Over the summer, while most Cornellians only had a faint thought of returning to campus in the back of their minds, a change was taking place within an organization that encompasses thousands, from students to administrators to faculty, staff and the Ithaca-area community.
Last June, Rev. Robert Johnson, director of the Cornell United Religious Work (CURW) since 1982, announced that he was leaving his position and retiring. Consequently, the University named Baptist Rev. Kenneth I. Clarke, former director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs at Pennsylvania State University, as the new CURW director.
“He comes with strong experience from Penn State and I think he’s well equipped to lead the CURW,” Johnson noted.
Clarke will need this experience because he will be directing one of the most unique administrative programs in the country. The CURW oversees 25 individual member religious organizations, including representation of several Protestant denominations (including Orthodox communities and University based Christian fellowships), Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Unitarian-Universalist and Hindu from one building, Anabel Taylor Hall.
At Penn State, Clarke was the primary administrator for the Helen Eakin Eisenhower Chapel as well as a part-time instructor for Africa/African-American Studies, (which he plans to continue here, “I would explore establishing some formal linkages with the Africana Studies and Research Center, given my background at Penn State.”) Clarke’s new staff agrees that his experience prepared him well for the position but they also noted that Johnson’s shoes would be quite hard to fill. “When I arrived [Johnson] had been here for 19 years. He had created a lot of internal connections in the University. So you always worry for someone coming to this very big place and how they’ll pick up the work that has already been established,” said Unitarian-Universalist Rev. Janet Shortall, the associate director for the CURW.
During an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon outside Sage Chapel after the 11:00 a.m. service, Clarke, along with Shortall, shook the chapel attendants’ hands and talked with them about his entrance and forthcoming work. While most students prepared to return to campus for the next semester, Clarke had already began doing this work, sinking into his role as new director.
“My adjustment’s been helped by just having this wonderful welcoming by my core staff, chaplains, faculty, staff and senior level administrators. It’s been a very positive affirming welcome in that it’s helped me to navigate the University and be a part of a unique institution,” Clarke said.
His welcome worked so well that the CURW staff praised his ability to start from scratch at a new college and work to build the connections he’ll need throughout his tenure.
“In a brief time, he’s hit the ground running, meeting with faculty staff and students. This semester he led a discussion group on [Jared Diamond’s] Guns, Germs and Steel. He’s the kind of person who just gets out and talks to people one on one. Don’t expect to find him in his office too much,” Shortall said with a laugh.
It is this energy that may affect the thousands of people who fall in the aforementioned denominations, for Clarke and his staff want to bring the CURW and, in general the religious constituencies it represents, from the end of Ho Plaza at Anabel Taylor Hall to a central, and vocal, aspect of campus life. “The fact that [Anabel Taylor Hall] is somewhat located on the perimeter of campus is sometimes internalized for students. How do we find ways to establish a religious presence that’s not reacting to what’s in the center but is actively engaged as a co-partner,” Shortall said.
However, as many leaders of campus religious groups acknowledge, bringing the CURW and its work into a more active role at Cornell will be difficult. They understand that while they are attuned to the social and educational aspects of college life, they are concerned with a far more different region of the University’s consciousness, its religion.
“It’s the most stereotypical thing. We kind of laugh about it in the office,” said Adam Waldman ’04, public relations director for the Cornell Hillel, an organization that focuses on the cultural and community aspects of Judaism. Waldman notes that the Hillel, which currently has around 3,000 plus members still creates programs and services to get as many people of Jewish heritage and faith at Cornell to regularly participate. Waldman finds that creating a complete sense of community, based on their common religion, is one of the Hillel’s main goals.
“People will go [to events] who don’t go to services or don’t really identify with the religious end of being Jewish but [when they attend an event] they’ve met somebody [from the Hillel] and now they’ve got something to do with the organization,” Waldman said. While the Hillel plans many events to celebrate its religious celebrations with the help of other Jewish organizations on campus, such as the Center for Jewish Living, members find that getting others involved is one key aspect in growing as a community.
Vasanth Sriram ’04, president of the SHRI: Society for Hindu Religious Interest, finds that while this is true, his organization mainly provides activities for its members to help them continue the practice of their Hindu religion on campus.
