Addressing questions of faith on a ’secular’ campus

The only two questions Williams College ever officially asks the student body about religion are buried on page two of one student information form demanding a matriculating student’s attention in the summer before arriving on campus. A great many choose to ignore the questions, which ask, “What is your religious tradition or denominational affiliation?” and “Would you like to receive information about programs or events for your particular religious community on and around the Williams campus?” The answers are tallied by the Registrar but, according to Richard Spalding, chaplain to the College, are kept under wraps for the duration of a student’s enrollment to protect the student’s right to privacy.

On a campus that declares its secularism with a certain degree of pride, the onus is largely on the religious students themselves to provide the sense of community centered on faith in which they may have grown up. According to Williams Students Online’s directory of religious, cultural and political groups, seven student-run religious organizations exist for students seeking an active spiritual life on campus. Among these, the Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA), the Williams Christian Fellowship (WCF) and the Newman Catholic Community are some of the most visible, each sponsoring events open to the campus at large as often as every week.

Davida Kutscher ’03, who teaches Hebrew school classes two times a week in Vermont, co-coordinates the WCJA. Kutscher estimates that 10 percent of matriculating students identify as Jewish; she said that a typical Friday night at the weekly Shabbat dinners yields 45-60 students, and the annual Latke-Hamantaschen debate, which this year is on March 12, fills the Jewish Religious Center (JRC) to capacity with people of all faiths.

Kutscher said she appreciates the measures the administration has taken over the years to support aspects of Jewish life on campus, but certain problems, particularly in Dining Services, recur for kosher-observant students. “It’s like being a vegetarian – you can’t be completely kosher here, it’s just impossible,” Kutscher said. “There are only so many times you can eat salads for dinner before you start to get a little irked at Dining Services.”

One of the most significant problems is one of scheduling: Special dinners most often are planned for Friday nights, which conflict with the WCJA-sponsored Shabbat dinners. Kutscher said that when there is a conflict, the WCJA will cancel Shabbat dinners so that Jewish students do not have to choose between their faith and going to dinner with their friends. The WCJA has successfully lobbied the administration in the past to get special dinners moved to Thursday nights to accommodate Jewish students, but the Winter Carnival special dinner this year was served on a Friday evening.

As for Passover, the JRC kitchen is completely made over to conform to kosher standards; Kutscher described a period of “intense bonding” between Jewish students who cook together for eight days straight. For Jewish students who do not keep such a strict diet but do observe the holiday, Kutscher said that the efforts taken by Dining Services to provide for students keeping kosher can be comically misdirected, as in an instance where an egg matzo dish was seasoned with bread crumbs. “No matter how many times you try to explain it, there’s still this wall of ignorance that you have to face,” Kutscher said.

Rabbi Sissy Coran, associate chaplain, agreed with Kutscher about the need to provide for more dining options for students keeping kosher. “The most important immediate need at Williams today for Jewish students is for a more viable kosher food option. Not only would many students (not necessarily Orthodox) take advantage of a kosher dining hall, but more Jewish students would be attracted to Williams, making Jewish life here all the richer,” Coran said.

Elissa Klein ’06, who estimates she attends four or five WCJA events each month, explains her experience of the transition from home to school: “The town that I come from has a relatively large Jewish population, but there aren’t many super-observant Jews. It is strange being in a small minority here, though. I feel like I need to define myself more through being Jewish, which is why I’m much more religiously active here than I was at home. I’d have to say this campus is really tolerant of everything, so I feel completely comfortable being religious.”

“I think it would be much harder, though, if I were orthodox,” Klein said.

Overwhelmingly, however, Jewish students are pleased with the supportive College atmosphere. “I love being Jewish on this campus,” Kutscher said, smiling broadly. Coran commented, “Jewish life at Williams is much better than it was even 15 years ago, judging by the comments I hear from alumni each year.”

Jim Schroder ’04, a leader in the WCF, clarified his group’s activist efforts: “On the one hand, we’re not activist. We don’t like in-your-face presentations, or demonstrations, or talking at people in large auditoriums. On the other hand, we’re trying to convince people that God personally cares for them – it’s a lot more believable to do that through helping 500 frosh move in than through shouting over and over that God cares.”

According to Schroder, 157 people subscribe to the WCF listserv, and anywhere between 40-50 people are involved in the activities on a weekly basis. The WCF is also informally partnered with Gospel Choir.

WCF has been affiliated with InterVarsity – a nationwide evangelical and interdenominational campus ministry network – since the 1970s. Schroder said the group defines itself loosely to accommodate students of all Christian backgrounds: “In a community like Williams, we have people from every conceivable denominational background.” The group sponsors speakers a few times per semester on average, in addition to weekly prayer meetings.

