On marginalization of faith at the College: a call to erase bias in religious life

Recent op-eds in the Record have sparked an important conversation about the College’s mission. As alumni from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, we found that the piece written by President of the College Adam Falk and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Liz Creighton ’01 defending the College’s mission, as well as of the students whose existence on campus was called into question by one op-ed, was refreshing, reassuring and empowering (“Redefining ‘the Best,’” Sept. 20, 2017). However, while an affirmation of our mission is critical, we implore the College community to reflect more closely on an overlooked aspect of our campus – faith life. We strive to inspire meaningful action from both the College administration and wider community in addressing a glaring vacuum of support for students of marginalized identities and minority backgrounds in faith communities.

We are grateful for the College’s recognition that fostering faith communities is not antithetical to the values of a secular institution. Faith communities have benefited from the allocation of resources such as the chaplain’s office and faith spaces in the basement of Thompson Chapel. However, even a casual examination of these resources reveals that they are still largely designed to cater to the ‘normative’ adherents of only the most dominant faith traditions. Although we would be remiss to ignore that the role of chaplain to the College has been held by a gay man since 2000, the four chaplains have been cis-gendered men for several decades despite some turnover. The allocation of religious spaces also reveals that minority traditions are still marginalized. Muslim students, unlike their Jewish and Christian/Catholic counterparts, still do not have a dedicated social space and have long relied on the Interfaith common room as a substitute. Most recently, this space was reallocated to another group without consulting students or deliberating on a plan to accommodate students who would be affected by the decision.

We have since learned that, after pleading by affected students, the chaplain’s office plans to reexamine its decision and involve students who use the space in seeking an appropriate solution. However, the problem is being attributed to a one-off lapse of judgment rather than systemic marginalization that requires more intentional examination and resolution. This recent action is indicative of the continued lack of understanding of the needs of marginalized students in faith communities on campus, and a resistance to acknowledging and dedicating the resources and effort needed to address them. It pitted the needs of two groups against each other and further alienated marginalized students. Such norms have been upheld by the College: The administration has maintained support for staff and students who have stifled efforts by marginalized students to make these spaces more inclusive in the past.

During our time at the College, we found both the administration and chaplain’s office unequipped to deal with bias incidents we experienced in these faith communities. Particularly, the administration failed to meaningfully address incidents of bias from a staff member who worked with us in an advisory position. Despite alerting the chaplain’s office, Office of Student Life, dean’s office and Davis Center of the harm caused by this staff member, each office either took no action or was ultimately unwilling to go beyond a perfunctory attempt to find resolution. After a brief mediation attempt was derailed by the staff member’s unprofessionalism – including breaches in confidentiality and incitement of harassment – the administration took a hands-off approach at what it deemed to be intra-community issues.

This mentality has continued to permeate the responses of the administration and the chaplain’s office when faced with supporting students of marginalized identities and minority backgrounds involved in faith life on campus. Whereas sexism, racism and sectarianism are at least given the impression of being taking seriously in secular settings, the College and chaplain’s office have shown a refusal to address such allegations in faith contexts, as if to say that a student’s decision to be a part of a faith community denies them access to institutional support. Even the most well-intentioned students, administrators and community members choose to step back when minority faith students speak up on these issues. The concern is that these complaints are issues of religious difference, and outsider participation in rectifying these issues is inappropriate. Those with authority in these faith settings exploit this hesitation and further use religious rhetoric to veil their offensive actions. This dynamic has empowered sexist, racist and sectarian actors to feel safeguarded in faith settings on campus.

Faith life on campus serves a manifold purpose. It provides space for students to bond based on shared values, or culture that stems from religious practices. It provides a chance to explore spirituality independently. Lastly, it offers an opportunity to build community if you never had one before, or previous communities failed to accept any aspect of your identity. Students benefit from vibrant and welcoming spiritual and religious life on campus even if they do not identify with or belong to a particular faith community.

A commitment to faith life is inextricable from our mission. As an institution, it is an embarrassment that our current resources and policies uphold bias in our faith communities. Let us be clear: It is time that our institution and community recognized that misogyny, sexism, transphobia and homophobia are just as unacceptable in religious communities as they are in secular ones. The College must not write these off as inherent to religious spaces, especially when they are brought forth by marginalized members of the community.

Carmen Nareau ’16 was a political science and arabic studies double major. She lives in Oakland, Calif. Bushra Ali ’17 was an economics and chinese double major. She lives in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.