Ohio Wesleyan University Chaplain Jon Powers likens the community of religious and spiritual organizations on campus to colored stones within a kaleidoscope. With just a simple tap the entire composition of the kaleidoscope changes.
“All stones are valuable, but not all know it,” he said.
He sees patterns and layers in the religious and spiritual experiences of students. This is the “joy of his job.”
Powers explains the “joys” he finds in his role on campus with an expression of utmost passion.
He realizes students’ needs as they explore the opportunities available to them at OWU are different. He said the Chaplain’s staff needs to “be sensitive to that.”
Religious and spiritual organizations on campus cater to these different needs, providing both structured religious celebrations and venues through which students may understand concepts of spirituality and the ways in which their own religion and spirituality may collide with activism, culture or even the outdoors.
Powers places the religious organizations on campus into a series of layers, which some students peel back as they progress through their campus journey.
THE FIRST LAYER
Organizations like the Newman Catholic Community and the Tauheed Muslim Community offer structure to students attending school after experiencing a consistent religious upbringing or religious-based high school.
Sophomore Maria Jafri, the president of Tauheed, was born a Muslim in Saudi Arabia.
“My whole life, my religion has played a big part of who I am,” she said. “Coming here, I knew it would make me more comfortable, so that’s why I got involved. I feel like I’m more a part of community discussion.”
Jafri said her experiences with Tauheed have been a venue through which she learned to conduct herself on campus.
Tauheed offers her the opportunity to attend Muslim prayer services every Friday in Peale Chapel at noon.
The group also makes periodic visits to a nearby mosque, along with their more cultural celebrations.
Jafri said she hopes these events educate members of the campus community about different religions other than their own, but she commonly sees the same attendees at every Tauheed event.
“There are very few people who come because they’re genuinely interested…but the few who do come are the best part,” she said. “I do feel that a lot of people think they can’t join if they’re not Muslim. Tauheed is very open to people of all faiths. That is something I would like to see more of.”
President of the Newman Catholic Community, Betsy Dible, was a member of a consistent Catholic community and youth group before attending OWU.
These experiences informed her decision to stay involved in her religion on campus. She wishes more students would do the same.
“A fairly large percentage of students identify themselves as Catholic (at least on applications and such) but don’t attend our events,” said Dible. “I personally feel like more and more students are losing their faith when they head away for college; their parents aren’t there making sure they go to church. That’s what saddens me the most. I know my own personal faith life has grown since I’ve been in college because I am making my own decisions when it comes to going to church…and I have become more invested in my choices.”
According to Powers, one third of the campus community—around 600 students—is Catholic. If all these students were to attend Newman events, organizing a place to meet would be problematic.
Powers said organizations like Newman are an ideal fit for some students, but other students have different needs to be met.
THE SECOND LAYER
These other students may find comfort and solace in such organizations as Jubilee, Spring Break Mission Trips, Freethinkers, Wilderness Treks and Common Texts.
Students involved in these groups may apply past religious experiences to the pursuit of learning about other religions, traditions or spiritual experiences.
“For students who have no religious experience or a negative religious experience growing up and want to sample or explore another faith, these organizations offer another way of looking at things,” Powers said.
He places these organizations within another layer of exploration of the religious and spiritual journey students may experience on campus.
Avery Winston, co-president of Freethinkers, hopes students may find “a deviation from the norm” within Freethinkers.
The group meets every Friday at 12 p.m. to discuss a variety of issues in an open format. He said the attendees come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.
According to Winston, those who attend group discussions are “smart, open-minded students who aren’t able to have certain discussions.”
“We provide that,” he said.
Junior Hayley Figelstahler became involved in the Outdoor Ministry Team because she wanted a venue through which she could combine her love for faith and the outdoors.
She feels as though students come to college and “just let everything loose…and everything sort of slacks.” She feels, however, that some students actually find religion in college.
Outdoor Ministry Team plans weekly discussion and adventure events which alternate depending upon the week.
The group also hosts larger outdoor events, which tend to attract more students.
“I feel religion is a touchy subject and it’s not something a lot of students just flaunt…asking people to come out for a religious event is completely different than a philanthropy event,” said Figelstahler.
Powers sees the combination of religion and spirituality with activism as an impressive aspect of such organizations as the Small Living Units (SLUs) on campus. He commends students who apply their religious beliefs to causes they feel strongly about. He sees this application as another layer.
THE THIRD LAYER
Senior Gretchen Curry, a member of the House of Peace and Justice, grew up with religion as an immensely important aspect of her life.
“I grew up in the church. Almost literally. My dad was an Episcopal Priest in Connecticut for the first nine years of my life so I lived in the parish house right next door to our church,” she said. “For the past 11 or so years my dad has been one of three Episcopal Bishops in Connecticut. Though I no longer live next door to the church where I grew up, church itself remains an important part of my life when I go home.”
Curry is using this time in her life to sort out her feelings concerning religion. She in unsure of what role the church will play in her future.
“I’ve attended countless events throughout my life. I was in my youth group, have gone on many trips in and out of the country through the church, and still tag along with my dad to different events throughout Connecticut when I go home.”
But Curry is not directly involved with any religious organizations on campus.
Curry feels students should in no way be pressured to attend religious events or be involved in any religious or spiritual communities on campus.
She also feels there is not enough honest discussion about religious and spiritual issues on campus.
“I think (religious organizations) have to deal with a lot of crap sometimes,” she said. “That’s unfortunate. However, I find myself turned away from specific religious organizations on campus simply because my moral framework does not always align with those of the group. But will I respect their presence on campus as long as they respect the OWU population at large? Absolutely.”
Senior Abigail Docker is very involved in religious organizations on campus. She said is passionate and excited about her involvement, but doesn’t feel as though all students should be.
“I think faith and religion is like any other aspect of the college experience—it plays as small or large a role as you want it to,” she said.
“There are things we could do to make it easier for students to worship and lead religious lives, but overall I think there is a good network of students, faculty and staff that make living your faith possible in college.”
Docker said she is satisfied with the work done by religious organizations on campus to promote religious and spiritual events and the opportunities these events hold.
“There is some anti-religious sentiment on this campus, but for the most part discussions tend to be heated but not hostile,” she said.
“I think the faith-related organizations do a decent job of working together and providing a place for people to have these conversations.Preserving and improving this environment is going to take effort from students.”
According to Powers, any involvement in religious and spiritual life is positive, and it should be different for any student.
OWU offers the opportunity for students to apply their own religious and spiritual experiences with the “cafeteria options” of organizations and opportunities on campus.
The Chaplain’s Office, located on the third floor of Hamwill, strives to work with students to meet all of their needs, whatever they may be.