Searching the Soul of a Campus

A groundswell of interest in matters of faith at Emory has led the community to examine its spiritual past and present

by Allison O. Adams

Read about the sand mandala on our cover

WHEN HE WAS GROWING UP, Isam Vaid's Pakistani parents encouraged him to practice the family's Muslim faith devoutly--to pray the requisite five times a day, fast during the month of Ramadan, and attend Friday prayers.

"They did the best they could over the years," says Vaid '93Ox-'95C-'98PH, who moved to Atlanta with his family from the Middle East eight years ago. "But it didn't rub off on me. It wasn't until I got to Oxford that I began to grasp my religion on a personal level. Sometimes I guess you just fall in love with God. I don't know how else to describe it."

As an undergraduate, Vaid began to explore his faith, quickly realizing something essential was missing among the dozen or so Muslims at Oxford College. "There wasn't that sense of community that is so central in Islam," he says. So Vaid started the Muslim Student Association (MSA), which, among other things, worked to accommodate Ramadan practices and Friday prayers.

By the time Vaid came to Emory as a junior in 1993, he says, his "religious conviction was like iron." But he was surprised that there was no organization similar to the Oxford MSA and little social cohesion among the more than one hundred Muslim students on campus. Vaid and four friends launched an Emory MSA, and the group quickly gained momentum and a sophisticated agenda. Now with some fifty members, the MSA organizes daily prayers in convenient locations, offers programs throughout Ramadan, and hosts guest speakers on issues such as the traditional Islamic veil for women and the differences between Islam and the Nation of Islam.

Like Vaid, a growing number of college students are seeking answers to personal questions of faith and religion, according to Susan Henry-Crowe, dean of the chapel and of religious life at Emory. "Research at other universities and colleges exhibits a national trend of rising interest in religious matters, and that expresses itself in a whole variety of ways," she says. "There is a stronger understanding of the importance of religious life in this community than ever before."

Henry-Crowe cites two main factors in the surge of interest. First, the growing diversity of ethnic backgrounds among students nationwide has led to a greater variety of religious traditions at colleges and universities. Among the twenty-four campus religious organizations officially recognized by Henry-Crowe's office are a Zen Buddhist meditation group, the Hindu Philosophical Society, and the orthodox Jewish Educational Alliance, as well as longstanding Christian groups including the United Methodist Wesley Fellowship and Canterbury, the Episcopal student association. More than fourteen hundred students participate in the campus' myriad religious programs weekly--and that number continues to rise, according to Henry-Crowe. Even the Candler School of Theology, whose traditional calling has been as a theology school for the United Methodist Church, now counts nearly forty denominations represented by its students.

The second factor, Henry-Crowe says, has to do with the unique interests of the current generation of students. "It's very complex, but some of it has to do with coming through the 1970s and '80s with parents who did not [participate in organized religion], in many cases," she says. "I can't tell you the number of students who have said to me, 'I grew up with a mother who's Jewish and a father who's Christian. We didn't do anything, and I want to do something.' There is a need in this generation of students in particular for more ritual in their lives, so that the beginnings, the crisis points, the endings, really are marked. I think that was missing for a generation or two."

Henry-Crowe's role as minister to a community marked by increasingly dramatic differences was put to the test in 1997. That year, the University's historic ties to the United Methodist Church were called into question over the issue of same-sex unions, which are not sanctioned by the church. On the basis of the University's Methodist roots, an Oxford College employee was denied use of a campus chapel for such a ceremony. A debate quickly arose over whether the denial was a violation not only of Emory's policy against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but also of the University's values of academic freedom and freedom of religious expression.

Charged with the task of developing recommendations for the use of Cannon Chapel, Day Prayer Chapel at Oxford, and University hospital chapels, Henry-Crowe and then-Oxford Chaplain Sammy Clark, both United Methodist ministers, talked with hundreds of Emory community members, church leaders, and lay people over five months. They also studied historical documents on the connected history of the two institutions. In November 1997, the University Board of Trustees adopted the chaplains' proposed guidelines for University chapel use. The guidelines state that any couple seeking to hold a wedding or commitment ceremony in a University chapel may do so only through one of the twenty-four recognized religious groups on campus. Of those twenty-four groups, only the United Church of Christ and Reform Jewish rabbis have the option of officiating at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Henry-Crowe believes the board's decision was a sign of hope. "I feel the action taken here speaks very well for the role of religion and faith expressions on campus in the twenty-first century," she says.

Not long after the trustees passed the guidelines, they appointed Henry-Crowe, who had been chaplain of the University since 1991, to the positionof dean of the chapel and of religious life. In doing so, the board recognized "her national leadership in United Methodism, her effectiveness as a minister to the whole University, and her ability as a teacher of religious life in its many venues and dimensions."

The change in her position, Henry-Crowe says, "gives me a seat at the table. It both provides access to information about the whole University and gives me a voice in that. And it says to the United Methodist Church that the University is deeply committed to religious life."


