Coming into faith

BY BEN MARKS | APRIL 27, 2015 5:00 AM

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When Quentin Hill entered the University of Iowa as a freshman, he was an atheist. Now, nearing his time to leave as a senior, he does so as a Jew.

Originally a Baptist, during his first year at the UI, junior Asaju Walker became a Muslim.

While also at the university, senior Joe Rajchel went from atheist to spiritual, and sophomore Jessica Graff went from New Thought Christianity to Pentecostal.

From belief to another, each of these students has undergone radical shifts in both faith and lifestyle during their time at college accomplishing something a rising number of young people aren’t — not only maintaining a faith in college, but developing one.

According to the most recent Gallup Poll, 16 percent of adults in the U.S. identify as nonreligious.

However, in 2014, nearly 28 percent of college freshmen did not identify with a religion, the highest percentage ever recorded since the Higher Education Research Institute began measuring in 1971.
The bottom line: College students are more secular now than they have ever been.

While not a shocking statistic — this trend has occurred since the 1980s — it’s easy to see why this number is worrisome to many religious institutions, which are losing young believers at ever increasing rates once they enter college.

Hector Avalos, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Iowa State University, said the idea that college liberalizes students’ religion has been seen sociologically for decades, traditionally because college is the point in students’ lives when they are exposed to a much broader world.

This happens, Avalos said, because college works like a magnifying lens, intensifying and concentrating the diversity of the nation.

 “In college, you have groups from dozens of religions, and that exposure alone can affect you,” Avalos said. “Now, you’re free to explore; you can hear other ideas.”

And although rising college secularism has been a long-term trend, Avalos said it was only accelerated with the advent of the Internet. The Internet, he said, provided students with access to a much larger database of religions and cultures much sooner than students had ever had before.

But some students are going against the grain.

• • •

Walker enters the Iowa City Mosque on a Sunday evening. After a ritual cleanse, he chats with the people milling around.Salaam, they say. Eventually, as he does in his own apartment, Walker faces east toward Mecca and begins praying.

Although Baptist throughout high school, Walker had been interested in Islam as a culture and said it was hard to reconcile the depictions of Muslims shown in the media in the aftermath of 9/11 with the Muslims he knew.

“This didn’t make sense to me, because the people I was meeting were a lot kinder to me than almost any of the American Christian students I knew,” he said. “The sense of community and brother- and sisterhood they showed each other didn’t seem like a terrorist’s ideal lifestyle, so I would ask them tons of questions.”

Eventually Walker enrolled in Kirkwood Community College to pursue biomedical engineering, and he said by his second year there, he had abandoned his Baptist roots.

“Ultimately being born into something doesn’t mean that’s what resonates with you,” he said. “When you’re little, it was good for teaching you sharing, caring, treating thy neighbor as you would like to be treated, and I still held those values, but [Christianity] didn’t feel right anymore.”

However, while he no longer practices any religion, Walker continued to interact with Muslim students, who, he said, provided a lot of the support and community he looked for, something that he never found in Christianity.

“If you were having hard times with something, it was always, ‘We’ll pray for you,’ but you never actually saw any of these people physically show up,” he said. “But with Muslim people, it’s constant community, constant support.”

In Islam, Walker said he felt accepted and welcomed.

Because Walker had spent years exploring Islam as a culture, when he told his parents he was converting, he said, they were less shocked and were instead equally concerned, confused, and accepting.

His mother, he said, was concerned about his safety as a member of a group hated by mainstream America, as well as confused about why he would turn away from Christianity. In the end however, she understood his decision.

 “She said, ‘Well if that’s what you feel like, you have to do to keep bettering yourself; I won’t stop you,’ ” Walker said.

His extended family, however, was not quite so accepting. “[My aunt] kind of told me I was banned from her house, and I wasn’t her nephew,” he said.

Other family members taunted and teased him about his faith.

“It hurts on one level, but being African American in America in general hurts,” he said.

“So overall you start to develop certain guards; you joke back, it gets easier to brush things off.

More so than hurt, I’m more shocked by their ignorance.”

• • •

Ultimately, despite the differences among each student, the narrative of community and inclusion that Walker said he found in Islam is repeated through each of their stories.

Finding a community in college, a place they felt as if they belonged, they said, was one of the most important aspects of their journey.

“Everything we use to make sense of the world comes from social groups,” said UI sociology Associate Professor Steven Hitlin. “Rarely do humans do well when they’re isolated; it’s one of the worst punishments you can get, such as in prison or being excommunicated from the church.”

Religion, Hitlin said, is full of the socializing and rituals that human beings are drawn to.

“Rituals for human beings seem to be very important,” he said. “Whether that’s religious, or singing the national anthem, or family rituals. Human being seem to like that, and religion is one place where all those things can exist together.”

• • •

Standing in a darkened room in the IMU, hands in the air, Graff sings her favorite hymn, “Jesus Paid it All,” to an acoustic guitar during campus ministry Chi Alpha’s Wednesday service.

Graff became a Pentecostal Christian shortly after coming to the university.

Before she was Pentecostal, however, Graff was raised as part of the Unity Church, a spiritual philosophical movement in the New Thought movement, which also created Religious Science and the Church of Divine Science.

While both Unity and Pentecostalism both classify themselves as Christian, they may be as far apart on the ideological scales as it’s possible to go.

She said she valued the feeling of family she received from her faith most.

“One of the biggest principles in Christianity is living in community,” she said. “I grew up feeling unloved and abandoned, so feeling that unconditional love by people and a family I never felt like I really had is what drew me in.”

