Dayna Fields grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s North Shore, so she was unaccustomed to being part of a religious minority when she arrived at MU. It might have been easy for Fields to grow disconnected from her faith, but she decided that, despite the much smaller Jewish population in Columbia, she would become even more active.
Last spring, she went to Kerri Hollander, director of the MU chapter of Hillel, the foundation for Jewish campus life, to discuss a way to bring Jewish students together. With the help of a grant from the National Hillel Foundation, Fields started ChaiTimes, a magazine for Jewish college students. The first issue, published in December, featured a variety of stories including the history of Jewish-Greek life on campus, and a profile on a student who is raising awareness about genocide in Darfur.
“I personally wanted some Jewish literature for myself and for others,” Fields said. “If there was something we could all read and have in common, you could at least feel like you’re part of a Jewish community.”
Above all, Fields hopes the magazine will help the many Jewish students who don’t visit Hillel or join Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity, to feel more connected to each other.
“Because there’s a lot of hectic stuff not only at this point in our lives but at this time in the world, somebody could easily feel out of place or lonely,” Fields said. “I feel like even if you don’t believe 100 percent in the customs or religion, it’s important to identify with a religion so that you feel like you belong or have a place, like something is there for you.”
In 2003, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA launched a study examining the spiritual development of undergraduate students during college. Researchers designed the study, which surveyed more than 112,000 freshmen from 236 colleges and universities across the country, to “enhance our understanding of how college students conceive of spirituality, the role it plays in their lives, and how colleges and universities can be more effective in facilitating students’ spiritual development.”
The results suggest that college students show a high degree of spiritual interest and involvement; 80 percent of respondents expressed an interest in spirituality, with four in 10 saying they felt “secure” in their beliefs.
Nearly half of the respondents said seeking out opportunities to grow spiritually was essential or very important. Three out of four said they are actively “searching for meaning/purpose in life.”
Furqaan Sadiq knew Islam was an important part of his identity, and he didn’t think that would change when he went away to college. Thanks to the Internet, he knew all about the Muslim Students Organization at MU and he joined as soon as he arrived on campus.
But it wasn’t until Sadiq had been away from home for a while that he began to understand his faith in a different way. The values his parents taught him were something he almost took for granted, he said. He practiced his religious customs out of habit, rather than out of moral conscience.
“When I came to college, especially living alone, it put things in perspective and everything just clicked, like, ‘This is why I have to do this,’” Sadiq said. “Instead of being something I do out of habit, it’s something that I love to do. The fact that I was alone, you really start thinking, ‘Who do I want to be?’”
The question challenged Sadiq to take a closer look at his personal experiences and reflect on the nature of his being. He has since come to consider his faith in a new light, and he likes to say that “the difference between a religious man and a spiritual man is that a religious man knows of hell and stays away from it, but a spiritual man has been through hell and then stays away from it.”
The UCLA researchers also found that, while a quarter of respondents were actively seeking a spiritual foundation, another one in four students were either “conflicted” about their beliefs or harbored doubts about them.
During his freshman year, Dan Dorsey went through an exploration process that examined not his personal beliefs, but the kind of religious institution he felt most comfortable in. Growing up, Dorsey went to church with his mom but never felt an attachment to a particular place of worship. When Dorsey was in high school, a friend helped him find a church he felt more comfortable in, an evangelical Presbyterian church in St. Louis, where Dorsey became a deacon.
When he left home for college, Dorsey said he had no plans to seek out a religious organization in Columbia.
But during his first few weeks here, he became friends with a few students who were members of The Rock, a nondenominational campus church. He got involved with the church’s smaller discussion groups and, after taking part in a retreat last October, he decided to join the church.
He now plays a leadership role in his discussion group, acting as a “Light Giver” — a teacher — to “help explore innovative ways to saturate people’s lives with the literal word of God.”
Dorsey said that, in college, his ideas about Christianity have become clearer and, as he put it, “radicalized.” Now when he goes to his church back home in St. Louis he feels “uncomfortable with that ‘religious vibe.’”
“I came to college with a lot of questions, but at the same time I had a lot of answers that I didn’t find satisfactory,” he said. “The mind-set at my church was not to question, and I was unsure if I agreed. I felt like the people at my church were being fed information from other sources and accepting it without ever questioning it.”
Dorsey said that while the members of The Rock might not agree with him on every issue, they accept his different views more so than the people at his church in St. Louis.
This is important to The Rock’s pastor, John Drage. He feels that college is “the very best place” for religious faith to blossom.
The Rock crafts its message to appeal to young people whose spiritual views are still developing. “We’re not interested in religion per se as much as we are in what it means to have a relationship with God,” he said. “Today one of the deepest core values of spirituality is authenticity. It’s the way we’re going to present and talk about things. The way we present them is relevant to life. It’s extremely raw, relevant, and authentic.”
Drage is used to hearing students tell him that they have never had such a strong connection with their faith. The Rock’s Saturday night services feature a band that plays contemporary Christian music, and a sermon that specifically reaches out to young people with references to popular culture.
Drage feels age is a factor in how people practice religion. He hopes to help students exercise their faith in a way that is more relevant for them.
“When they hear the message and learn to worship in their own language and they do that for a little while, when they go home for break and they’re in their traditional church, they can hear it,” he said. “They have to learn to worship in their own language before they can worship in a ‘foreign’ language.”