From the December Blue and White
Written by Bwog Staff
The December issue of The Blue and White — our Denominational Domination issue — will be on stands (and online) later this week. In the meantime, here’s something to read besides your old class notes.
“O Ye of Little Faiths” by Alexandra Muhler
While Columbia is an institution regularly accused of godlessness, our Student Governing Board (SGB) allocates considerable funding to faith-oriented student groups. The three largest religions on campus have robust memberships and budgets, though there’s no correlation. According to SGB data, here’s the breakdown: Hillel (2,000 members, $35,100 budget); the Muslim Students Association (700, $19,500); Columbia Catholic Undergrads (354, $10,800). The Bhakti Club, despite associations with the off-the-beaten-path Hare Krishna sect, claims 170 members, making it the fourth largest campus club of its kind.
Then there are the true minorities. This year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses just managed to claim its 14 members, the bare minimum for SGB recognition, and declined a request to participate in this article. Other small groups present on campus include the Seventh Day Adventists (20 members, $500 budget) and the Baha’i (39, $2,485), who didn’t respond to interview requests. The Unitarian Universalists have a campus chaplain but no club. There is no Scientology club; most individuals who practice the religion stay closeted.
Below, meet a few the loneliest practitioners in Morningside.
There are nearly 11 million Lutherans in the United States. At Columbia, there are 14—that is, officially. Blake Arnold, SEAS ’11, the president of Columbia Lutherans, says he just has trouble getting them to show up. Arnold, who runs track, says two of his teammates promise every week that they will attend Sunday night services. They never do. It’s almost Monday morning, and they are busy with work.
Nationwide, the Lutherans are growing less devout, and in that sense, Columbia is no exception. It’s a quaint sort of group. The once-groundbreaking doctrine of faith before works has long been a commonplace belief of Protestantism, and Columbia Lutherans casually co-sponsor study breaks with the more numerous Episcopalians. Arnold says that most of its members are Michiganders, homesick for church potlucks and networks of Lutheran cousins. Earlier this year, the group planned a country retreat to the Catskills. The plan fell through, but Arnold is working to make it happen next semester.
Despite their size, they are not without institutional support. Much of their $400 budget goes to pay a pianist at their Sunday services, which are directed by Reverend Nicole Schwalbe, an employee of the Office of the University Chaplain who also directs their weeknight Bible studies. During her services in St. Paul’s Chapel, the eight-odd congregants truly congregate; sitting in the first row of chairs and interrupting the sermon with comments and questions. “It feels more intimate,” said Arnold.
Indeed, in small, surprising ways, Columbia has proved a fertile ground for this struggling faith. Arnold admits that before he took Contemporary Civilization, he had never read the works of Martin Luther.
“To be a Buddhist can be quite lonely,” says Mike Wong, TC ’09, president of the Buddhist Meditation Group, which was founded this October at Teacher’s College and is organized through the Interschool Governing Board.
Students from most every school at Columbia have responded enthusiastically—at least at first. The group’s listserv has 60 subscribers, but many only stop by once, their curiosity sated or their stress busted.
Wong acknowledged that the group accommodates people who have “the mentality of picking and choosing what they find beneficial from Buddhism.” The Columbia group is not, after all, associated with any specific temple or teacher. To accommodate the nature of the demand, Wong plans on offering a more eclectic curriculum—possibly even yoga—next semester.
He estimates that there are two or three committed Buddhists in the club, and between five and ten more who attend meetings every week. Several of these members went on a retreat together, during which they meditated five or six times a day. It wasn’t easy for some of the newer meditators. “Some people come in thinking it’s a sort of easy, nice feeling,” explained Wong. “It’s really not in the case, at least not in the beginning. It’s really tough on your knees.”
That said, Wong was not born to meditate, either. Though his mother kept a Chinese Buddhist shrine in their Bronx apartment, he did not attend temple until high school, when he grew frustrated by SATs and girl trouble and became intrigued by mentions of the religion in his world history class. He continues to try to integrate his faith and his education, but for now Columbia’s Buddhist population lacks religious discipline, so Wong worships at a temple in Flushing.
About 20 people receive general body emails from the Sikh Student Association, and about five or six of them are Sikhs, estimates the group’s president, Rajkaran Sachdej, CC ’11. Many subscribe out of curiosity, and Sachdej gladly sends out educational notes on gurus’ birthdays. The group’s secretary, Ravi Singh, CC ’09, who was raised mostly attending his mother’s Hindu temple, is still investigating the religion. But that’s okay—a “Sikh” is, by etymology, a “learner.” The religion has a vast and flexible definition of God and relatively relaxed code of behavior.
