Seeking Spirituality: Hopkins Students, Faculty And Staff Are Finding The Space To Exercise Their Faiths By Mike Field "A brief religious service will be held every morning at 8:45 in Hopkins Hall. No notice will be taken of the presence or absence of anybody." --Message found tacked to a bulletin board at the first Hopkins Campus on Howard Street, circa 1880. Every morning before sunrise, Murtuza Ahmed gets up to pray. In the dark and often in the cold, at a time when nearly all his classmates are sleeping, Ahmed kneels on the floor facing northeast--toward Mecca--opens his heart to Allah and touches his forehead to the ground. In this way, says Ahmed, "I submit my whole being to the will of the Creator." A junior natural sciences major studying hard for the MCATs, Ahmed enjoys an active social life when not studying or in class. Nevertheless, he will find time to repeat his prayers four more times in the course of each day. Meanwhile, in another part of campus, at about the same time Ahmed is beginning his morning prayers, a group of Jewish students sit patiently in the basement of AMR 1, one of the original student dormitories on the Homewood campus. They await the arrival of the 10th man for minyan, the quorum of 10 Jewish males needed to perform morning services. Although shabbat or Friday evening services have long been a fixture at Homewood, the morning service is something new. Last semester, a minyan met 53 of the 55 school days their services were scheduled. This semester, the group hasn't missed a day. Says senior economics major Michael Kelsey, one of the organizers of the minyan, "We do this because we are commanded to; that's the straight, quick and easy answer. But the larger truth is, it's very rewarding. If I'm running a little late and I walk in and there is already a quorum it's a wonderful feeling. This is a sign of commitment to God." Commitment to God or belief in a higher power are not prerequisites for studying, teaching or working at Johns Hopkins University. In fact, by mutual consent and the force of tradition, they are rarely even discussed. Founded deliberately as a secular institution, Hopkins has, by policy or by oversight, directed little effort toward the spiritual realm. There is, for instance, no Religion Department in the School of Arts and Sciences or even a religious studies major. Hopkins, unlike most other universities of similar size and age, is one of the few schools without a campus chapel. Even the office of campus chaplain is a relatively late development, the current chaplain being only the third person to hold that post in the university's 117-year history. Yet students, staff and faculty from across the campuses say that spirituality in general--and religion in particular--is very much present in the hearts and minds of many members of the university community. "When I first came here I was told this place was an a-religious institution," said Homewood campus chaplain Sharon Kugler. Originally brought in on an interim basis in March 1993, Kugler spent her first months on the job making contact with the dozen or so religiously affiliated student groups on campus. Her contacts quickly led her to doubt the prevailing notion of irreligiosity or lack of interest. "I found a deep sense of spirituality among students, faculty and staff," said Kugler. "People don't tend to realize that at Hopkins we have many people deeply committed to their religions." Nor is Kugler alone in her discovery. Shortly after her arrival as associate professor of economics at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Judith Dean was approached by a group of students asking her to help organize a weekly fellowship and Bible study for students, faculty and staff. That group eventually became the SAIS Christian Forum, a non-denominational weekly gathering that focuses on issues of faith and meaning within the context of international relations. "There should be a link between faith and learning," said Dean. "These students agree that one's life should not be compartmentalized. Faith isn't something you do on your days off. It's an integral part of your life. Part of the purpose of this group is to discuss the relationship between Christian faith and our academic pursuits at SAIS." The SAIS Christian Forum examines different issues related to faith each semester. Last fall, the group discussed the question of "Being a Leader as a Christian." This semester, they brought guest speakers and organized discussions around the issue of "Being a Christian in the Workplace." Despite an often grueling work schedule, the group consistently attracts 10 to 15 members each week. "It's always a question of, Can I really afford to go?" said African studies and international economics major Katharina Vogeli. A Swiss citizen who says she has been a Christian for 15 or 16 years, Vogeli rarely regrets her decision to attend. "It makes me feel recharged. I feel encouraged," she said. "It's a support group, if you want, based on very definite foundations that we share. Yes, it does take very valuable time away from studies, but it's worth it." From the very start, the university has grappled with the need to balance scientific objectivity with spiritual fulfillment and to acknowledge the sense of tension that seems to exist between those "very definite foundations" of faith and the inquiring demands of reason. According to contemporary sources, the original trustees felt strongly that the university "should forever be free from the influences of ecclesiasticism or partisanship, as those terms are used in narrow or controversial senses." When Daniel Coit Gilman arrived as the university's first president, he took up the charge, declaring "Religion has nothing to fear from science and science need not be afraid of religion." As if to prove his point, Gilman offered to lead morning prayers in a classroom each day before the 9 a.m. commencement of classes. The trustees, anxious to demonstrate that Hopkins was not destined to become the godless institution some contemporary critics were decrying, quickly accepted the offer. Those services--Christian in nature, featuring a reading from Scripture, a brief talk and a prayer--were led by the president for more than a dozen years before the duty devolved upon dean of the college and ordained minister Edward Griffin. At all times, attendance at the services was strictly voluntary. Officially led morning prayers are long a thing of the past at Hopkins. The need for spiritual fulfillment, apparently, is not. If anything, suggest observers, spiritual needs on campus are being felt more acutely, and answered more widely, than at any time in recent memory. "In the past at this institution benign neglect seemed to be the order of the day," Kugler said. "It was an approach considered appropriate to who we are and what we do. However, the truth is, if you prod beneath the image of the research institution you still find people who, at the end of the day, go home and search for meaning in their personal lives." What has changed perhaps, is not the need to search, but the many avenues available to those looking. In the days when President Gilman could offer to lead communal prayers, Johns Hopkins University was, for all intents and purposes, a Christian organization. That is emphatically no longer the case. Today the university--like the larger society to which it belongs--is a quilted patchwork of spiritual and religious beliefs. