Photo by Sam F. Comen





Photo by Sam F. Comen


Photo by Sam. F. Comen


Shalonda Scott’s religious life at Northwestern began with a knock on the door. Scott and her parents were unpacking her bags after first arriving on campus two years ago when University chaplain Timothy Stevens paid a call. Scott had filled out a card expressing interest in religion, and Stevens wanted to welcome her and let her know about the spiritual options on campus.

Since then Scott and her roommate, sophomore Rhonnie Song, have made the most of those options. During their first year they went to Thursday-night Bible study sessions in their residence hall, joined the Northwestern Community Ensemble’s gospel choir, attended fireside chats sponsored by Rejoice in Jesus and met Friday evenings with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Scott, a sophomore communications major, also worships with House on the Rock, a primarily African American Christian fellowship group. Song is active with the Asian American Christian Ministry and sometimes visits the Sheil Catholic Center.

"I’m just beginning with my spiritual life," says Song, who is majoring in mathematical methods in the social sciences, international studies and political science. "But there’s a lot of support here for continuing with my faith."

She and Scott are not alone when it comes to leading a spiritual life at Northwestern. Whether it’s through Bible studies in the residence halls, Muslim prayers at Tech, Buddhist meditations in Parkes Hall or Friday-night Shabbat services at the Fiedler Hillel Center, students are finding ways to enrich their faiths. While Christianity remains the dominant campus creed, more than two dozen religious groups and ministries give students a growing range of spiritual choices.

"The biggest change I’ve seen in my 15 years here is the growing diversity of religious representation on campus," Stevens says. Between 1990 and 2001, the percentage of incoming first-year students who reported they were Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Roman Catholic and United Church of Christ declined. Meanwhile, the percentage of students saying they were Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim grew.

This diversity can be seen during a typical week at Millar Chapel and the adjoining Parkes Hall. You can pray with the Islamic Society at Northwestern on Friday afternoons and with the Asian Christian Fellowship on Friday evenings. Saturdays you can sing gospel music with the Northwestern Community Ensemble, Sunday mornings attend a Protestant service and Sunday afternoons meditate with the Buddhist Study Group.

On Wednesdays you can attend an Episcopal service, and on Thursdays the Korean Bible Study Group meets. Thursday night the Hillel Center hosts Israeli folk dancing, and at other times during the week Orthodox Christians and Unitarians hold services and group discussions.

While most everything in students’ lives — from roommates to majors to sweethearts — changes during their college years, Northwestern’s religious centers and groups act as ports in the storm. "I think students find everything else in their lives topsy-turvy," says the Rev. Kenneth Simpson, director and chaplain of the University’s Sheil Center. "By senior year they say this was the one consistent presence in their lives, a place where they can step out of the fray of the University and its demands. It’s a haven, a home, an identity."

Northwestern’s own religious identity stretches back to its genesis. The University began with a prayer — the school’s nine founders (all of them Methodists, three of them ministers) knelt in worship before launching their first organizational meeting. During that meeting, they agreed to establish a university under the patronage of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Through most of its history, Northwestern kept a strong Methodist tie. Regional church conferences chose a member of the board of trustees, and until 1890 every University president was an ordained Methodist minister. But from the start Northwestern was open to students of other faiths. Although Protestants remained the majority, students from Catholic, Jewish and other backgrounds gradually enriched the spiritual mix.

In the 1930s this diversity gained a stronger foothold with the opening of Hillel House for Jewish students and the Sheil Club, now the Sheil Catholic Center, for Catholics. Sheil’s history reflects the burgeoning spirit of religious cooperation: When the club wanted to build its own center to accommodate the growing number of Catholic students, a Jewish friend of Bishop Bernard Sheil, founder of the Catholic Youth Organization, donated the needed $42,500 in 1948 to buy the property.

After World War II, the G.I. Bill brought an even broader range of students to Northwestern, and the University’s ties to the Methodists gradually began to disappear. "We didn’t think of Northwestern as a Methodist school at all," remembers Lynn Carver (S53), alumni relations senior coordinator.

In the 1960s, as the University opened up its admission policies, and as more students challenged traditions, religious life grew more varied. Hare Krishnas, Scientologists and other faiths appeared on campus. Religious groups grew active in the peace, civil rights and environmental movements. Canterbury Northwestern for Episcopal students and the University Christian Ministry, which is associated with the United Methodist and Presbyterian churches, held experimental underground services, which included poetry, contemporary literature, and rock and folk music. "You name the instrument, it was tried," recalls Mark Middleton (WCAS72), who was active in both groups.

