2017 conference, explained.

This affiliation is most easily recognizable for groups with buildings near campus. Chabad on Campus, WashU Hillel and the Catholic Student Center each have designated buildings, or “houses,” bordering campus along Forsyth Boulevard. While functioning as a meeting place for members, each house also hosts services and keeps a full-time staff of religious leaders.

Those groups with houses each have student-run, Student Union-funded groups within them—Chabad Student Association, Hillel Leadership Council and Catholic Student Union—a distinction that can often cause confusion.

“CSU is the Catholic Student Union, there are five [executive board members], we all have different roles. So, we are like the student leaders—the advocates for the students,” Celia Kennedy, senior and interfaith chair for CSU, explained. “The CSC is the building run by the campus minister.”

Each student group arranges programming and student events in coordination with their respective campus-based, staff-run organizations.

“We work with the WashU Hillel staff members—we have a staff advisor—and we use their facilities a lot. We work closely with the staff, but we’re technically our own separate group,” Hannah Sugarman, senior and president of Hillel Leadership Council, said. “[Hillel Leadership Council] runs programs for social life, religious life, social justice, all of those aspects of Judaism.”

While organizations with a near-campus house often host services there, other groups traverse off campus to attend services at local mosques, churches and temples. These services, an integral part of religious observance for some, often give students an opportunity to engage people outside of their group. Many groups choose to attend services at a specific place of worship because they see it as a continuation of their message as an organization.

For example, numerous members of Overflow and FCA attend The Journey church, which has five locations in St. Louis.

“I think that [many members of Overflow] tend to resonate with their mission of not just being an isolated church but going out and serving the community and being part of St. Louis at large,” Balfany said.

On an even more local scale, recent initiatives to connect students with the campus community include The Carver Project, a support network for students led by Christian professors on campus who organize events and connect students with university alumni. Additionally, groups often hold their own gatherings with faculty.

“Once a month, we have a lunch with faculty members, very informal, just anyone who’s a member of our church, which has been a nice opportunity to meet faculty members,” Owen explained.

For many students, religious groups and the communities they connect with afford them the freedom of religious expression.

“Coming to Wash. U., where you could freely be Muslim and have those prayer spaces and have that ability to form a club and program big events, like MSA Eid dinner, was huge for me,” Choudhary said. “[It’s] really a way to show off our religion proudly, instead of hiding it and praying in a little teacher’s office during lunch.

Above all, most participants view their religious groups as an extension of their beliefs—offering a sense of community to those in need and helping people are tenets across all belief systems.

“The base of how we interact with anyone on campus comes from our faith. No matter who you are, what you’ve done or who you’ve been, you’re welcome in God’s love. That’s where all of our action comes from,” Balfany said.

For many, beliefs and values transcend the boundaries of religion.

“Religion shouldn’t have to be something that stresses people out. It does, sometimes, [but] it’s meant to be something to find peace in. However students find that, whether it’s through their faith or through some other means, it’s important for people to find peace,” Owen said.