‘Carving out community’: religious life on campus

The interior of Herrick Memorial Chapel and Interfaith Center on Tuesday, Nov, 20th, 2018, at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Kathy Ou/ The Occidental

The prayer room in the Lower Herrick Chapel is quiet. According to Julia Carrigan (sophomore), hardly anyone goes in.

Carrigan was one of the main people involved in creating the room. With a couch, a small library and even a tea station, Carrigan said she hopes more people will start to use it.

Carrigan said she converted to Islam at around the same time she was accepted into Occidental, and according to Carrigan, the most difficult part of being at Occidental is being Muslim. Carrigan said the experience can be lonely, as there are few Muslims on campus.

According to Carrigan, being religious at college in general, and not just at Occidental, is a difficult endeavor. Carrigan said that a stereotypical college experience does not align with many of her values.

“There are some people who are pretty anti-religion,” Carrigan said. “I know that our purpose in life is to serve God, and to be walking around this whole campus and having everybody act like it’s not true, it’s very disorienting.”

Mimi Chen (first year) said that being Christian at Occidental can also be difficult.

“I don’t actually share my faith with people unless it’s brought up,” Chen said. “I think that also comes from fear of judgment, especially since Christians do have a bad rap.”

Chen said she has also felt this pressure academically, not just socially.

“I was in a history class one time, and my professor started talking badly about the Bible, and I was like ‘Maybe I shouldn’t bring up things about me being Christian,’” Chen said.

Chen said the harmful actions of other Christians do not reflect her personal faith.

“My understanding of Christianity for myself is my own relationship with God. I don’t think that those people who did those bad things did it to further strengthen their relationship with God,” Chen said. “I don’t associate those people with Christianity.”

Zachary Goldsmith (junior) said religious people on campus have little support. Recently, Occidental released an updated Policy on Academic Accommodations for Reasons of Faith and Conscience, which allows students up to two days of excused absences for religious reasons per academic year. But, according to Goldsmith, two days is not enough.

“Two days per year is not tenable for religious students. Rosh Hashanah is two days. For the past couple years, I haven’t been able to celebrate that second day because of the policy,” Goldsmith said. “They’re doing the bare minimum.”

According to Goldsmith, this has inspired him to carve out a community of his own, including celebrating Rosh Hashanah and other holidays with other Jewish students on campus.

For Noah Willis (junior), the lack of support is felt daily. Willis is unable to eat any meat served on campus as it is not kosher. But Willis said that he came to Occidental for other reasons, not a kosher diet.

“It’s just annoying for me,” Willis said. “But why should they have to keep their kitchen clean for me?”

Willis said that he did not necessarily look to the college for support, but from outside sources, such as friends, and his religion itself.

“That’s a lot of what Judaism is about,” Willis said. “It’s not about following every law to a tee. It’s about creating a meaningful experience for yourself based on what you believe in.”

Joaquín Madrid Larrañaga (senior) also said that he does not look to the college for religious support, as he finds support in his relationship with God. Larrañaga said he believes that there is no cavernous divide between the secular and the religious.

“There are so many different faiths and faith backgrounds, and I would argue that the vast majority of Oxy’s population is spiritual,” Larrañaga said. “I think that college is also about finding your beliefs and figuring out how you want to go through life and faith.”

This feeling is shared by Dr. Reverend Susan Young, who said that the college’s Office for Religious & Spiritual Life supports all students on campus, no matter their background. Young said that many of the students she works with are not religious.

“Our office tries to support students wherever they define themselves or identify on the religious spectrum,” Young said. “Being on some of the larger campus committees around diversity and equity has allowed me to develop relationships with students who might care about justice issues but aren’t religious.”

Young said that the Office for Religious & Spiritual Life supports secular groups at Occidental, such as the Student Grief Group, as well as religious groups. Young said that she is also available as a confidential resource for all students.

Recently, Carrigan was hired as the religious life liaison for the Diversity and Equity Board (DEB). According to Carrigan, in DEB’s 2022–2023 Mid-Year Student Needs Report, the role was made to support religious students.

“I’m getting to do good work for God that is making a change and having a meaningful impact on people’s lives, which is, of course, all I’ve ever wanted out of work,” Carrigan said.

Contact Sebastian Lechner at slechner@oxy.edu.


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