Freeing is Believing

How students at Virginia Wesleyan and other colleges and universities explore issues of faith and forge their own spiritual—and, in some cases, not-so-spiritual—paths

By Elizabeth Blachman

How students at Virginia Wesleyan and other colleges and universities explore issues of faith and forge their own spiritual—and, in some cases, not-so-spiritual—paths

Popular wisdom would have you believe that college students brush the dust of family religions off their boots and spend four years in a hedonistic orgy of binge drinking and casual sex. Add to that the undergraduate propensity for questioning everything, and the result may be what George Marsden in The Soul of the American University noted was a shift in academia “from Protestant establishment to established nonbelief.”

Not so, say recent studies, such as a 2004 UCLA survey that showed that out of 112,000 freshmen polled, more than two-thirds prayed and nearly 80 percent reported that they believed in God. Studies of religion on campus in the past decade suggest that American universities are increasingly becoming places where students explore faith.

On a Friday afternoon in April, four students gather in Virginia Wesleyan’s Monumental Chapel. They face east, toward Mecca. Kneeling on prayer rugs in their socks, they repeat the ancient words spoken by Muslims for more than a thousand years. Leading the service, Mohamed Hassan ’14 talks about a man in the Koran who rose from sleep after 100 years, and about how his own faith in Allah helped him figure out his dorm situation for the next year.

“We’ve stepped to the plate to help out future Muslims who come to this school,” explains Jibreel Salaam ’14, who started the prayer group with Hassan last year and says that the responsibility of being one of just a few Muslims at VWC has made his faith stronger.

Student-led groups like this one are a central part of VWC Chaplain Greg West’s vision for religious life at VWC. On a different Friday in spring, he says goodbye to two students from his men’s discussion group outside of his office in the student center. Last week a student stopped by to talk about human sexuality and scripture after the issue came up in one of her classes. West, who spent 11 years as a pastor, has been chaplain at VWC for two years.

“I’m very big on student-led ministry where I’m kind of a coach,” says West, who helped Hassan and Salaam find a space to practice Islam.

Another student-led ministry is Under Construction for Christ, started by Wayne Credle to reach out to African-Americans. Credle, who graduated in 2012 and is headed to Duke Divinity School, says he’ll always remember one night on campus when he was able to positively affect the faith of another student.

“I asked her if she would be willing to talk to me, but she was quiet. I told her, ‘I know I’m a little fat, but could you talk with me please?’ I said this in an effort to get her to laugh. She laughed.” remembers Credle. “As I prayed for her, she held on to me so tight.”

Credle and Chiereme Fortune ’13 both attend Midnight Prayer, a group of students who gather in the chapel on Friday nights at 11 p.m.

“It’s an amazing experience to be in the midst of five to six different types of people all coming together for one purpose, to lift up our campus and to invite God to dwell within our hearts in powerful way,” says Fortune. “It’s the best part of my week.”

Fortune takes a leadership role in the gospel choir and attends Marlin Ministries—Chaplain West’s weekly gathering of student leaders on campus. She grew up in a Baptist home and had to adjust to the more secular environment of the college campus.

“It was challenging at first to be the only member of my circle who regularly attended church and wanted to be involved in spiritual life,” says Fortune. “I came to the point where I had to figure out if I was carrying out my parents’ faith or whether or not I would really try to experience God for myself in the midst of a not-so-interested environment that was constantly inviting me to do otherwise.”

Emily Menke ’13 also took control of her faith at college. Menke, a United Methodist, is part of Marlin Ministries, sings in the SOAR Worship Team, and attends a LIFE Bible study group.

“I no longer go because my parents say that I have to,” says Menke. “I am involved because it is something that I truly believe.”   

West sees evidence of increased religious involvement. He works with George Scott, who’s been connected to VWC for the past eight years—four as a student and four as the leader of the SOAR Worship Team.

“He’s told me that there were some times that they had two or three in the chapel for worship,” says West. “Now we’ve got 20 to 30.”

West leads a spring break mission trip to Nicaragua, and he emphasizes the community service happening at the college. These small groups and tradition of service link VWC to its Methodist roots.
“The Methodist movement started by the Wesleys and George Whitefield and others was the only denomination that started on a college campus as a renewal movement,” says West. “At Oxford University in the 1700s they started gathering together in small groups for spiritual well-being, shepherding one another, and the Methodist Church grew out of that. And it’s really taken a primary role in education.”

Last semester, Professor of Religious Studies Eric Mazur organized a “Religion on Campus” program in connection with VWC’s Center for the Study of Religious Freedom. The program brought together administrators, religious leaders, and student leaders from local universities, as well as academics.

“We discussed issues such as how competing religious groups can get along in shared space,” says Mazur, “sharing a chapel, for example, or a common student meeting room—the image of religious students in popular culture, the legal issues of religion on the college campus, and the history and future of campus religious organizations.”

Mazur says that students at VWC and around the country have inherited a freedom to find their own views about religion.

“They feel free to innovate, to explore, or to be nothing at all—not atheists, but just completely uninterested—as easily as they feel free to deepen their commitments to the traditions to which they were born.”

Statistics show a strong presence of Christian students from varied denominations on campus—more than 60 percent. Only four percent of the students characterized themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “no religious preference,” but more than 30 percent wrote “unknown” or declined to answer the religion question.

There are only a handful of Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. But Salaam and Hassan’s organization has a presence on campus; people in the cafeteria know to steer them away from the pork dishes. West and adjunct religion instructor Rabbi Panitz are hoping that a Jewish student group can form next year. In his “Judaism and Food” class last semester, Mazur led his students in a Passover Seder.

Terry Lindvall, who teaches in the Religious Studies and Communications departments and spoke in the “Religion on Campus” series, says that there’s still a degree of ignorance about religion among many college students.

“More students know about Indiana Jones’ lost ark than about King David’s dancing before the Ark of the Covenant,” he jokes.

But, he says, from the relatively small Religious Studies department at VWC, this year about 10 students are headed to seminary and graduate programs at schools such as Duke, Princeton, and Boston University.

“Callings to the ministry of the Church seem to be increasing,” he says, “with the Methodist tradition of helping the poor, the outcast, the homeless being combined with service to young people as in Young Life and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.” 

Mazur says that one guest at the discussion series, Professor John Schmalzbauer from Missouri State University, has investigated religion on campuses throughout the country.

“He has come to the conclusion that while the official, institutional forms of religion may not be as vital as they once were, student innovation and initiative continue to make college campuses religiously vital places to be,” says Mazur. “Professor Schmalzbauer also noted that, as a result of this campus religious vitality, young people who go to college are more likely—not less—to be religious than people who don’t.”

West says that he is inspired to reach students at this crossroads in the formation of their identities.

“What has God created you uniquely to do?” he asks them. “And what has God put in your heart to learn? You can serve your fellow human beings; you’ve got a role on the planet.”

In the chapel where Hassan and Salaam were praying two days earlier, where a Catholic priest will say Mass later in the evening, the SOAR Worship Team sings contemporary hymns accompanied by piano and guitar. The words of the songs are projected on the walls. The music swells. Chiereme Fortune closes her eyes. Her arms are lifted toward the concrete ceiling of the chapel, toward the sky.

Spiritual life groups on campus include Alpha, Catholic Campus Ministries (CCM), Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), Gospel Choir, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IV), LIFE Groups - Living in Faith Everyday, Marlin Ministries, Soar Worship Team, Under Construction for Christ (UCC), and Young Life. Worship opportunities include Catholic Mass, Muslim Friday Prayer, and SOAR weekly non-denominational service.