“We felt that entering Cornell for us that there was something missing. We had practiced our religion with [our communities] all our lives and now we didn’t have that,” Sriram said speaking for those that also helped establish the SHRI last January. They currently have around 60 to 70 members while more are joining at a rapid rate. He witnesses that through the practice of their faith, the more people who want to practice with them will grow.
“Our events are not to recruit people but rather it’s what people have done all their lives, so now we’re just doing it here,” he added.
Clarke said he is pleased to know that students are able to utilize these organizations in order to continue their spiritual lives at school. “I think it’s important when institutions are able to send a signal to students that they do not have to check their religion at the gates when they enter and pick it up after commencement. I think that it’s important that we provide that kind of symbolism but also the opportunity for the practice of religion at Cornell through [the CURW],” Clarke noted.
Shortall finds that this access to religion not only allows students to find a good basis to strengthen their ties to a community but also allows them to look within themselves and discover what their own preferences are. “There’s still a fairly significant number of students who are more comfortable saying, ‘I consider myself spiritual’ and sometimes that means they’re comfortable with saying that ‘I’m religious’ and sometimes they’re not so sure about what it means to be religious,” she said.
Students who reside in Wesley House also try to figure out what it means to be religious but they do so on a weekly basis as recommended by the guidelines of their collective, the Protestant Cooperative Ministry. “I think that you have to be in the right time and place in your life to practice organized religion and, for some people, college is not the right time [for religion],” said Jill Wason ’03, who lives in Wesley House.
For Wason, religion makes up her surroundings because while her house is sponsored by the U.S. Presbyterian Church, United Methodist Church, United of Church of Christ and the American Baptists, the residents of similar faiths must go to faith services at area churches weekly and they take part in ‘celebrations’ that emphasize their common religious denominations.
House director John Glauber ’02 notes that while this common religion may seem rather segregated, the house accepts
and appreciates the diversity among its members. “You’re around people who may have similar beliefs but can still challenge you in what you believe,” Glauber said.
Father Michael Mahler, pastor for the around 850 member Cornell Catholic Community agrees, adding that Catholic students are free to challenge what they believe at their own pace and ask how their religion can best serve them. “Students who are searching for rooted-ness in a faith tradition find that they can explore Catholicism on their own schedule without pressure to convert and with respect for where their decisions of conscience are leading them,” he said.
Nevertheless, since when has searching for your own personal theology been a marker of life on a college campus? It’s a question that Joseph Cheung ’02, the president of the Chinese Bible Study feels is slowly becoming less relevant as times change. “[College students are] kind of at the center of changing culture and church and religion is considered the enemy [by young people]. I believe that that stigma was there and is there,” Cheung said.
He believes that through programs, such as the numerous Christian campus group organized Flood of Faith evangelical celebration to be held in Barton Hall later this month, this idea of a stigma on being outwardly religious is waning.
Pastor Sonya Hicks, who is an affiliate coordinator of African-American worship for the CURW agrees that while trends may be losing steam that won’t automatically fill church pews. “People have to want to come,” Hicks notes succinctly.
Clarke and Shortall believe that people will want to participate in greater numbers at Cornell’s many religious services, through the CURW, in order to create a complete understanding of who they are combining the educational, social and spiritual sides of themselves. This is an idea that Cheung describes as a feeling that, “friends will only go so far.”
“I think [religious life] can call people to understand what they are connected to and that there are connected to something larger than their own individual spirit or the orbit of their friends and relations,” Clarke said.
Shortall feels that this knowledge allows the religious student the ability to traverse the at times harsh environment of Cornell while growing as a person.
“You could have highly talented, highly intelligent persons feeling isolated or feeling that they don’t really have much to offer. When those things are left to brew on their own, we can have very capable students in profound crisis. I don’t think religion is the only resource available but it’s a vital one. It brings the perspective that you are a somebody and finding out who you are and what it is that you’ll bring to this world is a spiritual quest,” she said.
From the perspectives of those who provide the religious experience at Cornell, this season of change is based on questions as old as time.
Archived article by Carlos Perkins