Spalding has been a particularly dynamic presence in the WCF. Schroder praised Spalding’s efforts on behalf of the group and said that the Chaplain’s Office has been supportive, for example, of their annual Spring Break community service trips, but added: “The College generally doesn’t agree with a lot of what we do – I guess it’s the liberal environment. With who the College has chosen recently, with [Spalding] as the chaplain, I think they did a really good job choosing someone who could support all different kinds of religious groups in some varying sense. There are also basic things we disagree on. His goals are different from ours.”

On what he considered his job description to be, Spalding said, “I do everything I can to ensure the vitality and provide the resources for the widest variety of spirituality on campus.” He said that as chaplain to the College, he cannot hope to be all things to all people, but that he would like to think of himself as “a resource to all students who want me as a resource.” However, he is most closely affiliated with organizations like WCF and the Feast because his “sectarian allegiances” as a Presbyterian mesh best with these groups.

Olesia Biskupska ’03, a Newman board member, pegged the number of Catholics on campus at approximately 400, with 75 people worshiping at Sunday Mass and 25-30 attending weekly social events. According to Biskupska, incoming students who identify as Catholic on the student information form are automatically subscribed to the Newman listserv by the Registrar. Newman delivers goody-bags to the first-years when they arrive on campus and follow up with visits to entry snacks and ice cream socials.

Biskupska said she does not feel alienated on a secular campus, but that perhaps the needs of the Catholic community are underestimated or misunderstood. “The general assumptions of people. . .and the intellectual climate, the readings in an academic sense – that’s not always the same as what we believe,” Biskupska said. “It’s a struggle.”

Jon Chow ’03, who directs the musical ministry for Newman, spoke on how his faith has evolved in his time at Williams. “Coming here and being involved in a Catholic student organization for the first time, it’s sort of a step up for me. I feel a lot more involved in the Catholic community than I ever was at home.”

The Newman community is unique among the religious groups in that Peter Feudo, associate chaplain to Roman Catholic students, is employed specifically to assist the Catholic community – the largest segment of which is encompassed by Newman. Biskupska said she believed the proportion of Catholic students on campus substantiates the need for an associate chaplain. “I don’t think it would be possible to serve the Catholic community here with a generically Christian or a generically spiritual chaplain,” Biskupska said.

Some Catholic students who do not participate in Newman events said they generally do not use the Newman or chaplain’s office’s resources. Myriam Southgate ’04, one such student, explained that she isn’t normally compelled to seek assistance from the Chaplain’s Office. “Most of my spiritual guidance comes from a priest I know back at home,” she said.

Kate Troy ’04, another practicing Catholic, agreed with Southgate. “I’ve never really needed to [get help from the chaplains]. If I do want to talk to some religious person, I’d talk to a priest from my high school or parish at home,” Troy said.

Feudo was unconditionally commended by both Biskupska and Chow; however, both saw an unfilled need for a full-time Catholic chaplain, or even a clergyman. Chow said he believed that part of the College’s reasoning for not hiring a Catholic priest was to foster a relationship between Williams’s Catholic community and the local parish, thus strengthening the community by breaking down divisions. “It’s good for us to be able to be so closely connected to the Williamstown community in a way that other organizations might not have the opportunity to be,” Chow said.

“[Feudo] is very, very knowledgeable about the faith, and a great resource,” Biskupska said. “But basically, we need a priest, too.”

Feudo responded to this demand with a stipulation that it may not be appropriate for a priest to fulfill the needs of a college Catholic community, no matter how large it might be. “Such a set of demands may not be able to be filled by or appropriate to ask of a priest, particularly in terms of best use of priestly faculties. Thus, the more common model is that a priest serves in conjunction with a non-ordained Catholic campus minister,” Feudo said.

Aamir Wyne ’03, a member of the Muslim Student Union (MSU), estimates that between eight and ten students currently on campus identify themselves as Muslim. Wyne said the MSU “finds itself becoming more of an advocacy body than anything else,” explaining that “you go to a place like [Williams] and you’re forced to be a representative of your religion, whether you like it or not.”

Wyne, who at home near Virginia Tech has access to a large community of international Muslim students, called religious life at Williams “unfashionable” because many students here perceive faith as “associated with close-mindedness.” Furthermore, because there are so few openly practicing Muslims on campus, Wyne said, “I’ve always been frustrated that there aren’t more Muslims on campus.”

Nura Kinge ’05, who leads the MSU, describes the group as being first and foremost “faith-based,” serving the population of Muslim students.

While there is no College-employed chaplain to the Muslim community, Kinge said that “Rick Spalding has been a wonderful support to the MSU. He cares deeply about the Muslim students on campus and is always extending himself to us.”