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and many others are represented on the many campuses, often--owing in part to the large number of international students, faculty and researchers--in numbers far larger than the general society might suggest. "I think as we see violence increasing in the general society we experience an increase in spiritual needs among all age groups," said Joshin Kado, an ordained Buddhist nun who serves as the Buddhist campus minister at Homewood. Kado has established a meditation group that meets weekly at the campus chaplain's office in the Alumni Memorial Residences. "As I observe people around campus I find spiritual and religious issues are very important to them. Hopkins has traditionally had this sort of low-key effort to stay very secular, but we've seen a turnaround from that. Today there is a recognition of the need, and the recent reorganization of the campus chaplaincy is evidence of that. Frankly, if our students can't find answers to their religious questions on campus from legitimate priests, nuns, rabbis and so forth, then they are more vulnerable to things like cults." The possibility of cultlike religious groups recruiting students on campus is a growing concern at universities across the nation. Some have even had to resort to legal efforts to bar certain groups from their campuses. While not a problem at Hopkins, Kugler remains vigilant to groups that, in the name of spirituality or religion, would try to run students' lives. "Some groups are not interested in dialogue," she said. "They will insist that all answers reside within the group and that members limit contacts with outsiders. That is a red flag that warns us to be wary." Part of Kugler's mission as chaplain has been to increase contact and dialogue among religions on campus. In 1993 she started the Interfaith Council, a student group composed of members of most faiths represented at Homewood. The group meets weekly to talk and listen and learn about each other. "We encourage the recognition that others' journeys have value," she said. "As a group, we learn what is relevant to other people's lives." One thing that became apparent not long after Kugler founded the IFC was the desire on the part of many students for an organized academic course of religious studies. "Here you are at Hopkins and you walk across campus seeing all these different people and hearing all these different languages, and it's literally a smorgasbord," Kugler said. "But how do you get to know them, how do you get to understand their beliefs? There is a hunger for that knowledge and for the ability to talk about the differences in religious and spiritual ideas." In answer to that need, Campus Ministries helped create the university's first religion course, Christianity and World Religions, to be offered in the fall semester through the School of Arts and Sciences. The 300-level, 3-credit class will be the first of what Kugler hopes will be a series of courses examining issues of religion and spirituality in an academically credible way. Many students have expressed hope that the university will create a more permanent and structured form of religious studies through the curriculum of the School of Arts and Sciences, a proposal that is currently receiving serious consideration from the administration. "I have met with a number of students who are interested in a religious studies program and we have looked at that in some detail," said Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Knapp. "We are currently exploring several options, including a religious studies major, but the crucial thing, of course, is making sure we have the faculty resources." Dean Knapp served on the Religious Studies Faculty Board at Berkeley, where he taught a popular course titled The Bible as Literature, a class he describes as a "good candidate" for what he might teach here. Classes dealing specifically with religious themes are increasingly in demand, he said, perhaps in part because the process of accommodating many different religious viewpoints has progressed considerably in recent years. "There's less embarrassment among faculty and students about the issue of religion," he said. "There is a growing recognition that you can pursue the secular academic study of religion in a way that doesn't promote a particular faith, but at the same time acknowledges the cultural and philosophical importance of religious belief and expression. The scholarly study of religion is not automatically hostile or demystifying; to treat it seriously you cannot take a purely mechanical or condescending approach." Studied or not, religious and spiritual issues define many individual's lives within the university community. Occasionally a source of friction, as when the expectations of scientific skepticism confront the demands of faith, most individuals report little difficulty in reconciling the world of the academy with the needs of their soul. "As the Koran teaches, 'There is no compulsion in religion,'" said Muslim student Murtuza Ahmed. "Even though there are moral and ethical differences of opinion on campus, this does not make it hostile to belief. You have to know before you decide. We are here to further our understanding and knowledge. But we also want to add and enrich the community with different points of view and different talents as well." For many at the university--on every campus, across a broad spectrum of beliefs--the spiritual and the eternal cannot be separated from the material and temporal: they are one and the same. It is perhaps impossible to describe each group, to hear every voice. But to a surprising degree, they speak with great unanimity. Says Priscilla Boudreau, an administrative secretary in the Development Office who attends a weekly Bible study and prayer meeting held on campus, remembering her faith within a secular institution invigorates her soul. It is, she says, "like a drink of cold water in a dry place."
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