Religious diversity invites new ways of knowing to Bryn Mawr
By Alicia Bessette

 The flyers appeared in April around the Bryn Mawr campus. "See why Christians find such joy," they read in part. They advertised a testimony by a "reformed homosexual" who planned to talk about how Jesus changed his life. His message was to be on the power of faith.

The flyers did not provide a contact for more information on the event, though College policy calls for one. In fact, a number of campus Christian groups, including Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a national, nondenominational Protestant group, were to sponsor the event as part of a week-long Easter celebration.

 Members of Rainbow Alliance, a Bi-College group for lesbian, gay and transgender students, took offense. According to Bethany Gendron '01, "people were upset about the topic and also about the anonymity of the postings." Some students arranged a protest; according to an editorial in the college news, "... e-mails were sent around campus calling everyone to arms."

Sensing that the speaker's intended focus-being born again through Christ-would not be heard, the Christian groups canceled his appearance. "The point of Easter week programs is to invite people to find out what it means to be Christian," said Melanie Brown '98, former Christian Fellowship Advisor and network support specialist with the College's computing services. The committee planning these programs, made up of select members of several Christian groups, were working without supervision. According to Brown, these students did not follow basic protocol for publicizing events. "There was miscommunication and poor planning on the part of the newer Christian groups, and this lead to huge amounts of rumor."

The college news proclaimed the rumors-and the resulting canceled testimony-"a shame": " ... on this campus an ideological consensus is often assumed, forcibly silencing the minority who feel that there is no space for them to safely express their views." The editors called for "public discourse, not private griping."

 They got it.

Members of Rainbow Alliance approached Eleanor Funk, the College's Ombudsperson, who has served in this capacity since January 1999. Funk invited 16 students, eight from Rainbow Alliance and eight from Christian groups, to meet with her several times. They agreed to conduct an evening of discussion.

 "It was fairly hard because we didn't know if we should expect 20 people or 200 people," Funk said. But she prepared the students the best she could, outlining basic facilitation skills and helping establish goals. "I told them that the discussion should create understandings," she said. "We should all be there in the spirit of curiosity, not because we want to win a debate."

A product of these brainstorming sessions still hangs in Funk's office: a huge sheet of paper labeled "Groundrules":

1. Provide a space so each person states his or her truth without interruption.
2. Only answer for yourself.
3. Suspend your assumptions in the service of learning something new.
4. Be generous in your attempts to understand where another is coming from.

 A fifth groundrule, Help to balance advocacy with inquiry, was later added.

More than 80 students came to the discussion, held in the Dorothy Vernon room in Haffner. After each side read an opening statement, the audience split into eight groups of 10-15 people. In each group, student facilitators were armed with questions to guide discussion. But those questions, jointly prepared by members of both Rainbow Alliance and Christian groups, were in most cases not needed. "Their dialogue had a natural flow," said Funk. The groups convened for one hour, then Funk addressed them as one large group before dismissing them.

 The outcome? "It was stupendous," said Funk. "It was the best process I have been involved in since I've been here. Both sides joined together to come up with a common agenda. They co-led the discussions. They really encouraged sharing, not judging."

Some students exchanged phone numbers at the end of the night. "They said they learned a lot," said Funk, "that they were going away having to think about things in a new way. I think the discussions personalized things for them. They said, let's do more of this. I would be very surprised if some similar events didn't happen in the fall."

 Brown and Gendron both agreed. Brown said that "the way has been paved for more jointly-sponsored events like this. There is the beginning of an understanding between the two sides: Both now realize that the other is not the stereotypical monster they had envisioned." Gendron added that the night was "very raw and uncomfortable, but that was a good thing. At first people didn't want to get angry or show any negative emotions. But in each group, after a few minutes you would hear outbursts, and then calm and laughter. I was surprised by the openness. People asked questions without trying to be politically correct."

 "The way the students worked it out was quite wonderful," said Dean of the Undergraduate College Karen Tidmarsh '71 at the State of the College Address during Reunion 2000. "There's a move toward groups trying to hear each other out, to talk about differences in productive ways rather than just be heard. I would say things are at a good place."

"What the students often find themselves working through," said President Nancy J. Vickers, "are some of the difficulties and flashpoints that come with living and working with difference. When we do our senior exit surveys ... students will talk about the lesson of living and working in a diverse environment as one of the principle lessons that they take away from their Bryn Mawr experience, one ... they feel will serve them very well in the world of work that stretches out before them."

