When Harvard College was founded to educate aspiring Protestant ministers in the seventeenth century, its supporters could hardly have imagined a day when religious faith was not the center and the purpose of students' lives and vocations. Three hundred and sixty years later, religious imperatives have disappeared from Harvard's declared mission, and it seems the University could hardly be more removed from its Puritan origins.
But its institutional secularization over time is only one aspect of Harvard's religious transformation. While Harvard is officially a nonreligious entity, religious and spiritual life continues to play a significant role in its students' experience—only now, an astonishing diversity of beliefs and traditions flourish on campus. In any given week, numerous students gather together to pray, to study the Bible or the Torah or the Koran, to work on public service projects as an expression of their faith, to discuss how to live in accordance with their beliefs.
On a personal level, many students find that their faith helps them to navigate the difficult transition between high school and college life. Scott Sugino '96 found solace in his religion when he arrived at Harvard as a freshman. "In high school, I was very sheltered, I wasn't exposed to many problems. Then when I came to college, I actually had to apply the things I had read in my Bible and that others had shared with me. Living away from home and being away from your friends and family for the first time, you have to learn to live out what you believe." For Sugino, the Asian-American Christian Fellowship has been "like a family. It's kind of like a home away from home—a lot of people develop very close friendships."
Rick Spalding, Presbyterian chaplain of the United Ministry at Harvard and Radcliffe, says that in the years he has counseled students, he has encountered questions about everything from finding meaning in academic work, to overcoming grief or guilt, to handling sexual experiences. "Broadly, I get many questions about meaning—what is the meaning of my life, what does it mean if I make such-and-such a commitment, what does love mean, what does anger mean," he says. Each year, several students come to him frustrated with the isolation from "the real world" that they experience in the daily grind of studying and writing papers and taking exams. Others come seeking help for friends who are involved in destructive religious groups or cults. Some students seek guidance as they are coming to terms with their sexual orientation. Spalding says he appreciates the opportunity to "help those who are discovering that they are gay or lesbian, to help them understand that that's not an obstacle to their blessedness in God's eyes. And God knows there's a lot of that kind of work to do."
Harvard has had mixed success in accommodating the needs of students whose religious observance requires special facilities or creative scheduling. Says Rabbi David Starr of the Jewish student organization, Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, "The kinds of things that committed Jewish people require in terms of basic facilities—kashruth, other ritual kinds of considerations, a critical mass of students—all those things are here." For the Harvard Islamic Society, on the other hand, simply finding a permanent space in which students can fulfill their obligation to pray five times daily has been difficult. For the past two years, Muslim students have made do with whatever rooms are available, a circumstance that has stunted the society's growth, according to vice president Aasma Khandekar '96. "It's hard," she says, "because when I first came here, we had our own space, so we had a lot more activities, speakers, service projects. Not having a permanent space makes it more difficult to mobilize as a community." Still, despite this obstacle, Muslim students have maintained a tutoring program, sponsored a successful clothing drive for Bosnians, and met each Friday for congregational prayer— this year in the penthouse of Hilles Library.
Academic schedules that conflict with religious observance are an issue for both Jewish and Muslim students. Each fall, observant Jewish students miss classes during the High Holidays. "It's difficult to miss three or four lectures of a given class," says Hillel chair Ethan Tucker '97. "It's hard in general, because the culture of Harvard is sort of areligious in the sense that all time is a blank slate, without a sense of whether Sunday or Saturday or Friday is a day off." Muslim students must find time five times each day to pray, and during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, cannot consume food or drink during the daylight hours. This year, Ramadan begins at an especially inopportune time—the middle of final exams. "It can be physically taxing," Khandekar says, "so we'll try to encourage each other to stay strong and eat well at night. It has been a very long time since Ramadan has fallen during exams, so we'll see."
