Religion and spirtuality at Williams: student groups speak

The Williams Record contacted all campus religious and spirituality groups, inviting each to compose an article explaining their mission, teachings, activities, or relevance to students.

Contacted were the Williams Meditation Society, the Muslim Student Union, The Williams College Jewish Association, the Williams Bahai Club, the Newman Association and the Williams Christian Fellowship.

All articles were composed by individual students within the groups with the consent of the group at large.

Willams Christian Fellowship:

by Joshua White ’01

Maybe it seems radical, but the Williams Christian Fellowship is a community of students who are convinced that faith should impact everything that we do in life – our relationships, our studying, and our day-to-day interactions on campus. True, WCF has many activities each week – sometimes over a dozen – but we’re more than just a club. We’re a group committed to encouraging Christians at Williams to deepen their relationship with God and to apply it to their lives.

Here at Williams, we talk a lot about accepting others. We talk about it in the WCF, too, because how we treat one another is a true measure of our faith. All of us desire to encourage, support and love people in the same way that God extends his unconditional love to us. We try to accept others no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they’ve done. At the same time, we realize that just about everyone wants to be a better person, and that there are many different ideas about how to do this. We believe – and, more important, we’ve seen – that God can actually change people and make them better. But change can be difficult, and even painful. That’s why a community like the WCF is so important. There’s something special about having supportive friends who will listen and who will understand and encourage you in your Christian faith.

If we claim that our faith should impact everything that we do in life, then it should definitely change our lives as students. Imagine that your self-worth was based on knowing that God has forgiven you and loves you, instead of on your GPA, the number of friends you have, your career goals, your getting-into-med-school, your passing-that-hard-bio-exam-last-week, etc. We’re convinced that this isn’t a nice daydream or simply a happy thought that helps one to cope with life. As Christians, we believe it’s actually possible to live this kind of life – that Jesus’ death and resurrection on earth frees us from our own messed-up-ness and provides a way for us to live “new” lives, lives that aren’t burdened by guilt, isolation or inadequacy.

This changes how we live. How we study. Those seven-to-ten page papers are still seven-to-ten pages, but we believe that self-worth is not dependent on them. While still trying our best to succeed academically, we try to approach our work with the perspective that, in a very real sense, our strength comes from God and not from ourselves.

So what kind of stuff do we do, anyway? Because our beliefs are important to us, we want to understand more completely what we believe and why we believe it. Several different Bible studies meet each week – including studies geared toward first-years, athletes, Asian Americans and Jamaicans; a study on contemporary Biblical scholarship; and Christianity 101 – a discussion study where you can ask questions and explore what Christianity is all about. Every Sunday night at 6:30 we meet as a large group in Goodrich living room to hear a guest speaker discuss some relevant aspect of Christian life. Other times, we bring guest lecturers to campus to speak on current issues that engage the whole student body.

Every few weeks, we gather on Friday night for a service of contemporary Christian worship and prayer called Psalm 96. It’s a fun time, and a chance for community members and students to meet and respond to God. Because we believe that prayer is effectual – that it actually influences real life – we set aside a place and time every day where we can meet to pray. Finally, we go on great off-campus retreats several times a year. These are a chance for us to build community and to discuss how we can better serve God and live out the Christian life.

No matter who you are, where you’re from, or where your interests lie, there are ways you can be involved in WCF. (Check out our frequently updated web page: http://wso.williams.edu/orgs/wcf.) Even if you haven’t been “religious” in a long time, or don’t consider yourself a Christian, please come sit in on some of our activities – you’re always welcome.

Williams College Jewish Association:

by Elisa Beller ’01

As a small community composed of members from a wide variety of religious (and non-religious backgrounds), the Williams College Jewish Association faces many interesting challenges and opportunities. Williams is about 10 percent Jewish, which is much higher than in the U.S. population (two percent) but significantly lower than at many larger colleges and universities of Williams’ caliber. (Harvard has 25 percent; Princeton, 12-15 percent; UPenn, an astounding 40 percent.)

Because almost all forms of Judaism fundamentally define themselves as communal, promoting Jewish life on a campus with small absolute numbers presents a challenge that larger communities do not face. Many other colleges have separate prayer services for members of the three or four dominant strains of Judaism (in rough order of decreasing strictness of observance and belief, these are Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform).

At Williams, such individual groups would probably not be viable on their own. Instead, we meet all together, compelling us to confront and negotiate our differences. We are an extraordinarily open organization, actively encouraging those who are unsure about their relationship to Judaism and/or religion to come experience whatever part of our programs they wish.

Every Friday night at 6:00 at the Jewish Religious Center (otherwise known as the JRC and as “that funny-looking white building on Stetson Court”), we hold student-led Shabbat (sabbath) evening services, followed at 7:00 by a student-cooked Shabbat dinner, including the traditional blessings over wine and bread. Attendance at services ranges from about 15-35 students, faculty, staff and others, while dinner tends to run anywhere between 40 and 80 people.

