Religious Life at a Crossroads

As students explore questions of religious meaning and identity through informal conversations and organized gatherings, university administrators are pondering the role of religion both on campus and in an increasingly interconnected world.
January 31, 2008

On an overcast Wednesday morning, a half-dozen people from myriad backgrounds practice Buddhist meditation in the quiet stillness of the Duke Chapel crypt. Upstairs in the Memorial Chapel, a devout Christian prays next to an occasional churchgoer during a nondenominational worship service, offered every weekday morning throughout the academic year. Later that afternoon, students gather at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life to plan Sukkoth and Simchat Torah activities, while Muslim students meet with a Durham imam to plan a campus-wide celebration and meal to mark the end of Ramadan.

In some ways, Duke maintains strong ties to its origins in the Methodist church. Two-thirds of the thirty-six-member board of trustees is approved by the United Methodist Church, twelve each from the North Carolina Conference and the Western North Carolina Conference. Duke Divinity School, founded in 1926 as the first of the university's graduate professional schools, is one of thirteen seminaries founded and supported by the Methodist church. And Bibles are still offered to all graduating seniors at commencement.

Duke Chapel: Reaching into the community. Chris Hildreth

Yet the population of Duke today is far more ethnically and geographically diverse than ever before. Naturally, many students arrive on campus with strongly held religious beliefs not unlike those of Duke students a generation ago and connect with like-minded classmates through worship services and social activities. Others grow up exposed to a wide range of cultural and religious expressions—or none at all—and don't align themselves with any one set of beliefs. Still others belong to major world religions such as Hinduism or Islam that have historically not had high visibility or presence at Duke. Once here, the increased exposure—from peers and professors—to other theological beliefs and practices, and a concomitantly sharpened awareness of global instability fueled by religious conflict, has led many young adults to consider the significance of faith—in their own lives and in the lives of their classmates.

As students explore questions of religious meaning and identity through informal conversations and organized gatherings, university administrators are pondering the role of religion both on campus and in an increasingly interconnected world. How do international Arab-Israeli tensions play out at Duke? What do the towering spires and Gothic splendor of the chapel represent to economically disenfranchised neighborhoods in Durham? Is Duke a welcoming environment for those who worship God, Allah, Brahma—or no deity at all?

"Duke was established in the mainline liberal Protestant tradition, in an era when it was possible to imagine that that tradition would continue to be the dominant one," says the Rev. Samuel Wells, dean of the chapel and research professor of Christian ethics. "But that era is over."

The increasingly heterogeneous nature of religion on college campuses nationwide can cause sharp divides. Baylor University continues to be embroiled in disputes over the teaching of intelligent design. At Dartmouth College, a Christian student speaking at the 2005 convocation sparked outrage when he said that Jesus "is the solution to flawed people like corrupt Dartmouth alums." And at the College of William and Mary, President Gene Nichol created a stir when he ordered a cross that had been on the altar of the college chapel since 1940 removed because it "sends an unmistakable message that the chapel belongs more fully to some of us than others."

At Duke, there have been relatively few tensions between disparate ethnic and religious groups. The most recent exception was in 2004, when the Palestinian Solidarity Movement held its national conference on campus, resulting in a wide range of protests and passionate discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, academic freedom, and terrorism. (Launched in 2002, the PSM is a mostly campus-based network of groups in North America that endorses divestment from Israel and an end to U.S. aid to Israel, among other points.)

Since then, the campus has been surprisingly free of religious tensions. That could change in an instant, of course—an editorial in The Chronicle or a contentious speaker could set off heated exchanges over religious divides. But for now, the climate seems to be one of acceptance of, and respect for, the variety of religious beliefs and practices within the Duke community.

Before coming to Duke, sophomore Christina Booth regularly attended Sunday worship services with her family at Atlanta's First Presbyterian Church. During freshman orientation, "I met a much more diverse crowd than I expected," Booth says. "For example, I never knew a Muslim in high school, so I hadn't really thought about Christian-Muslim relations."

Booth's roommate, Shyamlee Patel, was reared by Hindu parents in New York, attended predominantly Jewish schools, and celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah more frequently than the Hindu festival Diwali. In elementary school, she envisioned that a national flag representing her various identities would be a combination of the U.S., Indian, and Israeli flags. "I'm much more of a practicing Jew than a Hindu, but many of my concrete beliefs about life are rooted in Hinduism," says Patel. "My mom calls me a 'Hinjew.'"

Booth and Patel both became involved in the Interfaith Dialogue Project (IDP), a nearly decade-old initiative co-sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Duke Chapel to foster awareness of religious pluralism and diversity. Booth was the instructor this past fall for the IDP "Religious Traditions and Interfaith Dialogue" house course, which explores such topics as the concept of jihad in Islam, Iranian wedding ceremonies, the status of women in various world religions, violence in the name of God, and sexuality and spirituality. (House courses are half-credit, pass-fail courses that serve as a bridge between students' academic and residential lives.) Booth also led weekly Bible study groups for first-year women through her membership in Campus Crusade for Christ.