Aside from scheduling conflicts, reconciling academic norms with religious mores is a challenge many religious students face. "In some ways, it is a different way of looking at the world," says Maame Ewusi-Mensah '97. "In scientific fields, people are very concerned with studying things just to find out about them, and they see beauty in that. I see beauty in that, too, but for me it is because I see all of those things as being created by God." Sugino, a government concentrator, has noticed an absence of discussion about religion in his courses, and wishes his professors were more willing to challenge students to think about the implications of their beliefs. "In some senses, the academic atmosphere is a little intimidating for me as a Christian," he says. "A lot of people don't think that God should be a part of the classroom, they think that religion is a personal issue and should be kept to yourself." Says Marco V. Perez '96, vice president of the Catholic Students Association, "I think it's perfectly okay to come into a class with your religious beliefs and be open to new ideas that are being presented. Being challenged in those ways is an opportunity to grow in your faith."
For many religious students, extracurricular activities center around their faith. One evening each week, Ewusi-Mensah meets with several other women to study the Bible, discuss how to live in accordance with its teachings, and offer general support and friendship. "The purpose of our group is not just to study the Bible—we also support each other, pray about each other's problems," she says. Two nights a week she attends rehearsals for Kuumba Singers, an African-American gospel choir, and she journeys to Dorchester Temple Baptist Church weekly to tutor children for Project 21, a program designed to ensure that each child reaches the age of 21 and is well-prepared for the twenty-first century.
Like Ewusi-Mensah, many students see community service as a vital expression of their faith. Marco Perez participates in a one-on-one tutoring program for inner-city Boston students through the Catholic Students Association that he describes as "extremely influential in my life. I realized that to have faith means to have a system in which you have defined what is the good. If social justice is a part of what you believe to be good, working for social justice is a way of acting on your faith." Perez perceives this commitment to serving the community as a common element uniting all religious groups. "All religions fundamentally have common moral values. The beauty of what we have here at Harvard with so many people of different religions is we have a community in which we can work to accomplish these moral goals."
This sentiment inspired Perez and Naomi Stern '97 to found a new student organization, the Interfaith Forum, last spring, with the goal of bringing students of different faiths together to educate each other and to collaborate on service projects. Stern, a member of the committee on inter-ethnic activities at Hillel, has been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic student response to the interfaith effort. "It's drawing more people than I would have expected—it seems to have tapped into something," she says. "Even many people who are not necessarily allied with a specific religious group are interested." Hillel chair Ethan Tucker has high hopes for the group. "I would love it if the Interfaith Forum could be the epicenter for social change based on a religious imperative," he says.
If nothing else, the Forum's members agree, their organization will provide a venue in which to discuss religion— something that many religious students see as missing from the Harvard campus. "The prevailing academic view is that rational, public-spirited people aren't religious—at least that's what I've gotten in my classes," says Janna Hansen '97, a member of Christian Impact, Christian Fellowship, Faith and Service Together (FAST), and Project 21. "Religion just doesn't come up at all, it's just not something that's discussed." Rev. Rick Spalding sees spirituality as a missing dimension in Harvard's educational mission. "Harvard would consider itself seriously diminished if it didn't offer education of the body, certainly education of the mind," he points out. "What about education of the spirit?"
The many facets of Harvard life often seem segmented or separated from one another, with academics, sports, extracurriculars, and social life occupying distinct slots in a busy schedule. But religious students are adamant that their faith is inseparable from all aspects of their existence. "My religious faith is not something separate," Scott Sugino says. "My beliefs really do extend to all other parts of my life—my friends, things we do, things we talk about." Aasma Khandekar feels similarly. "We think of Islam as a way of life. It's so important to our daily practice—we pray five times a day, we observe a special diet, our entire lives we are supposed to remember God."
"It frustrates me that people see Christianity as just another part of your identity," says Maame Ewusi-Mensah. "For me, it's my whole way of life, my whole way of looking at the world."
Ledecky Fellow Serena Mayeri '97 is a social studies concentrator living in Adams House.
You might also like
Genetic analysis reveals a culture enriched from both sides of the Danube.
Harvard researchers illuminate a longstanding epidemiological connection.
Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences broaches two tough topics.
More to explore
Expect massive job losses in industries associated with fossil fuels. The time to get ready is now.
A third-generation French baker on legacy loaves and the "magic" of baking
Generative AI can enhance teaching and learning but augurs a shift to oral forms of student assessment.