A different student leads services each week and can choose to lead pretty much however he or she wishes, provided, of course, that there is no live animal sacrifice involved. Thus, in some weeks the service is almost entirely in Hebrew, while some feature many more English and interpretive readings. In addition, the leader often chooses to comment on the weekly portion of Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Our religious coordinator will help anyone who wishes learn how to lead, so anyone may add a twist to the variety of styles already represented.

All members of the Williams community are extremely welcome to either or both services and dinner, which are free and do not require an RSVP. We often co-sponsor Shabbat festivities with other campus groups, especially those in the Minority Coalition, of which we are a part. Members of the other group cook along with members of the Jewish Association, usually preparing ethnic food in their particular tradition.

In addition to this weekly religious observance, we organize a variety of more secular, cultural and social events, like dinner discussions of such issues as the status of Jewish life at Williams, interfaith dating and the Peoples and Cultures requirement. We often work in concert with Bronfman and Wiener Committees, which fund Jewish events, to bring in speakers like Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai and philanthropist and Seagram’s chairman Edgar Bronfman ’50.

We also engage in social action, for example, donating all of our extra food from Shabbat dinner to the local food pantry. This year, for the first time, we sponsored a dining hall fast to observe the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur, raising more than $1300, which was split between the Berkshire Food Project and the Jewish anti-hunger organization Mazon. The JRC also features several comfortable couches and is accessible to students via cardreader from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and during the day on Saturdays (the cardreader is turned off for Shabbat) and Sundays.

The Jewish Association sees itself as a venue for observance, expression and exploration for anyone interested in Judaism (these turn out to be Jews more often than not, but definitely not always) and hopes to be not only a close and warm community, but also a positive force on campus for education and culture. The result of our pluralism is a Jewish life that is not exactly like what any one of us is used to from home. We use a Reconstructionist prayer book (siddur) that uses gender-neutral God language and cuts out several passages from the traditional service that it interprets as too vengeful or disdainful of non-Jews. Some of us like this, some dislike it, and many are ambivalent.

This siddur is useful for a pluralistic community like ours because of its accessible translations and transliterations (rendering the original Hebrew phonetically in English so that everyone can follow along) and also because it is flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of prayer leading styles. The spirit of participation and open dialogue and community is an integral part of what the Jewish Association hopes to accomplish. Because we are relatively small, it is easy for an individual to take the initiative to develop and execute an idea that excites him or her.

For more information about the Jewish Association and our board members, please visit our website at wso.williams.edu/orgs/wcja.

Muslim Student Union:

by Samee Ahmed ’01

As the second largest world religion, the one billion people who ascribe to the faith of Islam comprise a vibrant mosaic of cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Moving across the world of Islam we see a rich variety of religious expression in the dozens of countries in which Islam plays a significant role. Whether it is the Islam practiced in Russia and the Balkan nations, or the Sunni Islam practiced in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Arabian penninsula and the Indian subcontinent, or even the variety of forms Islam has taken here in the United States, the multifaceted nature of the Muslim faith is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of the modern Islamic world.

This multifaceted dimension of Islam is one that is evident in the Muslim Student Union here at Williams. Our membership reflects the dynamic mix of ethnicities of the Islamic world, allowing us to explore not only the religious, but also the cultural elements of our faith. In this vein, the MSU recently attended a concert in New York City concerning the Sufi Islamic music of Pakistan. Enjoying the ecstatic sounds of qawwali music was a wonderful way to explore not only the Muslim religion, but also the creative ways in which the message of Islam has been interpreted by cultures around the world. This essentially is a valuable way in which religious organizations can contribute to the Williams community.

As religion plays an integral role in cultures around the world, faith-based organizations on campus can help students understand and appreciate the cultural richness of the global community. We here at the MSU hope to further this cause by continuing our celebration of Islamic holidays such as Eid-ul-Fitr, commemorating the end of the holy month of fasting, as well as weekly Friday congregrational prayers held in the Muslim Prayer Room in Thompson Memorial Chapel. These events are open to the campus community, and we sincerely welcome anyone who would like to learn more about Islam to come and attend.

As Ramadan, the holy month of fasting is almost upon us, we here at the MSU would like to take this opportunity to especially encourage anyone with an interest in Islam to come attend our weekly meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday in Greylock Dining Hall. In this month Muslims around the world give up food and drink from sunrise to sunset, and engage in serious reflection, prayers and self-examination. It is a special time for the Islamic world, and during this month we would love to share our faith and discuss any issues that interest you. You can also come and see our cool t-shirts that never fail to impress. So we hope to see you soon!

Williams Meditation Society:

by Soryu Zenji ’00

My name is Soryu Zenji (Teal Scott, 00tss, x6282) and the Williams Meditation Society has delegated responsibility to me for writing this article. I trained at a Zen Buddhist Monastery in Japan for two years and will be writing from my experiences with meditation there and here. In my tradition, commentary is very common, and I will write this as commentary on the words “Williams Meditation Society.”