Once the Vietnam War ended and the political turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s faded, religious life on campus grew quieter, says Middleton, who assisted the Episcopal chaplain, the Rev. Scott Jones, during the mid-1970s. Recognizing that the University was for all intents and purposes a secular school, Northwestern’s trustees voted in 1972 to sever its ties with the United Methodist Church. All formal affiliation ended in October 1974.

Even without a formal church tie today, many students find the University a welcome place to deepen their faiths. When the Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt, the current Episcopal chaplain, came to campus eight years ago, she heard students complain that the University was so secular that they weren’t comfortable talking about religion. Now students tell her what a religious school Northwestern is.

According to the 2001 survey of incoming first-year students, 84 percent said they frequently attended a religious service during high school. Once they arrive at Northwestern, many students continue to attend services on campus or in the surrounding community. For example, services at the Ebenezer AME Church, First Church of God, Second Baptist Church and Worship Center in Evanston are popular with African American students, says Rodriguez Gray, a senior computer engineering major.

"I think we’re coming to a generation where the parents might have been less interested in religion and the kids are looking for something," the Sheil Center’s Simpson says. "Instead of rebelling against their parents’ religion, they’re rebelling against their parents’ nonreligion."

In Room 122 of Parkes Hall on Wednesdays, an octagonal canvas is spread out on the linoleum floor. On the canvas, winding purple lines form a pathway modeled after an 800-year-old labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France. The labyrinth is designed to lead visitors on a spiritual journey that will sharpen their awareness of God. Once they reach its center, students and other visitors think about life’s big questions before continuing their walking meditation as they follow the path back out.

While some students have little to no interest in exploring such religious paths while in college, many are examining their beliefs. Christina Wright, a junior in the School of Education and Social Policy and president of NUCOR, the Northwestern University Council of Religions, says students often talk about spiritual issues during their quiet hours. "My roommate in my freshman year was Jewish," Wright says. "We had a lot of religious discussions at night. It would expand to the other girls in my suite, who were mostly Christian."

These kinds of talks can take place at any time, even while washing dishes. Wright often talks about God and faith with other students while cleaning up after Sunday night dinners and services at the University Christian Ministry. "During those conversations is really when I feel the most spiritual connection with others," she says.

This spiritual interest is reflected in the popularity of the Department of Religion. For several years its introductory classes in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Native American religions have amassed waiting lists, sometimes 70 students long. "It doesn’t seem to matter how many slots we offer, they always fill up," says professor Cristina Traina, the department’s chair.

The Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Seabury-Western Theological Seminary also add to the University’s religious depth. Garrett is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and Seabury-Western with the Episcopal Church. Northwestern students may attend their classes, lectures and worship services, and use their libraries. "They are great resources, but ones that have been undertapped," says the Rev. Stevens. "We need to figure out a better way of interacting with them."

To be sure, the heart of religious life on campus is the chaplaincy. As Northwestern’s fifth chaplain since 1946, Stevens holds Sunday services, sponsors a choir, leads study sessions, counsels students and gives religious groups advice and support. "He is helpful, insightful and honest," says Gray, a leader of the House on the Rock, a primarily African American Bible study group.

Stevens, a member of the United Church of Christ, speaks as Northwestern’s moral voice, says Mary Desler, associate vice president for student affairs. When white supremacists came to campus a few years ago, he played a big role in calming the situation, she says.

Stevens meets monthly with the leaders of the campus ministries that have their own staff and buildings near campus: the Sheil Center; the Hillel and the Tannenbaum Chabad House for Jewish students; Canterbury Northwestern; the University Lutheran Church at Northwestern; and the University Christian Ministry. "It’s a very friendly group," says Rabbi Michael Mishkin, the Hillel director. "We come together in a spirit of cooperation and support for each other."

Upstairs from the labyrinth in Parkes Hall, a small black plaque announces a special purpose for Room 210 — Islamic Prayer Room. Inside, a white carpet covers the floor, a poster of Mecca decorates one wall and a Koran sits on a stand.

Northwestern’s administration provides the University’s approximately 225 Muslim students with rooms such as this one to recite their five daily prayers. But prayer is far from the only activity organized by Muslim and other religious groups on campus. The Muslim-cultural Students Association, for example, holds an Islamic Awareness Week during the winter quarter and hosts a banquet to break the Ramadan fast. This year the dinner attracted 350 students and faculty, many of them non-Muslims.

"The campus is pretty open to diversity, especially the administration and faculty, who try to promote it as much as possible," says Jawad Hussain, a senior who is majoring in economics and mathematical methods in the social sciences and is president of the Muslim-cultural Students Association. "Generally students are curious to learn and understand."

