Religion Becoming a Big Deal on Campus
Religion Becoming a Big Deal on Campus

By Eric L. Wee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 1999; Page B1

He hasn't done the reading for his class that's about to start. But Matt Chapman has more immediate concerns as he drives toward George Mason University. Steering his Nissan Stanza with one hand, he takes out a string of black rosary beads from his left pants pocket, pushes in a cassette tape, crosses himself and begins to echo the words coming over the speakers.

"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. ... "

Twenty minutes later, he pulls into a university parking lot, where he bows his head and finishes one last prayer before heading to class.

Not long ago Chapman would have been surprised to hear that he'd be reciting Hail Marys as he drove through the back roads of Northern Virginia. But asCatholic reconnecting with his faith, he is among a growing number of college students who are discovering more than books, exams, beer and parties on campus. Many, like Chapman, also are finding religion and spirituality.

Campus religious groups are multiplying. Enrollment in religion classes has mushroomed. And as interest in Eastern religions grows, meditation groups are thriving.

For the children of baby boomer parents, many of whom were raised in secular households, religion has become something exotic and, in some cases, may even be a form of rebellion, according to campus religious officials.

"It's new to them. It's attractive," said Chaplain Sharon Kugler, of Johns Hopkins University. Kugler, the president of a national organization for college chaplains, said her counterparts also have noticed this surge in interest. "They're looking for things that are bigger than themselves. ... People are starved for this."

For the first time in its 123-year history as a college founded on secular principles, Johns Hopkins is preparing to open a facility devoted to all things spiritual. Next month, the university will open a prayer center in a renovated former Methodist church. With increasing numbers of students praying in libraries, vacant offices and dorm common areas, the need for such a center was clearly there, Kugler said. Since she came to the college six years ago, the number of student religious organizations has rocketed from eight to 20.

At the University of Virginia, there has been an explosion in the number of students enrolled in religion classes. Harry Gamble, chairman of the religion department, said about 1,800 students a year took the courses a decade ago. Today the number has more than doubled, and classes that used to attract 150 now pack in 350 with 50 more on waiting lists.

Three years ago, the University of Southern California hired its first dean of religious life in recognition of the growing importance of religion in students' lives. Professors now get a two-page list of religious holidays and events, from the Mormon General Conference to the Hindu Harvest Festival, that students are excused to attend.

In St. Louis, the Catholic chapel at Washington University is no longer big enough, even after knocking down walls and adding pews. Eight years ago, just over a dozen students regularly attended Mass. Now more than 350 show up, and others listen through speakers in a basement overflow area.

And with a combined enrollment of 144,000, the more than 90 colleges that make up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities report a 39 percent jump in enrollment since 1990.

Educators and religious leaders offer varying explanations for the surging interest in religion.

Some argue that religious values help today's students navigate a society that seems to them increasingly complicated and confusing.

Peter Laurence, a former educator who is spearheading efforts to help campuses grapple with religious diversity and the growing interest among students in spirituality, said he believes young people today are rejecting a materialistic and rationalistic culture.

"There's the sense that science is going to find everything we need to know and that technology will do for us everything we need to do," Laurence said. Students, he said, are saying, " 'I don't want to live that way. I experience things that science can't explain and that technology can't provide.' People call those 'spiritual experiences.' ... They're looking for more."

Students on spiritual quests have more options than ever on most campuses. At American University, the number of religious groups has almost doubled during the last five years, adding eight new groups. Recent additions have included everything from a Bahai group to the California-based Blue Mountain Center for Meditation Group. Although cultural diversity accounts for some of the new organizations, many students with Western backgrounds also are attracted to New Age and Eastern religions.

Still others subscribe to a spirituality that defies labeling.

"In my generation, there were a more limited number of faith avenues. But now there is a greater selection of faith vehicles that they can express those spiritual yearnings" through, said Joe Eldridge, the American University chaplain. "I was surprised at the number of faith expressions people mentioned that I frankly wasn't familiar with. The formal religious bodies don't have a claim on the youth that we once did."

That would be the case with Saram Singh. That's his new name. His old one was Buckley Drenning. That was before he converted to the Indian-based Sikh religion.

The 21-year-old U-Va. junior from Loudoun County said he'd been looking for something to help him make sense of the world. For a while, he thought he could find answers through art, music and even drugs. Not anymore. Once in Charlottesville, he started to practice yoga, which led him to the Sikh religion.

Now he answers the phone with the greeting "Sat Nam" (translation: "Truth is my identity"). His brown hair hangs to his waist when he's not wearing his turban. And he said his religious conversion and yoga rituals have given him a new sense of contentment.

"It has powerfully changed my everyday consciousness," Saram said. "I don't get depressed. I don't get angry. My relationship with people is much more openhearted and centered."

American University senior Amani Surges said the absence of religion in her upbringing made her curious about religion once she got to college. After a semester studying Buddhism in India, she now gathers with about 10 other students and a Buddhist monk on campus to meditate for an hour once a week. Once she graduates, she plans to do that daily.

"To be involved with Christianity, you must have faith no matter what. You must adopt everything," Surges said. "I tend to be a critical person. Buddhists encourage you to challenge their belief."

Chapman, the George Mason senior, who began saying his prayers on the road during Lent, had no strong religious beliefs before heading to college. But once he was on his own, he found he had to make a decision on where he stood with the faith he had inherited from his parents.

His choice to embrace it has altered his life in small and large ways, he said – in the movies he watches, the music he listens to, even in the career he wants. Instead of aspiring to be an FBI agent, as he once did, he is volunteering to work in the inner cities of New York and Chicago when he graduates.

"It's made me think about what is important," Chapman said. "By starting the day with prayer ... it takes me away from myself and gives me a larger perspective."


©Copyright 1999, Washington Post

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