“Williams”: Williams is a place where we intellectualize a lot. We get a lot done. We have full days with strict schedules. We stress a lot. We often lose contact with ourselves. We do not give a lot of time to finding out what is the life we really want to live. We approach most everything from a theoretical position, and therefore can easily become numb to the real suffering and insecurity all around us. We often feel tired and unable to appreciate the beauty of each moment. We search for things outside of ourselves.

“Meditation”: This is a quiet, still, stable way of living. We concentrate, and unify our minds. We do not sit down and create something. We sit down and do not create anything. We calm our awareness, and open to right here right now. Two monks at a monastery in ancient China were grinding rice flour. They had two circular rocks, one laid on top of the other. There was a wooden dowel stuck through the middle of each, and the stone on top revolved around that axle to grind the rice. The Zen Master walked in and smiled and said, “You must grind the rice, and eventually, you may even grind those two stones away. But make sure that you never grind away the axle in the center.”

This is a very deep teaching. When we see a great soccer player, she gives herself totally to the sport. But no matter what powerful, fast, technical move she uses, there is always a quiet, relaxed, open mind in the center of it all. Dancers accomplish great feats, but when we see a great dancer, no matter what incredible moves he performs, we can see the unmoving thing within the motion. The great musician is always aware of the deep rhythm on which everything is based. When we see a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, we are really admiring the clear, innocent mind which made that piece. But how often, in our daily lives, are we aware of this “axle in the center”? And without this, how can we produce fine, high-quality rice flour? This deep, quiet, clear, energetic, joyful mind is what we find when we meditate. Meditation is exploring without searching. It’s opening our windows to the bright sunlight which is already there.

“Society”: And yet how easily we forget the value of taking care of this mind. How quickly we stop taking care of ourselves. For this reason, we have a group. We support each other, believe in the value of sitting quietly, and encourage each other to do our best. We have a Meditation House where we sit together, and do not just sit in our own rooms alone. More than thirty people have come to sit there this year, and each person who comes and sits in a quiet and persevering way adds his or her own wisdom to the House, which all people who come there can feel. This society has grown a lot this year and the more people who are involved, the better. By coming to the House for our own reasons, whatever they are, we become involved in something much greater than ourselves. The value of this is hard to understand. It is easy to think that we are doing this sitting just for ourselves, and it is essential that we are reminded that we really do it because of our responsibility to all of society: that each of us can grow to be a person who can make the world a better place.

The hours for meditation are 5:30 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. every day. We also get together at the Meditation House Sunday at 2:00 p.m. to clean it and talk. To get to the House, go through the Weston Field gate, to the baseball diamond backstop and turn right onto the path into the woods. The path is big enough to drive on. Go down the path about 15 feet, then turn left and you will see the House. If you make it to the baseball field and can’t figure out how to proceed, then do as others have done before you and yell as loud as you can and someone will come out with a flashlight to show you the path.

The Williams Bahai Club:

by Eric Powers ’02

The Bahai Club at Williams is dedicated to spreading the inspirational message of the Bahai Faith at the college and all over the world and to acquaint those who are interested with the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, Prophet-Founder of the Faith.

The Bahai Faith is the second most widespread of the world’s religions with followers in 255 nations and territories totaling over six million. The basic message of the Faith is the oneness of all religions, explained by the notion of progressive revelation. This is the teaching that all religions are messages of Prophets from the same one God and are progressively revealed to mankind in its various stages of maturity and development throughout history. This means that Muhammad, Buddha, Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna, Jesus Christ and Bahá’u’lláh are all Divine Messengers originating from the one God.

Bahais believe that Bahaullah is the Messenger of God for this day. The central teachings and tenets of the Faith include the unity of mankind, the elimination of prejudice of all kinds, sexual equality, the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty in the world, the establishment of a universal auxiliary language to promote world unity, universal education, the establishment of a world government, the agreement and harmony of science and religion, the independent investigation of truth and universal peace.

The Bahai Club is open to all students, staff and faculty at Williams, and intends to become involved in activities on campus which promote the ideals of the Faith, such as world peace, racial unity and the equality of the sexes. Members of the club need not be Bahai at all, since many activities of the club are geared towards furthering the social teachings of the Bahai Faith. These are teachings that we believe are held by many people on campus already and the club provides a framework to coordinate work in these areas.

The club also holds discussion meetings called “firesides,” which allow for groups of both Bahais and non-Bahais to gain better understandings of these teachings, the Faith in general and other issues of relevance to the Faith. These meetings create an informal and friendly atmosphere in which ideas can be exchanged freely, and the discussion is usually led by a speaker who begins with a talk on a certain subject.

This organization is extremely relevant to a college such as Williams where the community is involved in an ongoing struggle to balance campus unity and multiculturalism. The Bahai Faith teaches the concept of “unity in diversity” by which diversity and expressions of culture need not be seen as divisive. On the contrary, the differences between students on campus should be celebrated by everyone.

More information about the Williams Bahai Club or the Bahai Faith can be found by visiting its website at http://wso.williams.edu/orgs/bahai. You can contact Eric Powers (02ecp) or Shirin Fozi (01saf) for more information.