"IDP and Campus Crusade for Christ are two groups that you wouldn't think would be allies," says Booth, who is considering becoming a physician or a minister. "I became involved in IDP because I was curious about Judaism, since it has the same roots as Christianity, but also about Hinduism and other non-Western religions, because I'd never really thought about them before. I studied Latin in high school, and it helped me in a number of other areas academically. That's the way I see IDP: The more I learn about other religions, the more I understand and appreciate my own faith, and that makes me a better Christian."

Gaining a deeper appreciation for one's own religion can also happen serendipitously. Elissa Lerner came to Duke from New York's Forest Hills neighborhood, a community with a historically large Jewish population. "Freshman year I met plenty of friends who had never met a Jew before and were totally baffled by what keeping kosher entailed or how Jewish services work," says Lerner. She recalls her roommate's reaction when she started working on a Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah. "She was amazed when I showed her what a Torah looks like and how to chant the words.

Festival of lights: Junior Melissa Oyer holds a menorah while freshman Mark Elstein lights a candle to mark the first night of Hanukkah. Megan Morr

"She told me that, until she met me, her knowledge of Judaism extended to some vague ideas about the High Holidays, the Holocaust, and a general connection of Israel to Judaism." With Jews making up 10 percent of the undergraduate student population, Lerner, a senior majoring in religion and theater studies, says that coming to Duke "helped contextualize the fact of a Jewish minority, a fact easily lost along the highways of Westchester and Long Island."

Duke's undergraduate Jewish population is similar to that of Vanderbilt University, but is not as robust as institutions of similar size such as Tulane and Emory universities, where nearly a third of the student populations is Jewish. The private universities with the highest percentage of Jewish students—New York, Boston, and Cornell—are all in the Northeast.

Michael Goldman, rabbi for Jewish life at Duke and the university's Jewish chaplain, says that Lerner's experience is not unusual. "Jewish students at Duke are usually from one of two backgrounds. They are here from urban and suburban communities with a high Jewish population, and they didn't have to think very hard about what it means to be Jewish. Or they are from small towns in the South where they might have been one of the only Jewish students, and they see Duke as more of a cosmopolitan setting where they can make their mark at a place with a substantial Jewish presence."

Goldman says that the Duke community has made great strides toward healing the religious and political divides that resulted from the Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference. (See news.duke.edu/mmedia/features/psm/ for additional background.) "That was a very difficult time," he says. "Muslims and Jews and Arabs and Jews were breaking off friendships over it. But quietly, over the past three years, I have seen those divisions mend." In February of last year, for example, the Freeman Center, the chapel, and the divinity school co-sponsored "The Paths that Lead to Peace," an interfaith dialogue with Archbishop Elias Chacour, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee known for his work promoting peace between Palestinians and Israelis; Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, co-founder and co-director of Clergy for Peace; and Mohamad Bashar Arafat, founder and president of Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation.

"Duke is going through a collective faith journey," says Goldman. "We are all learning how to explore and be at home in our faith while learning about our neighbors. And when I say faith, I mean faith as it is tied up in politics, religion, and culture."

After spending most of his life in New York—he received his rabbinical ordination and his master's in Jewish philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary—Goldman admits he had his own misperceptions about other faiths before moving to the South. "I didn't understand anything about Evangelical Christianity. I didn't know how much diversity there was among Protestants. And I didn't know there was such a thing as a liberal Southern Baptist."

Eighty percent of all college freshmen say they attended religious services during the previous year, according to a study of the spiritual lives of college students, conducted from 2003 to 2007 by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. Roughly the same number also said they discussed religion with friends and family. More than two-thirds pray, and four in ten consider it "very important" to follow religious practices. Statistics for Duke freshmen essentially mirror these figures.

Still, in the competitive environment of Duke, where academic achievement and personal accomplishment are hallmarks of success, some students say that they tend to compartmentalize or downplay the religious aspect of their identity.

Before she matriculated, Amanda Earp '05, a native of Greensboro, helped build houses for the poor during church mission trips to Mexico. As an undergraduate she launched a Bible study group in her Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, attended Durham's Blacknall Presbyterian Church with her boyfriend (now fiancé) Brian Diekman B.S.E. '05, and helped launch Common Ground, a student-run program that explores the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, faith, culture, and ethnicity.

"Sometimes it feels like you are in the minority if you are a person of strong faith at Duke," says Earp, now in her first year at Duke Divinity School. "Things like getting good grades or being involved with your sorority are activities that are encouraged. With religion, there seemed to be an underlying fear [among my peers] that I was going to oppose or judge someone negatively because of my religion."