Wyne argued that appointing a Muslim chaplain could indeed do more harm than good for Muslim students. “I’d probably feel more alienated,” Wyne said, citing that mainstreaming a religion as complex as Islam could potentially harm the diversity of the religious community.

Kinge lodged one key complaint with the College on behalf of her organization: “The administration is less proactive than [Spalding]. After Sept. 11, while college presidents across the country were making statements discouraging violent and discriminatory act against Muslims, Middle Easterners and Asians, there was very much a void on the Williams campus.”

Kinge lamented the lack of outreach to Muslim students following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Muslim extremists. “In my opinion and the opinion of many others, that was a grievous, grievous omission on the part of the administration,” she said.

However, in an apparent effort to make amends, President Schapiro invited several Muslim students and faculty to a meal in his house during Ramadhan last November. Said Kinge: “At the dinner he declared that he did not know why it had taken him so long to think of it, but that he would from that time on host the Muslims on campus each Ramadhan. I think that was a wise move on his part and was very happy that he initiated it.”

Additionally, there is a population of religious students at Williams who choose not to affiliate themselves with any particular denominational group – or even travel between several groups, enjoying a variety of social events. Theophile Tanis ’04, a Seventh Day Adventist, is one such student.

“If you go to WCF worship services, Gospel Choir events, the JRC Shabbat services or the Newman talks, you’ll be amazed to see how many of your friends and other people you know attend them,” Tanis said. “It’s not necessary to be preaching in class or in the hallways, so you might never know someone’s beliefs unless you take the time to know them outside of class or attend religious services.”

Dave Brenninkmeyer ’03, who often goes to Shabbat dinners at the JRC, said, “[Those at the WCJA] welcome people of different faiths, such as myself, to attend their events and also to learn more about Judaism, if so desired. I am a Catholic and I feel very comfortable there.”

Kutscher said she felt the WCJA sees religious diversity in their attendance because the group itself is so diverse. “You don’t even have to believe in God to be considered very Jewish here, as long as you go to the dinners, or you have a lot of Jewish friends, you’re still perceived as being actively Jewish,” Kutscher said.

In comparison to the WCJA’s weekly Shabbat dinners, the WCF social scene is “not extraordinarily structured,” according to Schroder. He explained that most friendships within the group have developed out of time spent together in worship.

Newman social events attract a majority of members of the organization, according to Biskupska. She said the events are designed to provide an alternative to typical campus events, which often revolve around drinking.

Schroder cited apathy as one of the top obstacles facing spirituality on campus. “I don’t expect people to care about things that aren’t relevant to them,” Schroder said. “That’s just how this community is, and we have to work within that.”

Spalding agreed with this assessment, and called for a deeper awareness of religious issues on campus. “Williams College hasn’t figured out yet what a big deal spirituality is in the world,” he said.

Tanis concurred with Spalding: “I think that we assume that most people on campus do not care about faith or have no faith at all. When I first came here, I sort of had that impression. But as time went on I realized that this was not the complete truth. . .I’ve discovered that most of the people I know here profess a faith in God of some sort, though of different intensity in manifestation.”

Feudo said that a range of needs for the Catholic community are not currently being addressed. “In addition to urgent needs for gathering space, the need for Catholic models among the faculty and professional staff, for relevant academic opportunities and for an end to the perceived indifference and/or antagonism towards Catholic life at Williams are of critical importance in our service to Catholic students,” Feudo said.

Coran said she sees the perception of Williams as a secular place as the nature of the liberal arts education. “Academic communities tend to be anti-religious as religion is sometimes seen as anti-intellectual (or even at the root of societal ills),” Coran said. “I think we owe it to our community to uphold religious life as a potential place to grow both intellectually and spiritually – a place to become responsible members of a community.”

One troubling missing piece mentioned by a number of people within each organization was the lack of a method of evaluation of the religious leaders provided by the College. Spalding – who arrived in the summer of 2000, making him the most recently hired of the chaplains – said he believed students would undoubtedly be encouraged to participate in the selection of their religious leadership. Biskupska said that there is a necessity for the administration to seek student contribution in the process of hiring future chaplains. “It would be good for the community to give input before [the leaders] are hired, and after,” she said.

However, throughout the leadership of the religious groups, there was a tremendous and pervading sense of pride in the work they’ve accomplished at Williams on behalf of their faith. Kutscher perhaps put it best: “If I had gone to Brandeis or Columbia or Harvard or Yale, I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to be co-coordinator [of the WCJA] because there would have been other people to do it, whereas here, there’s always the possibility that if you don’t do it, no one will.”

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