Why bother?

My “evil” motivations behind my involvement with the MU chapel discussions

As most AAS members know, the MU Chapel was introduced up in a bill in GSB just a few short weeks ago by Senator Jacob Johnston. After some amendments, the bill recommends that the MU adopt a policy to keep the cross and allow student groups to add additional symbols. It seems like a great solution that would encourage religious diversity, but there are potential problems. Adding more symbols could potentially lead to a messy room that isn’t useful for anyone. Who would decide which symbols were “legitimate” or not? Should the cross maintain its status as a large permanent object while the other symbols are temporary and small? Who would pay for the additional symbols? There are so many questions that I’m not sure if adding more symbols is truly a viable way to make the chapel a space for all students, not just some. So, I’m trying collect input from students to help answer those questions, not as the President of AAS, but just as an interested person who wants to help!

There are also potentially problems with the chapel as it currently exists other than the presence or absence of symbols. For example, the pews take up the majority of floor space, meaning that students who do not practice their spirituality while seated in a chair might not be able to use the space. I say potentially because there just didn’t seem to be enough input from students of a variety of faiths or no faith in order to make any generalizations about it.

Quite a few members of AAS expressed that they didn’t feel that the space was usable to them, and some phone calls to the leaders of different religious student groups quickly led me to realize that this isn’t just “an atheist thing”. The chapel is currently an exclusively Christian space, even with the little curtain drawn, which means that many students aren’t currently able to use it. Are there students who don’t have their spiritual needs met by the chapel as it currently exists, particularly if their spiritual needs aren’t met off campus? If we’re going to have a chapel in acknowledgment of the spiritual needs of students, should the chapel be inviting to people of more than one religion? Again, more questions than I have answers.

In an effort to start some dialogue within the student body, I organized two interfaith discussions about the chapel. The discussions were very meaningful, with persons from a variety of viewpoints sharing what they would like to see or not see in a student run spiritual space. Happily, many of the people who attended the discussions are interested in continuing interfaith discussions at ISU on a variety of topics, including the chapel. We collectively came up with a variety of ideas and options that might help make the space available for more students while keeping with the original intent of the chapel – to honor the fallen soldiers and to provide a quiet reflection space for students. As a veteran myself, I feel that the connection of the chapel to the Gold Star Hall is certainly something to be maintained and possibly even emphasized. We also were careful to only consider ideas that would have as small a financial cost as possible.

One idea was simply to find reflection spaces designed for use by people of many faiths and of no faith that may already exist, such as in hospitals and airports. For example, this chapel is at Shore Memorial Hospital in New Jersey. It’s a beautiful and obviously spiritual space that doesn’t promote any particular religion or lack of religion. The ideas discussed by the participants will be presented to GSB, assuming they grant me time to speak, at the meeting on Wednesday.

Still, input from only about 30 students total did not seem like enough, so I sent out a mass email to all ISU students with a request to fill out a short survey. The survey questions were written to be as broad and open as possible to allow students freedom to express their opinions while hopefully allowing me to quickly summarize the information for presentation to GSB and the Board of the Memorial Union (again, assuming they grant me time to speak). Perhaps this wasn’t the best written survey, but I did the best I could on my own. I was hoping that this would be the springboard for more discussion, not the end of it.

So far, the response has been excellent! There are over 500 responses, and the letter only went out about 6 hours ago as of this post. Some of the responses have been thoughtful, careful examinations of how the respondent uses the chapel and how it may or may not be accessible to other students. Some students give specific suggestions for how to make the chapel an inviting space for our entire student body. Many students share exactly what they like about the chapel – the most common response is that the quiet of the room is greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, there are also a lot of angry responses and a lot of people making assumptions and accusations without explaining why they feel that way, which isn’t constructive at all. A lot of respondents simply say that they personally are a Christian so the chapel should be left that the way it is. Some even say that the curtain should be removed because the cross should never be hidden. Some people suggest that another location be set aside for non-Christians. One person even suggested that changing the chapel was akin to killing people! On the other extreme is people who think the chapel should be turned into a computer lab or office space.

I personally feel that there is a middle path that will work for as many students as possible, but it will take more discussion to find it. I hope that some of the respondents will take the time to get involved in future discussions about religious diversity at Iowa State University.

— An abridged version of this post was sent to the ISU Daily as a Letter to the Editor. For posterity, below is what I submitted. —

As most Daily readers members know, Senator Jacob Johnston introduced the MU chapel in a GSB bill. The amended bill recommends that the MU adopt a policy to keep the cross and allow student groups to add additional symbols. It seems like a great solution that would encourage religious diversity, but there are potential problems. Adding more symbols could lead to a messy room that isn’t useful for anyone. Who would decide which symbols were legitimate or not? Should the cross maintain its status as a large permanent object while the other symbols are temporary and small? Who would pay for the additional symbols? There are so many questions that maybe adding more symbols isn’t a viable way to make the chapel a space for all students.

There are also potentially problems with the chapel as it currently exists other than the presence or absence of symbols. For example, the pews take up the majority of floor space, meaning that students who do not practice their spirituality while seated in a chair might not be able to use the space. There just didn’t seem to be enough input from students of a variety of faiths or no faith in order to make decisions about the chapel. In an attempt to gather input from more students, I organized two interfaith discussions and sent out a campus wide email with a short survey. The goal is to present the ideas from the students to GSB and the MU Board of Directors, if they grant me time, to hopefully aid them in making any decisions about the chapel.

The response to the survey has been excellent – thank you to those of you who took a minute to share your thoughts! Some responses have been thoughtful examinations of how they use the chapel and how it may or may not be accessible to other students. Some students give specific suggestions for how to make the chapel an inviting space for our entire student body. Many students share exactly what they like about the chapel – the most common response is the quietness. A lot of respondents simply say that they personally are a Christian, and/or that the chapel designer was a Christian, so the chapel should be left the way it is. On the other extreme is people who think the chapel should be turned into a computer lab or office space. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of angry responses, people making assumptions and accusations without explaining why they feel that way, which isn’t constructive at all.

I personally feel that there is a middle path that will make the chapel a special place for as many students as possible, but it will take more discussion to find it. I hope that many of the respondents to the survey will take the time to get involved in future discussions about religious diversity at Iowa State University, whether or not they result in changes in one room on campus.

One opportunity to have a discussion with people from diverse faiths and without faith is at “Brews and Views” on Monday Nov 16 at 7pm at Old Chicago. This event was organized by a diverse group of students as a way for us to learn from each other and make new friends. This month’s discussion topic is “Pluralism and Evangelism”. I hope to see you there!

Advertisements

One comment on “Why bother?

  1. Anastasia, thank you so much for all that you have done and surely continue to do on the chapel issue. I’m really pleased to see how much dialog has occurred.

    Warmly,

    Kevin Zimmerman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s