Sophomore Jessie O'Connor was baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints when she was eight years old. Like Earp, she says that her religious affiliation elicits curiosity from her friends and classmates. She's become adept, she says, at countering people's misperceptions about the Mormon faith. O'Connor, a Latina from Miami who aspires to be a clinical psychologist, says that high-school acquaintances asked her why she would pursue a Duke education since "Mormon women are expected to have a lot of children."

Even so, sometimes her conservative moral convictions have put her at odds with her peers. "Once in a Spanish class we watched a film that was rated R," she explains, "and I was uncomfortable watching the sex scenes."

Craig Kocher M.Div. '01, associate dean of the chapel and director of religious life, says he often hears similar comments from students trying to figure out how to live a purposeful life in the midst of a culture that sends conflicting messages about what it means to be an adult. "This generation longs for deep and meaningful connections," he says. "But being intentional about practicing one's faith is often at odds with the dominant narrative of what it means to be a Duke student, and that can create tensions."

Even when part of a vibrant, supportive religious community, students still struggle to reconcile their faith with competing cultural forces. Approximately 20 percent of students identify themselves as Catholic, making it the second-largest religious community at Duke, after the various Protestant denominations. Roman Catholic priest Joseph Vetter—known to students as Father Joe—says that new students encounter a social environment that tests even the most devout.

"The students who come to Duke usually were smarter than everyone else at their high school, and then they come here and everyone is just as smart as they are, or maybe more so," he says. "They become part of a herd of people where everyone is trying to fit in and be cool. And part of that [social] message is that you have to drink and have sex to be accepted.

"This can become a spiritual challenge," he continues. "Am I spiritual or sexual? Do I drink or do I pray? And their lives are moving so fast that they don't have time to process what they are experiencing."

For students who want that time to process and to determine where their religious commitment might take them, a program called PathWays creates an environment in which they can grapple with questions of meaning and purpose in the context of their Christian faith, while also putting that faith to work.

Heading toward downtown Durham from West Campus, Duke University Road turns into West Chapel Hill Street, and you enter the West End neighborhood, which includes a Catholic church and an Islamic mosque. Across the street from a car-detailing business, a bright, renovated house with comfortable chairs on its large front porch shows no remaining vestiges of its previous life as a boarding house frequented by drug users and dealers.

Quiet calm: Buddhist practitioners prepare to meditate in chapel crypt. Michael Zirkle

This is the PathWays house, home to Lilly Fellows, recent Duke graduates who are committed to living and working for a year in a poor Durham community. With funding from the Lilly Foundation and support from Duke Chapel, the PathWays program includes courses, summer internships, postgraduate fellowships, and a "vocational discernment" component that combines mentoring and reflection.

Amanda Earp was a Lilly Fellow the year between earning her bachelor's and entering divinity school. As a person of strong religious faith, she says she had high expectations going into the experience. "I liked the idea of living intentionally in a community where I was able to live as a Christian on the outside, not just on the inside," she says.

PathWays is one of the most visible recent initiatives designed to enable a student with religious convictions to contemplate a life of service. This outreach effort dovetails with Duke's evolving perspective on the role of religion in its relationship with Durham and other communities beyond its walls. The PathWays house includes office space for a community minister, a Duke Chapel staff position created in 2006. Placing a community minister and the PathWays house in a neighborhood with both a rich historical heritage and the social blights of crime and drugs was intentional. The idea, says Wells, the dean of the chapel, is to make a socially disadvantaged neighborhood and the chapel more visible to one another, "to build trust and understanding through friendship, rather than seeing poor neighborhoods [solely] as a problem that needs to be solved."

PathWays has also become one of the models for the kind of decentralization of religion that the university is looking to create. The notion of moving Duke's religious center away from the physical structure of the chapel is one of many recommendations that Wells and Kocher included in a report to President Richard H. Brodhead last spring, "The Chapel and Religious Life at Duke: Some Issues and Proposals." Echoing the trend unfolding organically among students, Wells and Kocher noted the importance and imperative of engaging with other religions.

"Twenty years ago, 'religion' at Duke (in relation to Religious Life) essentially meant mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism. Thus the mode of interaction was ecumenical," the report notes. "Today 'religion' includes all of the above, plus Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the plethora of Protestant para-church groups and the non-Trinitarian groups (Unitarians and Mormons). Thus the mode of interaction must be interfaith. In twenty years' time, one must assume the scene will be even more diverse."

Recommendations to help the university make the transition from ecumenical to interfaith include the creation of a Faith Council comprising representatives from major world religions. In addition to Wells and Kocher, the other participants represent Judaism, Roman Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, Islam, and the Interfaith Dialogue Project. The group is seeking a Hindu representative.

