Seeking faith, students explore diverse religions

By Isa Haviland

Since her arrival at the University last year, second-year Lily McKoy has struggled to find a tight-knit religious community like the one she had at home.

“I used to go to church every Sunday, and I went to a really small church where I knew the entire congregation and it was like another family,” McKoy said. “It’s hard to arrive in college and to out of the blue go church shopping.”

McKoy said that part of the difficulty for her is that she hasn’t found a non-denominational church on campus.

“You get to college, and you have to classify yourself in this little box,” she said. “There isn’t that pull here of a home church where people have known me for years. [That’s] a really supportive community, and having to go out and find a new community like that by yourself…it’s like trying to find a new family. And it’s so hard, especially if you don’t know what type of family you want.”

For students who participate in Interfaith Dialogue, a campus group dedicated to promoting discussion and understanding across different religious faiths, religious identity is often fluid and varied.

The group is comprised of students with different religious identities and backgrounds, including a Catholic who describes herself as “being everything at the moment,” a Wiccan and cultist who used to be a Sunday-school teacher, a conservative Jew, two Unitarian Universalists, and a Protestant Lutheran. One member describes an astonishing religious history: She was raised Christian, attended a Catholic school, became a born-again Christian at age 11, and explored Wicca, Islam and Buddhism at different points in her life.

“There’s truth in every religion,” she said. “And you can’t really say ‘this is the right way, and everyone else’s way is wrong.’”

In addition to its weekly conversation sessions, the group recently held a lock-in retreat at Rockefeller Chapel during which participants discussed the importance of interfaith dialogue and a shared religious background. The next morning, the group attended a Christian service at St. Thomas the Apostle Church.

In the past, Interfaith Dialogue has also organized Interfaith Shabbat dinner and Ramadan Iftar.

“Interfaith Dialogue is like its own religious community,” says one member, “because for me, religion has a lot to do with talking about religion.”

For Nick Johnson, a second-year in the College and a Baptist youth minister at a South Side church, a sense of religious community should transcend the confines of a single religion or denomination.

“I don’t consider myself to be religious,” Johnson said. “I believe in God, and everything I say and do is defined by what I believe. I’m not going to try to simplify my beliefs by aligning them with a religion.”

Johnson equates his love for God with a love for humanity, which he calls a universal love.

“Denominations are kind of trivial,” he said. “The idea of God is to unite rather than to divide. If people could just see that we’re all human, we would be closer.”

Other students, like second-year Ben Clayman, have found their religious niches within very specific religious denominations. Clayman grew up with what he calls mainstream, progressive reform Judaism. But when he got to college, he turned Orthodox.

“The U of C has the smallest Orthodox community for our caliber school,” he said, referring to the larger Orthodox Jewish communities of Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. Penn even offers students separate Orthodox dorm rooms.

“Here, there are so few of us,” Clayman said. “But we’re a lot closer.”

There are currently 15 Orthodox Jewish students in the undergraduate community, up from only three two years ago. The students pray together every morning and see each other on the weekends during Shabbat.

However, Clayman said that one advantage of the campus’s small Orthodox community is that its members actively reach out to each other, looking past the divisions between graduate and undergraduate students and between faculty and students. Clayman said that one of his best friends at the University is a Ph.D. candidate in Social Thought, and that University professors invite him to dinner on a regular basis.

“There’s a strong sense of community, of a support system,” he said.