 The incident is typical of the growing pains any institution might experience as it embraces diversity of all kinds. And, in particular, it reveals the dynamic that religious diversity creates on a college campus: The tensions that arise when students live according to their religious convictions, and the often admirable ways students relieve them. President Vickers' Plan for a New Century reflects the changing needs of Bryn Mawr's diverse student body. The College is committed to seeking better facilities for student religious groups. Their current facilities in Erdman are four small offices outside the cafeteria on the first floor, occupied by the Catholic campus ministry, the Jewish Student Union (JSU), the Muslim Students' Association (MSA) and the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.

Other religious groups operate at a more grassroots level. These groups, such as the Hindu Student Group (HSG), Women at the Well, the Quaker Activities Committee, or the Baha'i Club, flourish and dry up again with the waves of incoming and outgoing students. The Baha'i Club, for example, had only one member during the 1999/2000 academic year, but the previous year attracted as many as 10 students to its bi-monthly discussions. Now in its third year, the HSG has a steady turnout of eight to 10 students at their meetings every other week. It also sponsors occasional trips to the nearest temple, in Allentown. In addition, there are hybrid groups such as Common Ground, which brings together the leaders of BiCo's religious and cultural groups.

Bryn Mawr's religious groups vary in size and scope. Some have websites and jam-packed calenders; others conduct awareness weeks, hosting tables in the Campus Center, answering questions and distributing literature. Some groups such as JSU and Christian Fellowship sponsor events all year long, in tandem with national affiliates; other groups have impromptu meetings and one or two events a year.

The College has never had a chaplain. But for the past decade, a dean has served as a liaison to clergy in the outside community. Since 1994 that liaison has been Assistant Dean Judy Balthazar, who monitors the relationships between Bryn Mawr students and religious advisors like Father John Ames, the TriCo Catholic chaplain, and Rabbi Marsha Pik-Nathan, the BiCo Hillel director.

 "My role," said Balthazar, "is to make sure that the behavior of the religious advisors is appropriate and to give them the jurisdiction to work with the students." Balthazar does not actively recruit clergy: "We don't want to send a message to students that religion, or any particular religion, is something we expect to be part of every student's life. Bryn Mawr is Quaker in its roots, but the religious part of that hasn't been part of the College for over a century." Students with common religious backgrounds need to find each other, she said; then, if they wish, they can seek a religious advisor from the local community with Balthazar's assistance.

 Balthazar said that students in recent years "have profited from the celebrations of diversity. The acceptance of one's ethnicity is now celebrated rather than an embarrassment. For some students, having a religious affiliation gives them that individuality that is appreciated around campus. More and more, students feel that religion is a part of their lives."

 Balthazar also serves as an advocate for religious groups. For example, in the fall of 1998, members of the MSA asked her about the possibility of establishing a regular time when only women could use the pool in Bernard Schwartz Gymnasium. Balthazar consulted Zoila Airall, Director of Institutional Diversity, and Jen Shillingford, then-Director of Athletics. Along with the MSA students, they decided that from 9-10 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, the pool would be open to women only.

"It was not just an issue for Muslim students," said Balthazar. "We all agreed that it was appropriate for women at a women's college to have that option. We accommodated the MSA in a way that was not a huge burden on the community. We always balance the needs of one group against the needs of the community or any particular group that might be impacted."

 A lesser role for Balthazar is one of mediator. Bryn Mawr is witness to the discomforts that come from living with one another, she said, and often these discomforts arise when a religious group "has a point of view that is in conflict in some ways with other beliefs on campus: a woman's right to choose, issues of sexuality, that kind of thing. It's not, my religion beats your religion, but, my religion tells me that your behavior is wrong."

That was precisely the case this past April. Wisely, members of both Rainbow Alliance and the Christian groups sought closure. "The fact that they came out in droves during the first two days of exam week really impressed me," said Balthazar. "The students handled it tremendously well."

Their solution-open dialogue between conflicting groups-is "striking the golden path," according to Rabbi David Rabeeya, Visiting Lecturer in Judaic Studies. "Religion can be an incredible factor in bringing humanity and understanding between people from different groups," he said. "But it is not enough that every group celebrate their uniqueness. There needs to be constant dialogue between particulars."