Ramadan is not the only campus religious event that attracts hundreds of people. Services to observe the Jewish High Holidays in the fall draw more than 1,500 worshipers, and the Sheil Center’s four weekend masses attract up to 800 students.

Northwestern’s religious groups also offer services of a different kind, channeling their energies toward helping the wider community. Hillel students, for example, assist children with developmental disabilities. Sheil members cook and serve dinner for about 60 homeless people every Sunday night. Canterbury is helping a group of Sudanese refugees in Chicago with meals, computer training and developing job skills. And members of the University Lutheran Church tutor children in Chicago, volunteer at the Greater Chicago Food Depository and serve food at a homeless shelter.

The importance of the campus religious groups became even clearer following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The fall quarter had not yet begun, but the campus ministers quickly organized an interfaith gathering that very evening. For the National Day of Prayer three days later, the religious leaders held a noon service at Millar Chapel. Before a standing-room-only crowd, clergy and students read prayers, sang and shared thoughts from the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Native American traditions.

On the first day of classes following the attacks, Muslim students organized a memorial service attended by about 1,000 people at Cahn Auditorium. Students from about a dozen faiths willingly participated in the service. "The response was just overwhelming," Stevens says. "The efforts we’d been making toward interfaith programming really paid off."

Helping to pull Northwestern’s different religious groups together is NUCOR. The organization encourages cooperation and understanding between faiths and includes Catholics, Christian Scientists, Jews, Unitarians, Bahais, Buddhists, Protestants and Muslims. It sponsors speakers, field trips and a Religious Awareness Month that includes an activities fair in Norris University Center and a series of fireside chats with students from different faiths.

But sometimes this spirit of religious fellowship is tested. Last fall a speaker on the Middle East prompted a heated debate between Jewish and Muslim students. When the discussion grew angrier, Rabbi Mishkin invited both groups to a nearby restaurant to break bread together — and cool off. "We had about 10 Jewish students and four Muslim students just chatting about general things," Mishkin says. Despite the current Mideast situation, "there’s definitely been work on campus this year to foster better relationships between Jewish and Muslim groups."

Tensions also occasionally arise between evangelical Christians and other students who feel they are being pressured to convert. Evangelical groups play a strong part in campus religious life, with 11 percent of incoming first-year students identifying themselves as born-again Christians.

"Some of the evangelical groups are very attractive, and our students enjoy their events," the Rev. Simpson says. "But some students find it rather upsetting to be confronted with a message from the evangelical groups that Catholics are not saved."

Non-Christians feel even more tension. An evangelical student once confronted Wright’s Jewish roommate in a residence hall bathroom at 4 a.m. and told her to read the New Testament. "It’s frustrating for Jewish students to keep having to explain themselves," Wright says. "It’s a little uncomfortable and awkward."

Leaders of the evangelical groups are working to teach their members how to share their deep beliefs without pressuring other students. "We are trying to help our younger students, who might have some preconceived notions, to express their convictions without being judgmental," says Allen Wakabayashi, staff director of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. But by and large, Wakabayashi and other on-campus religious advisers say, the different religions leave each other alone. "For the most part, groups are driven with their own activities, which doesn’t give them much time for meeting other groups," he says. "I think everybody’s running in their own groove and co-existing rather well."

D. Lynn Johnson, a materials science and engineering professor at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is an adviser to Mormon students. He’s seen the spirit of co-existence improve steadily since he began at Northwestern 40 years ago. "There’s probably more cooperation and less rivalry than there was in the old days," he says. "I think people are more ecumenical and tolerant than they were."

Sarah Conway’s family has seen improvement firsthand. Conway, co-president of Hillel and a senior majoring in economics and mathematical methods in the social sciences, felt comfortable the minute she set foot on campus. She eats kosher meals in the residence halls, hangs out at the Hillel and Chabad Houses and plays intramural basketball with the Hillel team. "I think for the most part students feel very comfortable on campus expressing their Judaism," she says, adding that the same wasn’t true for her mother, Roz Weinberg Conway (SESP67). "There was the feeling then that when Jews were done with class, Northwestern wanted them to go home," Conway says. "She could express being Jewish at Hillel and with her friends, but on the main part of campus she felt separated."

Now even the smallest religious groups feel accepted. Last fall the Om Hindu Student Council and the South Asian Student Alliance held a Garba Raas traditional Hindu folk dance performance. The festival attracted more than 400 people, many of them non-Hindus. This interest by non-Hindus is typical of Om’s events, says Smriti Mohan, a senior biomedical engineering major and Om’s former treasurer.

"I think people are supportive and curious," she says. "More people are interested and open to learning about different traditions."

Jon Marshall (GJ91), a freelance writer based in Wilmette, Ill., teaches reporting at the Medill School of Journalism.