Keeping the faith

By on October 6, 2008

By Dennis O’Neil

It is Tuesday night and Bill Noe prepares to deliver a service for students in the Baptist Campus Ministry building. It is Wednesday night in the Interfaith Center and John Brockmeier and Randy Barth ensconce themselves in the Catholic Campus Ministry’s monthly “Pizza and Theology” event, downing slices of Dominoes while in the thick of theological discussion.It is Friday night in the Humanities building where Devon Spalding leads a meeting of the newly formed Secular Alliance of Free Thought and Enlightenment, set to address faith matters that he feels plague college students.
In a 2007 survey of incoming University of Louisville students by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, almost 84 percent stated they had a religious preference upon entering college. There are currently 23 faith-based organizations on campus, many of them holding activities and religious services each day, in order to meet these needs, according to Dean of Students Mike Mardis.
For some students in these organizations, having a particular faith in college can serve as a means of social engagement and belonging. For others, it forces them to confront issues of fear, uncertainty, loneliness and, many times, temptation. Here is a closer look at some of their stories:
Student Engagement
For Mardis, being able to offer faith outlets to students is an important part of creating a vibrant campus life.
“We want to see things from a holistic perspective and the spiritual side of things is a big part of that,” Mardis said. “We want our students to be able to keep their beliefs as part of their life when they come here, because for many students, U of L becomes like home.”
Noe also credited the openness of many faith based organizations on campus as a reason for much student involvement.
“Faith based RSOs on campus are different because a lot of them don’t have a membership,” Noe said. “Things are more open and if you just want to be involved in a certain event then you can just show up.”
Sarah Fellows, director of the CCM, said it can be difficult to attract students on a secular campus, but that many of the students who get involved already have a firm faith background and are looking for a place to help it grow.
“I don’t think any of them feel odd about it,” Fellows said. “I think it is a nice surprise when they come here and find that there is a faith community waiting for them.”
Barth, one of the CCM’s main student leaders, said he understands how the transition from one environment to another can make it difficult for students to enter a campus faith organization.
“If you come here a faithful person from a very specific environment, there is the possibility that you might not find what you are looking for,” said Barth, a senior accounting major. “You might wind up changing things about yourself to fit the mold of what is expected of you.”
Brockmeier said his case demonstrates the opposite, as he feels his individuality is firmly tied to his faith. He also said that, despite secular surroundings, he receives a lot of respect from his fellow students, many of them less faith-oriented than he is.
The Interfaith Center also houses offices for the Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian ministries, as well as the Hillel offices for Jewish students. Despite having all of these different faiths in closed quarters though, Brockmeier said things remain peaceable.
“There may be a belief that I may not share with someone, but I still respect them nonetheless,” said Brockmeier, a fifth year mechanical engineering student.
Lead us not into temptation
For Kim Feinberg, there are definitely inconveniences involved with being a student of faith on campus. Feinberg, a practicing Jew, said she often has a hard time getting out of practice for the rowing team in order to observe Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.
Feinberg also said, in the face of the many temptations college can provide, her own morality puts her in some awkward positions.
“People think I am crazy for not drinking and for not being sexually active and things like that,” Feinberg, a junior biology major, said. “It doesn’t matter to me though. Those just aren’t things that I want to do.”
Jim Hunter, who has taught religion classes at U of L for 21 years, believes that students are often tempted by the various socializations entailed within college life.
Hunter said that incoming students from areas outside of Louisville may struggle to retain their religious practices and beliefs and that many of his students felt they had drifted away from their faith during their college years.
“They get here and mom’s not here and dad’s not here and there are so many choices and so many adventurous possibilities available that it can be very difficult for someone,” said Hunter. “It would take a very strong person not to give into those temptations at some point.”
But Hunter said that varying dialogue, along with activities discussing religion on campus, benefit those in the university’s community.
“As long you can talk about it then there’s never a danger because it’s good to get your faith challenged and questioned,” Hunter said. “Frankly, it can strengthen somebody’s faith.”
Presbyterian and physics major Jacob Noel said he can understand the temptations that exist for many college students, but that he is capable of avoiding them.
“I have my own ideas and practices and just kind of live the way that I feel is right for me,” Noel said. “I consider faith and temptation two separate things. One doesn’t really hinder the other necessarily.”
Noe feels the BCM has given many students a way of avoiding the fast lifestyle of college.
“Some students may not be as into the whole party scene as others but [the BCM] helps them find a group that they can identify with more,” Noe said.
A Fighting Minority
Nichole Burruss, administrative assistant at the University Honors Program and a graduate student in humanities, said that the connection between the multiple faith based groups on campus is in need of repair and that communication issues may lead to students struggling to retain their faith.
Burruss converted to Islam from Christianity following a personal experience in her life three years ago. But as a Muslim, Burruss said she can understand the lacking of faith on campus.
“I feel like the only groups recognized on campus are Jewish and Christian groups,” said Burruss, who added that the other religious organizations need to receive more focus from not only the university, but the students involved as well. “It’s a disservice to the students.”
According to Burruss, communication and advertising at all levels is lacking and a disconnect between peers and administrators has significantly affected faith based organizations and their impact on campus. 
“There are students who are looking, but they just don’t know where to look,” she said. “It’s frustrating because you want to find a place to worship.”
For students like Feinberg, understanding isn’t the only thing hard to find on U of L’s campus. Much of the time, it is company.
According to Peter Anik, coordinator of the Hillel Foundation at U of L, there are less than 100 Jewish students on campus. Anik said in order to satisfy the needs of students, he tries to connect them to the broader Jewish community in Louisville, which has a population of about 8,000.
Since there are no regular temple services offered on campus, Anik often organizes groups to attend synagogues off campus. Anik also emphasized the difficult aspects of being Jewish on campus, mentioning the lack of a kosher meal plan for students as well as the lack of nearby synagogues.
Feinberg said keeping a kosher diet has always been a chore for her. Growing up in Russel, Ky., she said her family was the only Jewish one in town and had to send away for all of their kosher food because no stores sold it. Now at U of L, things haven’t changed much for her.
“I don’t keep kosher simply because there would be no way I could,” Feinberg said. “I wouldn’t be able to eat from a plate that might have touched something that wasn’t kosher. It is just too difficult.”
Despite the small population of Jews though, Anik said Hillel has been successful in connecting what few there are on campus through events and services.
“What will happen is that a student will find out another student is Jewish by word of mouth,” Anik said. “Slowly, we have begun to accumulate a list of students who want to be involved.”
A similar case can be found in Spalding, who began the Secular Alliance for Free Thought and Enlightenment largely because he found nothing like it offered on campus. He said the group’s focus is more science based, but doesn’t want it labeled as atheist.
Spalding said that the group was recently formed and only has about a dozen members, but is excited by the prospect of posing important questions concerning serious faith issues.
“It is very important to have a particular faith at this time in your life, but it is tragic to lock yourself in without exploring what it means,” Spalding, a third year chemistry major, said. “I think the most important thing for a student right now is to figure out what works for them.”
Day to Day 
Mardis said the Student Affairs department works with the different religious organizations to improve the situation for students. Mardis also meets with spiritual advisors from each of the different faith organizations twice a semester, looking for ways to improve.
“We do have a mechanism for communicating,” Mardis said. “It is a very important part of having a good campus life because there are a lot of different students involved in those campus organizations.”
Brockmeier, one of them, couldn’t agree more.
“Faith is my life pretty much,” he said. “It is what guides my actions. It is how I live my life and it is very important to me.”
-Emory Williamson contributed to this story.

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