The SSA lay dormant between 2002 and spring 2008, at which point it was reactivated “with really, really, like, really, really small expectations,” according to Sachdej. The club’s funds are currently frozen because the small executive board always had scheduling conflicts that prevented them from attending SGB meetings. The club does not meet regularly, though it recently co-sponsored a vigil for the terrorist victims in Mumbai.
Though the finance trouble makes co-sponsoring difficult, communication with other South Asian cultural groups is fairly simple. Sachdej works on the executive board of Club Zamana and dances with CU Bhangra. On the way home from Bhangra practice last year, the SSA’s former president cornered him in an elevator and, quite without consulting him, tagged him as the new president.
Nevertheless, for Sachdej, this is the largest Sikh community he’s ever encountered. He was born and raised in Guam, where his extended family constituted the entire Sikh population. Determined to expand his group, Sachdej keeps a weather eye out for anyone wearing a turban or iron bangle.
The Mormons on campus use other signs to identify their fellow worshippers. Evan Johnson, GSAS ’09, encountered his first Columbia Mormon when a friend recognized he was LDS because he used the word “freakin” to avoid the more profane alternative.
But of all the small religious groups on campus, the Latter Day Saints Students Association is certainly the most visible. The club president, Alex Cheung, CC ’10, and Jane Wilson, Law ’11, often staff a Meet the Mormons table on the Lerner ramps.
They are open to debate and friendly to questions, but also wired to convert. While this reporter was chatting at the table, Cheung slowly and without explanation pushed his laptop toward me. On screen was a man speaking.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s a member of the Church. He’s giving his testimony,” he replied.
Perhaps it’s only habit. Most young Mormons serve a two-year mission, during which they study scripture for three hours a day and proselytize nine hours a day, often in a language they picked up in two to three months of training.
The LDSSA gathers every Tuesday—religiously—for Institute, their scripture study. While only seven people attended one meeting The Blue and White visited, it must be among the most racially diverse on campus. The Columbia student population is small, supplemented by missionaries doing their service in New York as well as recently converted neighborhood folk. But however disparate their origins, the Mormons are remarkably uniform in presentation; clean and perky, and they all read aloud with confidence, a skill cultivated in years of group religious study. Sharlieka Williams, who is planning on being baptized this month, stumbled while she read and bit her fingernails down to the quick. Still, it is the comfort of this kind of group that has brought her to the church. “They talk and greet you and love you,” she explained in an e-mail.
Evidently, the open-arms strategy has been successful. “We’ve had baptisms every few weeks, every other week lately,” said Sister Johanson. When Mormons are on mission, they are referred to as either “Sister,” “Brother,” or “Elder.”
Chris Haueter, SEAS’12, insists that Columbia and New York are not inhospitable to his faith. “It’s not hostile. I’ve never, ever felt any opposition to my belief,” he said. Nevertheless, it must be difficult to stand in opposition to so many of the school’s and the city’s cultural norms. Work—including homework—is not allowed on Sundays. The precept called the Word of Wisdom forbids the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine.
One of the potential converts, Karen, who asked that her last name not be printed, had a question about the Word of Wisdom. “I thought it extended to not being able to eat chili peppers,” she said. The Mormons were happy to clear the matter up—it did not.
“The LDS Church and the Jewish religion have one thing in common. We believe that the more educated you are, the more devout you become,” explained Cheung, paraphrasing a lecture by a Harvard professor who addressed his mission group. But the textual discussion in Institute falls short of exegesis.
“It inspires me to know that Joseph Smith was so young and so uneducated when he saw his vision,” said Cheung. Sister Diray concurred, and affirmed with a smile, “I’m so blessed.”
“I had been to so many churches before,” said Karen. “Why didn’t I come to the Church earlier?” It’s a difficult question to answer, but Wilson immediately knew where to turn. “First Nephi, 11:17.”
It turned out that Karen had a fairly clear idea of why she had come to Institute. “I saw a special on TV about Mormons and I thought, I think I’m going to join that church,” she recounted.
“That’s awesome,” replied Cheung, who admits he was so touched by the same PBS documentary that he bawled in front of the television.
The meeting was only scheduled to last an hour, but Haueter and Cheung stayed late to answer Karen’s and my questions. For their faith, they are happy to give their time. Haueter explained it best: “In every single sense, in every single way, my actions are influenced by the eternal truth.”