Stetson Chapel is an architectural mix—part Colonial Revival meeting house, part Italianate tower, and part Beaux-Arts classicism with Ionic columns supporting the outside pediment and Corinthian columns in the interior. The Chapel offers a sense of order, quiet, and peace. Architectural boundaries cross there, and so do other boundaries. At its renovation and rededication in 1987, Stetson Chapel was identified as “the soul of the campus,” a place for students to ask each other important spiritual and ethical questions and to cross religious differences.
The Office of Religion and Spiritual Life under the direction of Reverend Elizabeth (Liz) Hakken Candido ’00 encourages students to intertwine their spiritual growth with their academic, intellectual, and emotional growth. One program that helps students make those connections is Interfaith Student Leaders (ISL)—a group of K students (some 26 volunteers and five paid interns) who are particularly interested in exploring religion further and helping other students do so. Most ISLs have a religious background in a Christian tradition (Catholicism, Mormonism, and Protestantism); several bring to the program other faith traditions, including Buddhism, Bahá’í, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Pantheism, and Unitarian Universalists; a few are atheist.
“We share conversation about important topics that students want to discuss” said Candido, whose objective is to help students take ownership of the answers to their questions.
“College students are hungry for talk about God and religion,” she said, even though they may perceive religion negatively, as divisive and authoritarian. “At K, we provide ways to engage each other about faith and spirituality so that students can find a better way to be religious—in whatever way they find applicable to their lives.”
Many parents of today’s youth have left their faith traditions, which may contribute to some of their children’s difficulties approaching the spiritual. At K, 40 percent of students do not identify with any religious tradition or with just one religious tradition. Religious identity is complicated and the answers to questions of meaning and purpose are complicated, too.
“And yet such questions and complications are the very purpose of religion,” says Candido.
“Ours is a world of vibrant diversity,” says Candido. “We grow and flourish when we support one another.” Most ISLs are not seeking to become religious professionals. “We use the name ‘Interfaith Student Leader’ to reflect the diversity of religions represented as well as the work they do.”
We invite the reader to meet four of them.
Arik Mendelevitz ’15 earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and minors in history and theatre. His plan after graduation is to go to professional circus school in Illinois and then to “run away and join the circus.” On campus as an ISL he saw himself as a resource on Judaism.
“Education is the best way to defeat prejudice,” said Arik, “and being an ISL is a great education to do just that.”
Arik is a devout Jew who keeps kosher and served as president of the Jewish Student Organization (JSO). He has helped organize several events including this year’s campus Passover Seder meal, attended by some 50 students and administrators. Arik also coordinated the annual Community Reflection on the Holocaust.
Keeping kosher for Arik means he does not eat pork or shellfish, and he separates meat and dairy products. It’s part of what identifies his Conservative Jewish practice. “It’s not a faith question to me, but rather something ingrained that I grew up with,” he said.
One of Arik’s favorite places was the Cavern, a small, informal space located in the Chapel basement. ISLs and interns regularly meet there. Candido shares her own collection of religious books there for anyone to read.
“It’s interesting and enriching to learn about a variety of perspectives,” said Arik. “Some see religion as a ‘we-versus-them’ contention, but that’s not the way it is here.”
Oyindamola “Honey” Sunmonu ’16 is the daughter of a Muslim father and a Christian mother. She is also a native-born Nigerian who has been in this country since she was 11 years old. She considers multiculturalism a strength, and she lives each day as a Black woman, an African, a Muslim, and a Christian.
“I come to the Cavern when I’m lost,” says Honey, who has been visiting the Cavern since her first year. “I had problems balancing the social and the spiritual.”
A friend told her about the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. She discovered (to her relief) that she didn’t have to identify with any specific religion. And she has found her service as an ISL a path that suits her.
“I aspire to be a mediator between Muslims and people ignorant about Islam,” said Honey, who finds that most people are surprised when they find out about her religion. “I love the expressions I sometimes get,” she said with a chuckle. “But I don’t like it when certain groups get a bad reputation. If I can soften someone’s heart and talk with them, maybe things can change.”
Honey also brings her mediator skills to the classroom when the subject of religion or Islam surfaces and arguments develop.
“I’m able to explain Islam and correct misconceptions about the religion.”
The call to be a mediator doesn’t mean it’s easy for Honey.
“During the early half of my life, I hid my identity as a Muslim and refused to display my religion in public. Slowly, over the years, I have accepted it.”
Part of the problem is the conflation of Islam and violence in the minds of many people, due in part to unbalanced media coverage.
“When someone asks me about Islam, I often use Christianity to explain it,” says Honey. “Without Christianity, I couldn’t understand the Quran. The Prophet Mohammed is the last prophet after Jesus, whom Muslims also consider a prophet. I read the Bible in English. What I learn about both religions is they use the same wisdom, the same God, and they come from the same place.”
