Mar 8, 2013

Spiritual Wellness on Campus Undervalued, In Need of Respect

By Trent Navran, Dandan Liu, Lara Wik
Source: The Rice Thresher

Two weeks ago, we traveled to the University of Chicago for Coming Together 6, an interfaith student leadership conference. The weekend featured lectures, dialogues and interfaith activities presented to a group of passionate students and community leaders from different faith traditions. Interacting with these individuals gave us a new perspective on the gamut of spiritual programming present on American campuses, such as chaplains, offices of religious life, interfaith chapels and interfaith councils.
Energized by the initiatives devoted to spiritual life at other campuses, we considered Rice University’s situation. Our conclusions were discouraging, but let us paint the picture. Central to religious life at Rice are student faith groups, led for the most part by the Joint Campus Ministers (JCM). These ministers are outsourced from the community and, for the most part, have their own congregations outside of Rice. The group of JCMs meets twice each semester, but attendance is not mandatory, and collaboration between different ministers is limited. More concerning, the JCMs only include representatives from two faith groups: Christians and Jews. Thus, students outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition are left without campus-supported adult representatives.
The Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University also plays a part in the religious landscape on campus. However, the center’s focus to date has been to foster interfaith engagement in the Houston community rather than to nurture spiritual wellness among Rice students. Thus, the Boniuk Center does not currently take responsibility for promoting spiritual well-being on our campus.
When it comes to sacred spaces, Rice does have the Rice Memorial Chapel, an “interfaith” chapel. However, its organ and altar limit its use to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Stationary pews impede students of the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist traditions from using the floor for worship. Other sacred spaces on campus are lacking. For example, on Friday afternoons, many Muslim students gather to pray at the Kyle Morrow Room in Fondren Library. However, Muslims must pray five times a day, and during other prayer times throughout the week, the only space reserved for these prayers is a tiny groom closet off of the “interfaith” chapel. When weddings take place in the chapel, off-campus Muslims who cannot return to their bedrooms have no place to pray. Our observation has led us to believe certain religious populations on campus are grossly underserved. Rice needs to take steps to remedy the situation.
Some posit that top research institutions should not dedicate resources to religious life, that the university should be a secular space. However, the Judeo-Christian leanings of the JCMs and Rice Memorial Chapel convince us that Rice does not maintain a fully secular campus. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of other prestigious secular universities in the United States offer at least an Office of Religious Life, if not significant religious- and non-religious-based programming.
Thus, Rice should take ownership of its religious life by instating an Office of Spiritual Life with a full-time director. At the University of Chicago, we met Elizabeth Davenport, who directs the Spiritual Life Office and spearheads the interreligious center there with a sense of dignity and respect for all religious and nonreligious groups. By not supporting a full-time Office of Spiritual Life on campus, Rice administration allows spiritual wellness to be neglected and unintentionally monopolized.
By not dedicating adequate resources and space to spirituality, students who do not fit into the majority religions at Rice are left without a place to go. Just as the Wellness Center helps students take ownership of their physical and mental well-being, there should be access to chaplains and personnel who can nourish students’ spiritual well-being. We propose that such a program could even foster better mental health on campus. A diverse group of chaplains with office hours could provide spiritual counseling as an alternative to clinical counseling, which would be beneficial for students who may be questioning their faith or lifestyle. This program would not be exclusive to one particular faith; Harvard University, for example, employs a diverse group of chaplains which even includes atheists and humanists.
JCMs could serve as these chaplains but should have to apply to maintain their relationship with the university. They should receive training and oversight and hail from all faith groups represented by Rice students. All religious and nonreligious leaders should maintain respect for each other and for other religious groups on campus and be mindful when sharing their faiths with others. We should also invest in specific spaces devoted to each religious tradition represented at Rice. The University of Houston has a chapel without pews in its religious center which doubles as a Muslim prayer space. At the University of Chicago, there are Muslim and Hindu prayer rooms, and students who are atheist, agnostic or who simply do not belong to one particular religious tradition are welcome to use the center’s Uncommon Room.
By not taking a stance on spiritual life on campus, the Rice administration neglects an essential element of the human experience. Enhancing spiritual life at Rice has nothing to do with challenging secularism; it has to do with students’ well-being and the creation of a campus where every person feels that his or her views and doubts are valued.
Trent Navran is a McMurtry College sophomore, Dandan Liu is a Brown College junior and Lara Wik is a Brown College senior, all students of Rice University. The views expressed in this post are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.

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