FOR THE LAST EIGHT YEARS, Henry-Crowe has endeavored to be "a good pastor and a good public minister," she says. Working closely with students, administration, faculty, and the University's fifteen part-time and full-time campus ministers from various faiths, she and her staff have developed a roster of weekly worship services, prayer and meditation sessions, and educational programs. Associate Dean of the Chapel Luther Felder organizes a range of opportunities for students to participate in public service, including the Emory chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which built four houses last year; the Emory/Oxford service-learning trip, which took a group to South Africa in 1997; and the service trip of the Voices of Inner Strength gospel choir, which recently traveled to Jamaica.

Henry-Crowe also encourages interaction between the University's intellectual and spiritual realms. Once a week, for example, she invites a faculty member to lead a Chapel Tea discussion concerning spiritual and scholarly work.

"Part of my job is building bridges," she says, "so that conversations are always going on between, say, the religion department, which is teaching undergraduates to think about religion; the Graduate Division of Religion, which is preparing people to teach religion; and the Candler School of Theology, which is preparing people to be religious leaders--all in an increasingly complex world."

For Emily Heath '96Ox-'98C, those bridges have helped mark a clear vocational path. A religion major who was a deacon in University Worship, the weekly ecumenical Christian services led by Henry-Crowe, Heath entered Candler to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry this fall. She is considering chaplaincy as a vocation. "[Oxford Chaplain] Sammy Clark and Susan [Henry-Crowe] gave me an image of a clergy person I hadn't seen before," she says. "They totally broke the mold of Christianity being just about studying your Bible and going to a service."


EARLY IN THE MORNING on most weekdays during the academic year, the Episcopal students meet for morning prayer. Shortly before noon, Baptist students might gather for a time of reflection. There's a Zen Buddhist meditation session in the late afternoon. There are regular meetings of the Asian Christian Fellowship, the Baha'i Club, and the Christian Legal Society. Groups also gather frequently to discuss connections between faith and the environment or between religion and health.

Fostering this kind of variety is central to Henry-Crowe's work. "When you get a little group of people committed to their own tradition, and they find a campus minister and a setting open to it," she says, "all you have to do is water it just a little bit, and it takes off."

For example, one of the most recent organizations to flourish has been Hillel, the nondenominational Jewish student group. It is now one of the largest campus organizations--religious or non-religious. Amy Dobin '98C, president of Hillel for 1997-98, reports that membership peaked at 475 last year.

"We usually have about eighty people at [Shabbat] services every week, as opposed to maybe ten when I joined as a freshman," Dobin says. She attributes the increase to a deepening understanding of Judaism among students. "I've realized that it's a way of life more than anything. It's how you treat people as you go through your day, how you solve certain morality issues. There are a lot of different ways you can express it--by playing on a Jewish intramural sports team, through social action, or by going to services--and none of the ways is wrong."

Henry-Crowe encourages openness among campus religious groups by sponsoring the Interreligious Council (IRC), which is made up of representatives from various faiths who gather regularly for discussion and to share resources, such as co-sponsoring a guest speaker. "That group really talks about their own rites and ordinances, the meaning of Purim or the meaning of Easter," says Henry-Crowe. "There's a lot of discovery that goes on, too, because they often have misconceptions about other faiths."

The discussions are often intense and thorny. Dobin, a former IRC member, recalls the group's impasse when they tried to plan a Thanksgiving service last year. "We could not come to a consensus over what it should be. If the Orthodox Jews are in a service where [the Christians] start talking about Jesus just in a historical sense, they have to leave. But then when the Jewish people say something about Israel, it's really hard for the Muslims. So instead of having a service, we had a Kosher Thanksgiving dinner in Cannon Chapel, and people from all the groups were invited, and that actually went great. "

Henry-Crowe says such challenges arise because true interfaith work is more about respecting dif-ferences than finding similarities. "The IRC is a place you go not for unity but for the integrity of distinction," she insists. "People have to understand and be respectful of that. But the more they understand about difference, the more they understand about themselves. They've had to take into account deep difference, which has given them a fuller and deeper appreciation of what it means to be a community. And it's not superficial."

Students say those efforts have made Emory a more open and inclusive place. "Even five years ago, when people around campus talked about Islam, they'd give you this funny look that meant, 'stay away from these people,' " says Vaid. "It was the same with a lot of other religious groups, especially with Sikhs and maybe even Hindus. You had this kind of stigma. People ran away from religion. Now, I see people talking about religion. As a student, I feel much more comfortable in this environment."

That atmosphere also arises from Emory's Methodist heritage, Henry-Crowe says. "Out of Methodism, there is a deep respect, inherently, for difference. I think one of the wonders of [Methodism founder] John Wesley was that he was a traditionalist in many ways. He never intended not to be Anglican; he only wanted the church to be more conscious of class and economic and social situations. So in Wesley heritage, there is traditionalism on the one hand and openness on the other hand. This university is at its best when it affirms those values and lives them out."

Return to Autumn 1998 contents page

Return to Emory Magazine home page

Return to Emory University homepage