Students Explore Worship Possibilities on Campus
With the recent alumni donation for a non-denominational chapel room at James Madison University and an ongoing project to build an all-purpose chapel at Christopher Newport University, students and faculty at UMW are now contemplating the possibility of a non-denominational chapel.
Although there are no definite plans to build a chapel at UMW, some students think that such a building could solve existing problems.
Sasha Clarke, a junior English major and historian of the Jewish Student Association (JSA), frequently experiences frustration when it comes to club meeting locations.
During one Friday night meeting scheduled to take place in the Red Room of the Woodard Campus Center, Clarke arrived to find that a faculty event was already in progress.
Clarke and other members of the JSA were forced to wait outside in the hallway for a long period of time.
“Meeting off campus has never been much of a hassle in terms of distance, but meeting places are never fixed, and that is where the trouble comes in,” Clarke said.
The JSA isn’t the only religious club at UMW that has experienced difficulties in finding a stable location to hold conventions and assemblies.
The Islamic Student Association (ISA) holds sporadic meetings in the Red Room, and has pushed for a permanent “meditation room” during focus group meetings for the Multicultural Center.
Faizan Casim, a senior biology major, represented the ISA at last year’s focus group meetings.
“The ISA communicated to [then] President Hample about the need for a room in Lee Hall where individuals of different faiths could come to reflect and pray in a peaceful and relaxed setting,” Casim said.
Religious clubs that have established a secure home for worship and events, like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Grace Campus Ministries (GCM), do not receive funding from UMW and rely on sponsorship from local churches.
Other clubs that lack financial relationships with community religious centers rely on school funding to host meetings.
Among the state’s public universities of Virginia, William and Mary, University of Virginia, Lynchburg College, James Madison University and Virginia Tech all have on-campus centers where religious groups can reserve time to hold meetings and events.
The William and Mary Wren Chapel, built in 1699, is the oldest college building in the United States and was affiliated with the Church of England during the colonial period.
“Today the chapel continues to be used for student worship services of various denominations, as well as for music recitals, solemn induction ceremonies and alumni weddings,” the university said on its website.
The Lynchburg College Snidow Chapel was donated in 1966 by the Snidow family and is a facility for campus ceremonies and religious activities.
The school also operates a spiritual life center that provides community worship and religious organization use.
Although the chapels in Virginia state schools vary in size, appearance and construction date, the majority was either donated by a specific group or funded for by community and student donations.
The War Memorial of Virginia Tech was paid for over a 15-year period in which thousands of alumni made donations.
According to Edward Alvey, Jr.’s book “History of Mary Washington College 1908-1972,” from 1930 to 1956 UMW held mandatory Chapel and Convocation meetings in Willard and Monroe Halls.
The Chapel and Convocation programs included both religious and secular activities.
They involved visiting ministers, scripture reading and prayer, as well as entertainment from various campus groups such as the orchestra and drama clubs.
Eventually the religious activities were phased out, and the meetings were eliminated altogether.
“Today there would likely be considerable opposition to having a chapel built on the campus of a state-owned university,” said William Crawley, distinguished professor emeritus of history.
Craig R. Vasey, professor and chair of the classics, philosophy, and religion department, believes that the university should remain secular.
Vasey contends that mandatory religious practice was established because “at the time, religion was accepted as guidance for living. Not today, today religion is a personal choice.”
When asked about the logistical factors of location and design, Cedric Rucker, dean of student life, stated “a chapel or room on campus for religious purposes would be tough to do all in one space. Especially because satisfying all the different traditions and customs would be tough to balance.”
Douglas Searcy, vice president of student affairs, supports a campus chapel as a landmark that would “convey a cultural and heartfelt ethos in the community.”
However, Searcy was quick to mention that other university priorities should take precedence over a chapel, in asking, “would it be right to build a chapel before meeting the academic needs of overcrowding in Jepson?”
As a state university, UMW must be economical in allocating funds to different projects. The recent chapel projects at other universities were privately funded.
JMU’s interfaith chapel room was a gift from alumni and CNU has established a Chapel Campaign with construction scheduled to begin sometime this year.
With the recent construction of Eagle Village, spending funds on a chapel would be highly unlikely.
Searcy says that a permanent space on campus for religious clubs has been in the works for a long time now and continues to be a possibility.
However, it has been hard to perpetuate and solidify the idea.
Student’s support and concerns mirror those of administrators and faculty.
“The fact that they call it a ‘chapel,’ makes me feel disconnected from the idea already,” said Farrah Tek, a graduate English major and practicing Buddhist.
“I think a chapel would say a lot about UMW as a community. It would suggest that UMW looks at all religions equally,” said Kathleen Ciliberto, a senior sociology and English major.
“I’m not sure how I would feel about a chapel that would serve all religions,” Moe Ravat, a graduate business and communications major, said. “I think it would be hard for people to be at ease in a chapel that needs to encompass so many different viewpoints.”
As funding and conceptions about separation of church and state have all been raised, it is important to note the financial connection between UMW and religious organizations.
According to Kelly Caldwell, former finance committee chair of the Office of Student Activities and Community Services (OSACS), the university allocates almost $4,000 to religious organizations annually.
For the 2009-2010 school year, OSACS approved a $2,000 budget for the Passover event hosted by JSA.
With more than half of the funds going to a single religious club, an on-campus chapel could level the playing field on issues of funding and scheduling conflicts.
Clarke believes that a chapel would be beneficial in creating equality amongst the different religious organizations while enhancing UMW’s reputation for tolerance.
“Our campus talks about diversity and being open to all cultures. But what about religion?”
-Sadie Hagberg, Nicholas Kelley, Brian Fulton and Rachael Flaks contributed to this report
Photo by Marie Sicola/Bullet