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Revealing religion: Understanding faith at Stanford

It’s my first day at Stanford: a whirlwind of unpacked suitcases, reshuffled notebooks and crumpled bedding. My roommate and I meet each other for the first time and choose our beds. Our parents all shake hands. Then, in the blink of an eye, we’re alone for the first time.

I take a deep breath and ask my roommate the question I’ve been waiting to ask: Are you comfortable if I pray?

I come from a unique mix of religious traditions. My father was raised Catholic, my mother is Hindu and I have always practiced Hinduism. However, I attended an Episcopalian high school and so for many years felt mostly separated from my family’s organized religion. Entering college, I speculated about what my religious life would look like and whether it would include a component of structure or routine outside my usual nightly prayer. I also hoped more generally for the chance to meet people of varying faiths, people with whom I could discuss my beliefs.

As time went on, I did meet people of many faiths and also many people who are not religious at all. Most of the time, the differences barely registered; as I became closer to my fellow students, deep conversations more frequently moved toward topics of politics, race or social class than toward religion. Sometimes, though, the differences did emerge. A distraught Jewish friend sought solace after the repeated appearance of swastika symbols across campus. A non-religious friend told me about her experiences attending church with her boyfriend. I continued to quietly kneel in front of a small statuette of Ganesha in my dorm room every night.

And I began to wonder: Is religion at Stanford actually an unspoken, deep-rooted part of student life? It may feel difficult to get a sense of faith’s role on campus, but I decided to see if demystifying campus resources, exploring diverse practices and unpacking student discourses could help me find out more.

Formal frameworks

While Stanford is, by definition, a secular organization, Leland and Jane Stanford specifically and intentionally built the institution with Memorial Church at the very center of campus. In a draft of a speech she ultimately never delivered, Jane Stanford addressed incoming students with her thoughts on religion:

“An impression has gone forth that we were indifferent to religious influences and instructions being taught here…[but] every stone that has been laid in the buildings of this University but numbers the prayers that have been offered up to our Heavenly Father for strength, guidance and help.”

Today, Stanford continues its legacy as an elite, secular, academic institution, but also supports a vast array of faith traditions. The Office of Religious Life oversees 40 official religious organizations known as Stanford Associated Religions (SARs). The SARs include the largest religious traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, as well as many smaller groups, including the Baha’i and Sikh faiths. As part of its mission statement, the Office strives to be “collectively committed and devoted to ensuring lively, thoughtful and supportive contexts for Stanford students, faculty and staff who wish to pursue spiritual interests.”

Those “spiritual interests” often involve following traditional forms of worship, such as attending church, observing Shabbat on weekends or participating in holiday services. Stanford provides an array of formal frameworks to support students who are looking for such experiences. And early in my freshman year, as I had hoped to do upon entering college, I sought out these rituals.

One of the first events I attended as a new student was a celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. It was an all-day affair, including a service in Memorial Church, a parade around campus and performances at night.

While it was exciting to see so many people observing the holiday, it still wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I felt a bit strange going to a Hindu service in a church, even though the ceremony was beautiful. I also didn’t quite find the type of religious community I wanted, since it was a large event. The question of my formal practice — what it looks like and whom I share it with — is something I have had to continuously navigate. But my uncertainty during my freshman year about where I fit in (which, admittedly, I judged based on a limited number of events) ultimately led me to stick with my personal routine in order to experience the formal elements of my religious practice.

Jana Kholy ’20 also has a daily routine of prayer. Kholy practices Islam and works at the Markaz, a Muslim student resource center on campus. Five times a day, she prays in her dorm room, or, if she can’t make it back to her dorm, prays “sometimes just in the basement of the library or a stairwell.” While Jana expressed that she mostly does this out of convenience and not because campus resources are lacking, I was curious about where else faith takes place on campus outside of either Memorial Church or students’ personal, day-to-day practice.

As an important extension of the Office of Religious Life, there are various student centers on campus reserved specifically for faith and spiritual practices. Behind the striking facade of Memorial Church is the Round Room, where students are welcomed to speak with religious leaders of diverse backgrounds. Windhover Contemplative Center provides a beautiful meditative space not affiliated with any religious tradition. And then there is the CIRCLE, or Center for Inter-Religious Community, Learning and Experiences. Located on the third floor of Old Union, the CIRCLE is intended to be a meeting space for any and all religious groups on campus to use.

While all of these spaces have open doors for students, they aren’t necessarily easy to find.

“If you walked around, you would never know there was a religious center on campus,” explained Connor Ghirardo ’19, a member of Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship. “You would never know it existed. And if you are actively seeking it out, it would take somebody who already knew where it was to find it.”

I had no idea the CIRCLE or the Round Room were accessible to me until I began research for this article. When I did talk with people about religion, the physical spaces of individual practice were rarely part of the discussion. What’s more, I rarely thought about how those spaces could potentially be used to navigate uncertainties or curiosities about religion. So after almost two years of an inward-focused, deeply personal expression of my religion, I approached the Stanford religious community in a new way — not as something static or fixed, but as a place to make faith our own.

