Making Religion and Spirituality Accessible

by Caroline Francis | 11/12/09 11:00pm

Nobody goes to church anymore. They all stopped when they all got to college, the fire extinguisher of religion. Maybe for the first few weeks, devoted students attended church or temple. But then they got to the "I'll go next week" phase, then to "I'll make it there for holidays" and finally to "I give up." That's when they faced the truth: they didn't have the time, they didn't have the energy and they certainly didn't have the discipline.

And so goes the popular belief, or more accurately, the popular misconception about college students.

In truth, according to the Tucker Foundation, there are over 25 active religious groups at Dartmouth and their members are in no way ready to let God, religion or spirituality become a fleeting memory.

And, again defying expectation, the groups are the groups are receptive to individuals of all creeds. You don't need to be Hindu to join Shanti, Christian to join Agape or Orthodox, let alone Jewish, to join Chabad.

"Shanti's mission is not limited to just Hindu students." said Prasad Jayanti, faculty advisor for Shanti and a computer science professor at the College. "Anybody who wishes to learn about Hinduism or the Hindu spirituality or culture they're all welcome. It's for the entire campus."

In fact, it appears as though the over-arching mission of all of these religious groups is not just to provide a place of worship for students with a particular religious background, but also to create an environment of cultural and religious understanding.

Even the Dartmouth College Gospel Choir, a traditionally Christian group, is not aligned with any particular religion, according to Thomas Leddy-Cecere, chair of DCGC. The group has members who are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim, as well as members who do not affiliate themselves with any particular religion, Leddy-Cecere said.

"We don't like to say that we accept diversity," he said. "We like to say that we encourage diversity. Because accepting,' it's a passive thing. It like saying I tolerate the fact that you're different from me.' But celebrating is actively taking joy in the fact that people from so many different walks of life can come together towards one goal of making our music."

Even for the busiest and most active of Dartmouth students, these groups make a large effort to make themselves accessible.

Ramesh Govindan '13, a member of Shanti, emphasized how open the group was to students and how easy it was to become a member.

"It not at all [time-consuming]," he said. "We meet every Friday for two hours and then for major Hindu holidays, which is not often."

Sherwin Yeo '10, the student leader of Agape Christian Fellowship, also said that his group is similarly easy to join.

"To be in the group, we don't require that you do anything," he said. "We try to maintain relationships [with students] even if they don't have time to come to the meetings. We don't want them to feel like, Oh, I have to go to this meeting.' We want them to want to go to a meeting."

Chabad, an orthodox Jewish group on campus, also makes a distinct effort to cater to the needs of busy students by meeting on the seventh day of rest (Sunday) when students are encouraged to relax and recharge by attending the group's dinner, Mackenzie Howell '10 said. Chabad also tries to be as approachable as possible, welcoming all Jews and non-Jews, despite being an orthodox group, she said.

Representitives from many groups said they also make an effort to reach out to the Upper Valley commnity. Leddy-Cecere, who is originally from Strafford, Vt., said DCGC places a great emphasis on reaching out and including community members in the choir and their performances.

"This term, many of our members chose to donate their comp tickets [tickets set aside for guests of the performers] to those in need in Hanover and surrounding towns," he said. "Those students believed that anyone who wishes to join in our music and our message should be able to do so, regardless of their ability to pay. The principle of that belief and the generosity backing it up are strong examples of the philosophy of our group."

Likewise, Shanti includes many members of the Upper Valley, both children and adults, in their activities. In describing the recent Diwali celebration that took place in Rollins Chapel, on the Green where 3,400 lamps were lit, and in Collis where 725 people were served a free dinner, Jayanti was almost beaming with pride when he recounted the high turn-out of students, faculty and community members some Hindu, and some not.

Jayanti said that no group should aim to convert another group or individual. He stressed that no one individual is more right than another individual.

"One very famous saying from the Rigveda, one of the oldest Hindu scriptures, is ekam sat,' there is only one truth," he said. "Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti:' The wise men discuss the one truth in different ways. That's how it is with different religions. If I see a great sunset and I describe it in my poetry and you describe it in your poetry, it might be different. But we are describing the same beauty. Perhaps in different words and perhaps it may come across to others differently. Therefore, keep your eyes and ears open because truth and beauty can come from anybody and from any side."

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