Honey finds Candido particularly helpful when she feels “lonely in the middle. With Liz it’s OK for me to be Black, Muslim, Christian, and anything in between,” says Honey.
Being a Black African also presents certain identity problems for Honey because African-Americans and Nigerians come from very different cultures.
“I can’t erase the Nigerian in me,” she said. “I have Nigerian memories, language, and music in me. However, after 10 years in the USA, sometimes I’m torn.”
The notion of struggle and pain as a test is more Nigerian than American, according to Honey
“‘You’re not special,’ my father will tell me. ‘You need to go through the hard stuff sometimes. Everyone struggles.’”
“It’s a great thing to fall back on my culture and my values,” adds Honey.
Caroline Barnett ’15, a recent graduate from Prairie Village, Kansas (near Kansas City), plans to be a Presbyterian minister. She felt a call to ministry in her senior year of high school after spending “every possible free hour” with her church’s high school youth group. Over the years she has spent a lot of time with church people and discovered that she likes being with them and doing what they do, namely, helping others through a faith community. She hopes to pursue pastoral care and counseling for the elderly, which she learned about through her father’s elder care business.
“The faith journey often gets harder for older-aged adults who may be sick or who have experienced death among their families and friends,” says Caroline. “There is value in just sitting with people and experiencing their pain.”
Public speaking also attracts Caroline to the ordained ministry.
“K has helped me take my feelings and put them into words,” she says, “to speak about the things I
believe because I have to be articulate to be understood and to be understanding of listeners.”
Her interest in the relationship between religion and language has provided her opportunities as an ISL to elicit conversations about faith and spirituality, especially those regarding the meaning of life and one’s purpose in the world.
“These conversations happen on campus even though students don’t happen to think in religious terms,” she explains. “However, once you engage people, you find that many of them are actually thinking about spirituality and religion and how it affects their lives.”
For example, one important question students ask when they arrive on campus is what to keep of their parents’ values and how to build a life that reflects their own values.
“I see it everywhere,” said Caroline. “I am surrounded by people doing religious things.”
An interfaith perspective comes naturally to Caroline because her father is Jewish and her mother is Presbyterian.
“All my cousins and I grew up with Christmas and Passover celebrations without any tension,” she said.
Caroline has learned that all faiths are connected in their quest to build relationships with others, even though their practices are different.
Being an ISL also helps Caroline “get out of my head,” which is a comfortable place for this double major (religion and anthropology and sociology). She regularly joined the group at the Cavern when the ISLs met, to play music and just hang out.
“They are a fun group of people,” said Caroline who considers herself a quiet, introverted person. “I feel more connected spiritually when I’m with other people because they draw me out and remind me why I believe what I do.”
Candido, a fellow Presbyterian, has been especially influential to Caroline. “When I had something on my mind, she is always open to listening to me. She’s a calm person to be around.”
Dan Michelin ’18, from Los Angeles, is a secularist and an atheist. He’s not opposed to religion, but he doesn’t believe in God. Instead, he is heavily influenced by Soto Zen Buddhism, which focuses on stretches and poses.
“Everyone is looking for fulfillment in life,” says Dan. “That’s where religion comes in. Anyone can get being good and doing good works. I focus my efforts on the earthly stuff because that’s the only thing I can experience in the here and now.”
“Nature is central to the earthly experience,” adds Dan. “Anything that affects sentience is earthly. I have a sense of empathy toward sentient beings—humans and animals.”
Dan attributes his attraction to Nature to his year off between high school and college when he lived in Nepal. And, even though God is not at the center of Dan’s spiritual experience, he can still relate to other students as an ISL.
“I lend a voice to the atheist community here,” he says. “We talk instead about secular things like how to make life on earth better for us. We’re inclusive. We talk about morality, what it is and why it’s important to be moral. We talk about how to live a happy life.”
Students can deal with things like death in secular and non-secular ways, too, he adds. Christians see death as going to Heaven. Some seculars see death as a part of life where one’s energy still stays around.
“Matter can’t be created or destroyed, according to the law of conservation,” said Dan. “It can only be moved around and changed.”
Dan’s father is an “apathetic atheist” who doesn’t care at all about religion, and his mother grew up in a Christian Scientist household, but later became a Baptist and now incorporates meditation into her practice.
Dan has been on a spiritual path most of his life, starting as a devout Christian and then giving it up because he lost a sense of meaning from it. A friend got him into Buddhism through its literature.
Dan started the Secular Spiritual Group on campus, which meets weekly to discuss various moral and ethical issues. People from all faiths attend.
“We live in a world with both religious and non-religious people,” he said. “We can all benefit from this group. Spirituality is about finding meaning. Atheists seek this, too.”
Dan loves working with Candido. “I get feedback from her when I need it,” he says. “She is very professional, but she also shows warmth and understanding. She’s just a wonderful human being.”