Navigating spirituality

Spirituality or faith can sometimes be as simple as finding personal ways of caring for mental health or allowing space for contemplation.

“Our generation often conceptualizes religion as an institution devoid of spirituality, but I find a lot of meaning in the spirituality of Judaism,” Lizzie Frankel ‘20 told me. “I hadn’t factored in my personal spirituality as much as the more obvious, conventional ways of practicing [my religion].”

Beyond a traditional Jewish morning prayer, Frankel’s practice also includes spending time in nature, having meaningful conversations with friends and yoga.

But not everyone at Stanford is deeply invested in a faith tradition.

“I feel like coming to Stanford I was very much agnostic, I was ambivalent,” Aparna Verma ’20 said. “I would sometimes go to Hindu ceremonies, not because I feel religious but because it reminds me of home.”

Still, others have no cultural or spiritual connection to any religious practice. So spirituality, while in some cases deeply linked to a religious tradition, can also factor into people’s lives through cultural connections. It could also be characterized even as a completely secular routine of mindfulness; there are frequently “de-stress” events hosted on campus, from craft nights to meditation workshops.

Along those lines, the Office of Religious Life wants students to know that they can also provide a scaffolding for individual religious exploration.

“I’ve had seniors come to me and say they had no idea there was a Religious Life office,” said Reverend Joanne Sanders, one of the associate deans for religious life. “But it is truly a place that, as much as we can make it, is welcoming and inclusive and curious, and at the core of our work we are trying to break down the stereotypes and assumptions that some will make about religion.”

So this year, on a rainy Sunday morning, I decided to explore a different side of organized religion at Stanford by attending University Public Worship (UPW) at Memorial Church. UPW is a weekly service open to the public; though based in a Protestant Christian format, it features a rotation of speakers from a variety of faith traditions.

Though I felt somewhat out of place at the Christian service, I found an inclusive environment, complete with peaceful hymns and a poetic sermon from a visiting reverend. The service especially stood out to me as different from the Diwali celebration my freshman year — it was not a big event, but rather a relatively small gathering that exists every week for anyone who wants to try it out. I wasn’t sure I’d go again, but I appreciated how UPW could provide either a one-time outlet for exploration, or a more consistent routine for students.

After the service, I spoke to Mira Gillet, a community member who regularly attends the public worship. Gillet is a Christian teacher in a public school, and while she keeps with the secular environment at work, she enjoys having a space to talk about religion.

“Not talking about religion causes problems,” she told me. “In the past, there wasn’t as much communication about religion — people stayed in their spaces. But I have friends with a variety of backgrounds. We need to be talking to each other instead of about each other.”

I have personally always felt that Stanford is a very open community for people who wanted to discuss their religious beliefs. Naomi Shak ’20, a member of Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, described how those discussions could foster close relationships.

“One of my best friends is a member of the Jewish community,” she explained. “He’s probably the person who’s pushed back at me the most when we have heated conversations, because we’re both very passionate about our faith.”

Even those students who don’t actively practice or identify with a particular faith tradition may seek out campus spaces to share their perspectives on religion and engage in discussion.

“I’ve been in this role for 19 years and I would say that the number of students who don’t have any strong religious background, and yet want to have conversations about the nature of religion or spirituality, is increasing,” said Reverend Sanders. She described students who had reached out to her over email, or found programming through Religious Studies classes.

Part of that curiosity stems from the role of religion in social life on campus. Reverend Sanders told me about two students, one Christian and one Jewish, who were dating and seeking an outlet to learn more about each other. As a result, the Office of Religious Life started a program in 2011 called the Rathbun Fellowship for Religious Encounter, which places 16 spiritually curious students from different faiths in conversation over the course of an academic year.

While the fellowship does fill the formal role of creating interfaith dialogue, it is also an extremely small program. For the rest of the campus population, religious exchange often happens more informally. For some students who do feel strong ties to religion, finding groups of like-minded peers can result in unique and powerful connections. Brickelle Bro ’19 explained that meeting other Mormon students led to close and lasting bonds.

“It was really fast to become friends with them,” she said, referring to other members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. “You know that they have the same standards — they’re not going to judge you for saying ‘No, thank you’ to a drink because they’re going to say ‘No, thank you’ for the same reasons.”

Shak affirmed this sentiment, pointing out her deep connection to religion that her non-Christian friends sometimes don’t understand: “A lot of people don’t realize what a big part of my life it is,” she said.

Limitations and tensions

It would be impossible to discuss religion in 2019 without also highlighting its role in current debates over many polarizing political and social issues. While religion can bring people together, it can also be divisive. Religion intersects with discussions around LGBTQ+ rights and abortion rights, as well as topics of cultural identity, xenophobia and privilege.

