Religion finds a place on secular campuses In age of diversity, students worship at interfaith centers

November 30, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Unlike most colleges in the 19th century, the Johns Hopkins University was not founded by a church. It staked itself out as a proudly secular institution, inviting a well-known opponent of religion to give its inaugural address in 1876. Since then, it has never really had a campus chapel.

In a few weeks, however, that same institution will open an Interfaith Center in a converted Methodist church, a move that shows the increasing role that religious and spiritual issues are playing on college campuses around Maryland and the country.

As campus chaplains deal with an increase in religious diversity and students pack courses on religion, campus officials report a growing interest in spiritual matters among students within and without organized religions.

Rabbi Joseph Katz, who has served Hopkins, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Towson University for 13 years, said the atmosphere is different from that of the last several generations of college students -- dating back to the 1950s, when he was in school.

"There was no religion on campus then," he said. "You left your religion at home. It started to change in the '80s. Now people like Jewish students want to be seen, to say, 'I am who I am and I want to do my spiritual thing.' "

The Rev. William Rich, the chaplain at Goucher College, said: "When I was in college in the early '70s, it was not cool to be interested in religion. Religions were one of those instruments of authority we were supposed to be questioning.

"But now you don't find that high a level of suspicion," he said. "In part, that's because a higher percentage did not grow up in religious households so they are not rebelling against it. In fact, getting interested in religion might be one way of rebelling."

In College Park, the Rev. Susan Astarita, the Episcopal minister at the University of Maryland campus there, also has seen the change: "I've noticed students moving from total cynicism to a concern with the fact that there is something beyond themselves, a mystery out there. It's not a social-action kind of thing like you saw here in the '60s, not like taking over Route 1 or dancing around the chapel singing 'Hey, Jude.' It's not that.

"These students now are people who did not grow up with a strict value system," she said. "Some come from blended families. Many have moved around a lot with corporate moves. And now they are asking these perplexing questions."

The research of Jeanette Cureton and Arthur Levine for their book, "When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today's College Student," confirms this trend. Cureton said that deans nationwide report an increase in religious organizations.

"Students show all the problems of the larger society," she said. "Many come from dysfunctional families. In my personal view, the stage is set for them to be reaching out for something that would make sense out of their lives and give them meaning."

New homes for religions

At Hopkins, Larry Benedict, dean of students, said he started noticing a growing interest in spiritual matters five or six years ago and responded with the decision to renovate the former Alpheus Wilson Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church into a center that can serve as a worship space for Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim students -- as well as offices for clergy and volunteer organizations.

At Morgan State University, the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, who has taken over its Christian Center, is faced with a similarly new array of religious beliefs. He is thinking of changing the name of the structure built by the Methodist Church in 1941, not long after it sold Morgan College to the state of Maryland, to the Interfaith Christian Center.

"There are people from everywhere" on this campus, said Bascom, 74, the longtime civil rights leader who retired in 1995 as pastor of the 600-member Douglas Memorial Community Church. "From Central and South America, from India and Asia, with all kinds of religious backgrounds, languages and cultures.

"This center was built at another time in our history to provide a place of worship for young Christian students," he said. "That time has come and gone. We have become a multicultural institution."

Goucher's Rich, an Episcopalian, has his office in the basement of the school's chapel on a campus where attendance at chapel was once mandatory. He now wonders if his building -- or his position -- can serve the diverging spiritual needs of his campus.

"I have had to become a student of world religion," he said of his work on a campus with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. "You need a wide variety of religious professionals to help lead religious life on campus. One person can't do it."

Symposium shows interest

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