The council meets monthly during the academic year to study sacred and other significant texts from the major world religions and to discuss such pressing global and campus issues as human rights, immigration, poverty, alcohol use, sexuality, and ethics and the environment.

In a university setting such as Duke, there are conflicting and often incorrect assumptions about the role that religion plays in the life of the community, says Wells. "One misperception is that religion is irrelevant," he wrote in a newsletter to the Friends of Duke Chapel. "In a secular world, the only valid role for religion seems to be as a form of therapy, as a motivational force for personal restraint or social improvement, or as a guarantee of quasi-ethnic loyalty. It is thus hard to imagine criteria by which any one religion might be more worthy of endorsement than any other."

A second misperception, he observed, is that religion is inherently dangerous. "Since the European wars of religion 400 years ago, the opinion has become widespread that if you leave people of faith alone together for any length of time, they'll kill each other. Contemporary religious practice gives a disturbing degree of validity to such misperceptions. In such a context, religious leaders must take active steps to show that they are pursuing truth and meaning in such a way that may often be unsettling but will never be violent."

Just as the student-driven Interfaith Dialogue Project helps participants better understand and appreciate their religious upbringing, the Faith Council provides a welcoming environment for people of diverse backgrounds to explore the tenets of familiar and unfamiliar religions. All Faith Council representatives serve in advisory roles to student religious organizations, so the group serves as a conduit of sorts for intellectual and personal conversations about religion and spirituality.

The Faith Council fills a critical void, according to Ted Purcell, one of two advisers to the Interfaith Dialogue Project. "When I was growing up, I heard Southern Baptists say that God doesn't hear the prayers of Jews," he says. "A lot of us got into interfaith conversations on our own to get past that kind of religious dogmatism. The Faith Council deepens participants in their own tradition; it's about mutual enrichment, not proselytizing."

Abdul-hafeez Waheed has been the adviser to the Muslim Students Association since 1998, and represents Islam on the Faith Council. He says that in the past decade, and particularly in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Muslims have had both an opportunity and an obligation to educate others about Islam, the second-largest religion in the world after Christianity.

"Even before 9/11 we had built relationships in Durham," says Waheed. He meets regularly with local leaders in the Christian and Jewish congregations "to help Durham residents build what Martin Luther King Jr. called 'the beloved community,' a society where discrimination, hunger, poverty, and homelessness do not exist." In 2000, he notes, a campus visit by Nation of Islam leader Wallace Deen Mohammed was co-sponsored by fifteen different campus and community groups, from the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and the Black Campus Ministry to Durham's Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and the Ar-razzaq Islamic Center.

"Islam is a beautiful religion that has been misunderstood," says Waheed, who converted from the Episcopal faith thirty years ago. "God wants us to be a model for our religion and live and perform in that faith every day. A good Muslim is like a good Christian is like a good Jew—they are all focused on the good of their religion."

Despite the diversity of religious experiences available at Duke, many religious groups on campus operate out of shoeboxes and lack full-time staff members. Like many campus ministers and chaplains who provide leadership to student groups, Waheed is not a Duke employee. He is paid a small stipend for his work, but makes a living selling cars. His schedule, and the lack of office space, means that his availability to students is necessarily restricted. Some religious-life group leaders are appointed and funded by external entities such as the national Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA or the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, while others serve in a strictly volunteer capacity.

As interfaith conversations flourish and new religious configurations take hold, finding space for worship, social and cultural gatherings, and administrative and storage needs is increasingly problematic.

In its search for quiet places on campus to meditate, for example, the Buddhist Students Association has augmented its weekly half-hour in the chapel crypt by borrowing the small prayer space of the Muslim students on Sunday evenings. Hindu and Bahá'í students travel off campus to worship at local temples.

With the exception of the Freeman Center, near East Campus, and the Episcopal ministry, which has space on Central Campus, religious-life groups are housed in the basement of the chapel. Cobbled together out of former storage and heating equipment areas, the space features low ceilings, windowless offices, exposed pipes, and files stacked wherever there's an available spot.

Not surprisingly, many religious groups have sought other locations to accommodate their needs and their numbers. Several have purchased and refurbished houses near East Campus. Wells says that addressing space needs presents a particular challenge. Rather than building alliances and promoting cross-fertilization, having religious groups dispersed across Duke and Durham could lead to a silo effect, where conversations and collaboration become more difficult, he adds. Yet economic factors all but preclude having one central location for all religious-life activity.

"It's very difficult to think about building one religious-life building because the needs of groups are so different," says Wells. "For some groups, worship space is sacred and nontransferable, while others see a virtue in being able to worship anywhere. And no one really knows what religious life will look like in twenty years. We could spend the next ten years raising money for a building that might easily become obsolete."