“When I think about some of the life changing qualities that one might encounter, religion is certainly one of them and it does begin to impact one’s political ideology,” said Reverend Sanders. “As an openly gay person, religion both impacted me in a painful way and then liberated me in an incredible way.”

National policy debates also have strong emotional impacts within our campus. Even before some of the more explicit controversies that arose with Donald Trump’s Muslim ban in 2016, Kholy described some challenges of practicing Islam on campus, especially during Ramadan.

Kholy explained how, as a freshman, she had to work around observing religious fasting during the holiday while also navigating her classes and schedule. Her dorm on West Campus was also far from Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, the only dining hall open late enough to accommodate her needs. “It was really difficult, logistically,” Kholy said. “I’d bike across campus by myself to break my fast.”

Stanford has addressed some of these challenges since Kholy’s freshman year in 2016 — now dining halls provide special takeout boxes and more flexible hours during Ramadan — but given the current political climate, students still occasionally seek additional support from the University.

“In times of hardship for the community, [for example] when there’s instances of Islamophobia, a lot of times the administration leans on places like the Markaz — which isn’t a religious space, but for people who are interested in or associated with Islam in some way,” said Jana Kholy ’20. “They expect them to do a lot of the labor and emotional work that comes with supporting students.”

In this way, religiously-affiliated student groups are often faced with the challenge of supporting students’ individual religious needs while also respecting a range of political views.

Controversies can also spring to the surface when political speakers are invited to campus, such as with the Stanford College Republicans’ proposed event featuring far-right author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, who has made anti-Semitic remarks in the past. Students created a petition calling for the ASSU to deny funding for the event and Daily staffer Jackie O’Neil ‘21 described the event as “an egregious display of disrespect for the Jewish community on Stanford’s campus.” Even so, much of the debate was centered on questions about freedom of speech, with the concept of anti-Semitism sometimes used as a political talking point rather than a real threat facing a religious group.

Whether or not Stanford community members choose to be politically involved, religion often plays a role in the way people from different perspectives tend to characterize each other. Our sometimes limited ability to directly address religion in the broader discourse on campus can prevent us from fully understanding each other. If we think that we know someone’s views based on their religious tradition alone, we are preemptively preventing ourselves from understanding the full story of a person’s beliefs.

“We have a spectrum of orthodox and progressive religious groups on campus,” said Reverend Sanders. “We can misunderstand each other very easily, or make assumptions or presumptions [based on religion]. We need to make sure that we break that down a bit and create a platform where things can be discussed. In preparing students to be global leaders and citizens, the importance of religion in that conversation is critical.”

Thinking of the global community as being reflected in the Stanford community, it is clear that religion is a distinct and important facet of identity, just like race, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. As with any other element of identity, certain separations may occur naturally between students of different faiths, as well as between religious and non-religious people. However, those separations are not necessarily a firm line, especially when students are willing to engage in open dialogue.

“I think a lot of times people think that the Mormon religion is, like, crazy,” said Bro, laughing. “I get that a lot, but we’re normal human beings, we’re regular people. If you have questions, we’re happy to answer them. If you’re confused, if you’re curious, just ask.”

An intentional conversation

Thinking back to the day I anxiously awaited meeting my roommate for the first time, I now realize that she was probably wondering some of the same things I was regarding the sharing and understanding of religious experience. But my anxieties were soon proven to be groundless. We fell into a mutual understanding; throughout my freshman year, she would attend Catholic mass on Sundays, and I would pray in my room each night. Perhaps more importantly, we shared a number of insightful conversations comparing our two faiths. My experience certainly aligned with Reverend Sanders’ description of our campus: “Many people in the Stanford community are thoughtful and more prone to be curious about one another.”

Entering college often marks what we consider a first step toward independence and the decisions we make as students around religion are no exception. This is a place where we explore and live out faith and spiritual practices of all kinds — or of no kind — on our own terms.

“Going to college was the first clear step for me where this is my faith, not my family’s faith, something I was raised with,” said Connor Ghirardo ’19. “I have directly chosen this and I understand why, and I want it.”

That being said, I still wonder why there doesn’t seem to be an intentional environment to foster religious exploration, particularly as we enter life away from home for the first time. During freshman year, we participate in many events meant to explore identity and communication, with programs ranging from FACES to Crossing the Line to Beyond Sex Ed. While the topics covered in these programs are indeed crucial to improving our interactions with others, the discussion of religion seems to be missing.

The seemingly unspoken diversity of religious and spiritual thought often does spring to the surface in our day-to-day interactions and relationships with others — and learning about that diversity should be prioritized. Finding out why an acquaintance chooses to attend a yoga class or a religious service — or even why they choose not to engage with such events — can be a seemingly trivial part of learning more about the people around us. But this component of identity deserves a space, whether physical or emotional.

As Naomi Shak ’20 described: “When people ask those questions, it means they really care, and want to understand what you believe.” Asking questions about religion can become a bridge to a deeper awareness of the inner lives of our peers. And it is through this awareness that we may bring meaningful and impactful interactions to light.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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