With divorced parents and an autistic older brother she was often responsible for, Graff said her home life was “tumultuous” and said she spent a lot of high school drinking and smoking pot in an attempt to escape it. She was even arrested twice, once for chain shoplifting and once for stealing money to try to buy drinks.

She eventually left her hometown of Vienna, Virginia, for Iowa City, where she continued to party. Soon, though, she said, she began to realize it didn't fulfill her in the way she had hoped.

Immediately after her freshman Orientation, her roommate introduced her to some campus ministries such as Chi Alpha, in which, she said, she fell in love with the community.

“God runs after his sheep,” she said. “If I hadn’t gone to the University of Iowa, he would have found me no matter what — maybe a little later, or maybe at the exact same time.”

When she broke the news to her mother that she had become Pentecostal, Graff said her mother’s reaction was extremely negative.

“She disowned me. She said, ‘I don’t want you to be a part of my life anymore,' then two weeks later she decided to forgive me," Graff said.

Being at college was a blessing at this point.

“If I was living at home when this was happening, I would have lost my mind,” she said. “I came to school with a lot of baggage. But being surrounded by people who love me for who I am has been extremely positive; it’s like having a family away from home.”

• • •

At the synagogue on Friday after Shabbat service, Hill stands as candles are lit and a blessing is recited, first over wine and then over two loaves of challah bread. Afterward, surrounded by talk and laughter, he eats dinner to honor the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest.

However Hill has not always done this. Although his mother was ethnically Jewish, the family did not practice Judaism. Instead, he grew up atheist.

“Both my parents were super atheist, so I never really knew anything about it except it was a part of our ethnicities,” he said.

When Hill first told his parents about his decision, they were worried.

“There was a lot of skepticism from them about why I wanted to do this,” he said. “But I made them read a couple books, and once they got that out of the way, they’ve been really supportive.”

In fact, once his family warmed up to the idea of Judaism, Hill said his family stopped celebrating Christmas and began to celebrate Hanukkah.

During his first year on campus, some Jewish students took him to some events at Hillel, a Jewish center at Iowa.

“I think the people I met here really had an impact on me going in that direction.”

Hill said he never considered Judaism as a religion until he came to Iowa and said he doesn’t believe he would be Jewish today if he hadn’t gone to college.

Because Hill’s mother was Jewish, however, he did not have to go through the process someone converting from another religion would have. Instead, Hill pored over religious texts, reading up on his heritage and the religion that, technically, he was a member of.

“The most enriching experience about the Jewish community on this campus was I walked into an environment where no one knew me, and I immediately felt welcome,” Hill said. “It wasn’t hard for me to make friends or get involved in Hillel. It was amazing how open and accepting everyone was.”

That acceptance, he said, he never received from his experiences with Christianity.

“My dad’s side of the family is Christian, and I remember the few times I ever did have to go to church, I never felt welcome there,” he said.

One of the most important aspects of the Jewish community, Hill said, is the members’ LGBTQ acceptance.

“Being the only gay kid in a small town, you can feel everyone whispering about you, but I’ve never walked into a synagogue or an event of all Jewish people and felt like that,” he said. “People looked at me for who I am as a person and not what I represent.”

• • •

On Tuesday night, Rajchel sits down at a table filled with homemade vegan food and a dozen friends. He lights prayer candles and talks about his heart, soul and the role faith has played in his life recently.

Rajchel was raised in a strongly Catholic family. Eventually, however, he said he “fell away” from the faith, and in his junior year of high school told his parents he was an atheist.

“I became angrily atheist,” he said. “I wasn’t only like ‘God doesn’t exist,’ I went out of my way to antagonize my parents and say things I knew would upset them.”

After he moved to Iowa, Rajchel said he began to feel lost.

“All of my sophomore year, I was in a really bad place,” he said. “I didn’t know if I belonged here; I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going.”

However, when he was a junior at the UI, his friend persuaded him to attend a panel on religion and LGBTQ issues hosted by the Wesley Foundation, a Christian campus ministry.

As he attended events, he was offered a job as a Wesley programming intern, and despite his not considering himself Christian, he took it.

“It’s been a weird thing,” he said. “It’s all just fallen together, to put me in this position of being in a religious community that I never would have thought was something I’d even touch.”

Slowly however, his faith developed and grew, and while Rajchel no longer considers himself atheist, he also doesn’t consider himself Christian. Instead, he’s spiritual.

“There have been days in which I just need to walk into a church, and it doesn’t matter which one, I just need to be there,” he said.

As an example, Rajchel said, one Sunday he was late for Gloria Dei’s service, so he instead decided go to the United Church of Christ because he was walking by it.

If there’s any church Rajchel can be said to attend regularly, it’s Tuesday Table.

“There’s prayer, there’s communion, there’s community, and that feels like church, but the best kind of church, not like the church you were dragged to as a child,” he said.

Coming to college, Rajchel said, was the biggest reason his faith is where it’s currently at.

It also allowed room for questions.

“I had such a narrow upbringing in faith,” he said. “So having this more open environment has really helped. You can raise and discuss questions, and we may not find answers, but that’s OK.”

• • •

In the end, while the beliefs, gods, and traditions of each faith may be different, for these students, the search for acceptance, love, and community — the things that brought them to the place they are today — are very much the same.

The same aspects of college that drive some students away from religion  — new experiences, new people, freedom from parents, literature, science — are the same things that drive other students toward it.

“The people who end up in college are knowledge seekers; they come to define themselves and discover themselves,” Walker said. “You can’t blame the institution.”

Graff agrees.

“College encourages exploration, and I think exploration is your own personal journey,” she said. “I definitely think faith and college are compatible. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but it’s not impossible.”

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