The canceled testimony brings to the surface what one student called, in an article in the Summer 1996 Alumnae Bulletin, the "prevailing viewpoint at Bryn Mawr" that "academic reasoning and religious faith are fundamentally incompatible." This attitude seems to be long-ingrained, and alumnae from all generations have identified it. Ashley Doherty '71 recalled "a subtle, pervasive, but not often expressly voiced disdain for people who practiced and/or believed in any religion whatsoever." Melanie Brown '98 agreed: "It's expected that all Bryn Mawr women have a certain secular worldview. And when you try to connect your religious beliefs with how you live your life, there's a lack of understanding."

At times, current students who identify with a particular faith claim to encounter a similar inhospitality. Father Ames, for example, said that "some Catholic Bryn Mawr students have conveyed that speaking and living with religious moral convictions can be difficult;" he adds that that could be true in any society. Ruchi Rohatgi '01, founder of the HSG, said that among many students "the term 'religious group' has a negative connotation." Adina Solomon '01, student board coordinator of the JSU, reported having to take field trips during minor Jewish holidays which most people do not observe. "Some of my professors were not as accommodating or even as understanding as I would have hoped," she said. Kristin Henry '01, a Christian, compared 'coming out' as a person of faith at Bryn Mawr with coming out as a homo- or bisexual: "Christ didn't condemn or isolate and adamantly denied believers the authority to do so themselves. However an overwhelming number of people at Bryn Mawr carry that impression of Christian religion to the College. And a faith associated with conservatism is never popular in a culture of fabled liberality."

That 'fabled liberality,' according to Gendron, was the focus of the April forum that brought Christians and gays together to discuss their perspectives. "Many groups asked the question, Why is Christianity such a dirty word here?" Gendron said. "At Bryn Mawr there is a tradition of reveling in liberalism and bohemia. Mainstream is out."

 Mainstream, however, is not the only influence some Mawrters tend to regard with caution. For example, the labyrinth, pictured on the cover of the Spring 2000 Bulletin, sparked a minor controversy. Its creator, Jeanne-Rachel Salomon '00, said that the labyrinth "is not a secular place and not a spiritual place either, but a powerful place of concentrated energy, a kind of vortex, an ancient tool to connect with a wisdom beyond and within ourselves." In 1998, she suggested to her fellow McBride Scholars that they present a labyrinth as a gift to the College on May Day. The McBride advisory board was at first "overwhelmingly" in favor of the gesture, according to member Krissy Chimes '00.

Salomon created an outline of the labyrinth and, in an e-mail, invited the McBrides to gather at this temporary labyrinth: "Could we have a ceremony to celebrate it with some prayers? ... There's a full moon on May 11th; that would be a wonderful opportunity to drum, pray and chant at the labyrinth."

 Because of this communication, the advisory board held a series of meetings to discuss the appropriateness of the labyrinth, now perceived as having weighty religious significance. Chimes said that, though Salomon "was neutral about what religious or spiritual groups she associated the labyrinth with, she used words like 'aura,' ... terms that were unfamiliar to a lot of us. In general everyone was very excited about the labyrinth, but there was a prickliness about it, too." The advisory board held a referendum, "just to make sure no one felt like they were being spoken for," according to Chimes. This time, just over half the McBrides voted the labyrinth through.

"There must have been some hesitation among the McBrides, because at the dedication ceremony on May Day were only a handful of them," said Salomon. A year later at Commencement 2000, several graduating McBrides participated in a ceremony especially for them in the labyrinth. Still, Salomon said that "it saddens me that I have to hold back saying what I know, what I've experienced. I don't dare bring up issues of spirituality now at Bryn Mawr, for fear of the Pandora's box that I might open."

Chimes regarded the incident positively, calling the McBrides' caution healthy, "part of that Quaker reticence" and indicative of "a built-in dynamic at Bryn Mawr to question everything."

Winifred Allen-Faiella '73, an Episcopal priest, explains that "Part of who I am, my relationship with God, is a series of asking questions. If you get all the answers, the relationship stops. Being encouraged to ask questions, you journey much deeper. In a classical, liberal education with Quaker undertones and a sense of tolerance and respect for other people's backgrounds and beliefs, there is a climate where it is OK to ask questions. You look for the hidden meaning, you delve deeper, you ask questions, and you think critically rather than just accept everything at face value. In that sense, Bryn Mawr can be seen as very spiritual."

