Emory Report
April 11, 2005
Volume 58, Number 26


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April 11, 2005
Religious life center to offer shared space for things sacred

BY Michael Terrazas

In collaboration with Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, Emory is moving forward with plans to build a major center for religious life on the University campus.

The center, which would involve a renovation and expansion of the Glenn Church School Building, will serve as a combination social, sacred and academic space for the study and practice of religion, using physical space shared among Emory’s Office of Religious Life, various academic departments within Emory College and the Candler School of Theology, and Glenn.

“Graduate and undergraduate students are drawn to Emory because of its religious studies programs,” said Susan Henry-Crowe, dean of the chapel and religious life. “The center will add new dimensions to the study and practice of religion as it becomes a microcosm for students and faculty of various religious traditions—and those of no faith tradition—to live out the experience of relating across experiences.”

Because of current space limitations, campus religious groups often are forced to hold services or dinners in spaces not ideally suited for such purposes; for example, Muslim student groups, sometimes numbering a hundred people or more, must pack into a long, narrow room in the Dobbs Center to hold Friday afternoon prayer services.

The new center would solve those problems with multiuse, ecumenical spaces open to all the entities
involved. For instance, from the morning until just after lunch, Glenn might use a space for its preschool program. In the afternoons, the college might hold classes, and then in the late afternoon and evening the space would be used for religious practice and gathering.

Campus Planning is conducting a feasibility study for any new space connected to or adjacent to the Church School Building, and that study should be completed in June. Henry-Crowe said one idea is for a new facility that will mirror the existing building, forming a terraced courtyard between the two that could serve as a garden/amphitheater space.

Each would feature office and state-of-the-art classroom space, enlarging the fellowship hall and Little Chapel in the Church School Building, while perhaps adding a second fellowship hall in the new space. There also are plans for two kitchens, one of which would be kosher/hallel, to facilitate preparation of faith-appropriate meals, which themselves would facilitate conversations among faith groups. The current timeline is to finish construction by 2009, following approval by the administration and the Board of Trustees. No budget numbers have been finalized.

“We hope there will be shared meals, fellowship, conversation,” said Glenn Minister Wesley Wachob. “Because the more we can study academically—but also get to know one another as human beings who are religiously concerned and practicing, interested people—that will not only promote a much broader education but a better and more humane existence for all of us.”

“[One benefit will be] the Hindu Students Council (HSC) will not be forced to perform our artis at Harris or Dobbs halls,” said senior Deepa Subramanian, who serves as HSC’s prayer chair. “Also, because the center will be more secular, as opposed to our previous use of Cannon Chapel, one group will not feel inferior to another and will not be forced to work around another’s faith.”

Laurie Patton, Winship Professor and chair of religion in the college, said the center initially will not result in any programmatic or curricular changes for the department, but she said changing the culture of religious life so that more conversation exists among the various faiths will yield intellectual benefits.

“This will be a place where all the religions are interacting as equal partners at the table, and they have to bump into each other,” Patton said. “It will be a more accurate reflection of what our religious life is in the world today, and as a result people will have more of a pluralistic sensibility.”

In fact, the center’s potential appeal beyond the University is itself generating excitement; Henry-Crowe said she sees it as a welcoming space that could accommodate religious groups from around Atlanta, and others said it could be a model for interfaith cooperation in a world where religion too often is seen as the cause of conflict and war.

“Some people have said this means we need to get rid of religion, and all that conflict will go away, but from my point of view that’s not really going to happen,” said Gordon Newby, professor and chair of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, and a member of the center’s planning committee. “What we really need to do is take the best of religious tradition, the best of our educational tradition, and build a model for how all of us can live together in peace and tolerance. One of the underlying missions of [this] center will be to do that: to train the next generation to make the world a better place than we live in now.”