But for others who deeply grappled with spiritual questions as students, Bryn Mawr was not so nurturing. Judith Meyer '70, a Unitarian Universalist minister, said that "the thing I kept looking for and never found was a way to integrate my personal experience with my academic learnings." Beth Stroud '91, a Methodist minister, echoed this sentiment: "What I missed at Bryn Mawr was a resource or a place that both took my faith seriously and also allowed me to question it and explore it; a place where it would have been OK to be honest about my doubts and struggles."

That sort of place has yet to appear. But through their faiths, current students are creating their own places, where outreach and discussion propel them toward greater understanding.

 "Bryn Mawr is a very accepting place in general," said Felicia Munion '00, founder of the Baha'i Club. "People are pretty open about letting individuals make their own choices." At Baha'i Club meetings, a topic is discussed-spirituality in the '90s, for example, or women and equality. "We encourage people to bring their perspectives and any information they have from their own religious backgrounds, or any questions that they have. We look at writings from the Baha'i Faith that relate to that topic and encourage the exchange of ideas."

Rohatgi said that "a lot of people, more and more, are interested in the various religious groups on campus. People want to learn about other religions, but they themselves might not want to be religious or commit to a belief."

Brown agreed, saying that the campus has improved from an administrative point of view as well. "My freshman year Customs Week had no religious aspect to it at all. But this year, meetings to share information about religious resources were well publicized and scheduled better so that more people could attend them."

Father Ames remarked that some Catholic students "enjoy the religious diversity and freedom that they experience on campus."

 Henry said that "students at large are interested in learning what's out there: People show up for religious/philosophical dialogues; they are searching for meaning, assembling their views, exploring the options, indulging their intellectual curiosity. I think there's even a bit of nostalgia for the days when more people seemed to have explicit religious convictions, because I often hear comments made to believers of many faiths by students and staff who are impressed, sometimes even envious, that there is still someone out there who sincerely ascribes to a faith and manifests that in her actions." According to Henry, professors often acknowledge the necessity of incorporating personal beliefs into academic work: "I can write a critique of Baudelaire from a Christian perspective knowing that my professor will inherently disagree with everything Isay, and still expect him to read objectively and grade fairly the quality of my thoughts."

 And Adina Solomon '01 reported that her non-Jewish friends regularly attend JSU events. "I've been amazed at how people who don't know things are just comfortable asking," she said. "They have no problem talking about things they don't necessarily agree with. The BiCo itself fosters an attitude of tolerance, and that attitude pervades religious groups, too. There'smore than tolerance, more than acceptance: It's an overwhelming attitude of respect and curiosity. We're eager and anxious to ask questions of one another."

Besides Friday night shabat services, the JSU sponsors interfaith events such as masquerade balls, sing-alongs and community service activities. "It's great when the different groups can do what they do together," said Solomon. "We all do very similar sorts of things."

Rabbi Marsha Pik-Nathan said that the weekly Achot (billed as "the finest Jewish feminist discussion group on campus") attracts an average of 15 Bryn Mawr students who discuss contemporary implications of all aspects of Jewish life and being a woman. "I think it's perceived on campus as a very open group, questioning and exploring, and nobody is shut out based on where they may be coming from religiously," she said. "That's a really good sign. They're open not only to numbers but to very different perspectives."

Students are discovering that thinking and talking about religion is important, helping connect academic knowledge with life experience. Stroud applauded their efforts, calling religion "a way of knowing, a system right along with other systems like the scientific method. Living in a pluralistic world, there are times when the beliefs that shape our worldviews are just going to be different. That can be like any other diversity, and that experience of different worldviews can be enriching and an important part of the education process rather than a barrier."

 Sandra Dixon '76, Professor of Religious Studies at University of Denver, agreed, urging students and faculty to "be respectful of religious expression where it turns up: It's intellectually stunted not to do so.

 "Religious language and thought is working toward trying to create religious context in our lives," Dixon said. "Life without context can become barren or trite or trivial. Bryn Mawr provides a rich intellectual life for its students and puts in front of them rich intellectual demands. Therefore think of religions as modes of exploration, as ways to look, to explore our universe, our immediate social situation, and our own inner lives, and to give us a different perspective. This is a serious piece of all education.

 "Religions become a way to shift our perspective on things, a way of entering into life experiences of many kinds. A passage in the New Testament describes Jesus calling one of his disciples to 'come and see.' A way to think of different religions is to think of them as invitations to come and see, to draw different religious motifs together with life experiences in our day and age."

The borrowing of symbols and places
Sectarian constraints vs freedom to follow the "inner light"
Religion versus spirituality

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