April 7, 2004

All Faiths Welcome To Worship at C.U.

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Anabel Taylor Hall, built in 1894, still bears its founder, Myron C. Taylor’s, statement of purpose on its stone walls: “Religion is the greatest force in the world today. Anabel Taylor Hall, as an interfaith center, is built on the simple conception that we are all believers in God and human liberty, and that people of all faiths must stand together for good and against evil.”

Today, the building is the home of Cornell United Religious Work, which encompasses 25 faith communities. These religious groups, ranging from the United Pagan Ministries to Southern Baptist, provide students with opportunities for worship, guidance and interfaith dialogue.

Judging from surveys that incoming freshman fill out each year, Cornell has a high amount of diversity in religious observance. Almost 70 percent of students identified themselves as associating with some religious tradition. Catholic was the most common religious preference, with 21.1 percent, and Jewish fell in second with 15.6 percent. These were followed by a number of Protestant denominations, and then Hindu and Buddhist.

Cornell has always attempted to serve students of all faiths, from its beginnings as a school not associated with a particular denomination through the current day.

“We want to be able to support spiritual growth,” said Kent Hubbell ’67, dean of students. “We try to create a climate in which there is mutual respect for the great variety of religious perspectives.”

When CURW was established in 1929, it included mainline Protestant, Catholic and Jewish groups. In the 1930s, Unitarian and Quaker groups joined CURW.

Even when there are only a small number of students involved in a particular religion, CURW does its best to accommodate their religious needs.

“We’re able to institutionally support groups that are close to the hearts of students, even if they are small,” said Rev. Janet Shortall, associate director. “All groups have an equal footing. Our non-sectarian history allows us to do it with a deep sense of integrity.”

Director Rev. Kenneth I. Clarke said he sees this religious diversity as imperative to CURW’s mission.

“CURW is important because it supports and provides a model for interfaith community and supports the importance of religious pluralism. Religious pluralism ultimately leads us to step into the spaces of people in communities of diverse faiths while remaining in one’s own faith tradition,” he said.

The chaplains meet on a regular basis to discuss their different beliefs and perspectives. This dialogue allows for intellectual inquiry on faith between students, staff and faculty.

“Our communities create an environment where critical questions can be raised in an intellectual and scholarly community where there’s also access to a wide range of disciplines that can inform and enlighten one’s faith,” Clarke said.

To provide support for students’ diverse religious backgrounds, CURW offers a number of worship services.

The first voluntary university chapel in the country, Sage Chapel now hosts weekly Sunday morning services. Speakers at these services have included Janet Reno ’60, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who is the spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, and political commentator Arianna Huffington. Preachers from many different faiths have addressed the Sage Chapel congregation and the services do not cater to any particular religious tradition.

Many of the specific worship services are held in Anabel Taylor Hall, although some are off-campus in local places of worship. Ranging from Eastern Orthodox services to Muslim prayers, practicing religion comes in many forms through CURW.

The 49 chaplains on staff support students in their spiritual walks. When hired, they sign a covenant in which they promise to provide leadership, council and encouragement to people in the Cornell community. They also pledge to foster interfaith respect and actively respond to ethical issues in the community.

Shortall and others see the chaplains’ purpose as providing a witness to people’s spiritual journeys without proselytizing. “Being a witness to all of these stories is a privilege,” said Rev. Robert Smith, a Catholic chaplain.

Chaplains engage students as both guides and peers in the faith. “The most effective chaplaincies … are dispelling the notion that there are religious experts,” Shortall said. “But instead, [there] are people asking thoughtful questions who are willing to stay in the discussion as those questions are engaged.”

Although all of the chaplains are available for counseling, their other duties often depend on their religious affiliation.

Venerable Tenzin Gephel, the Tibetan Buddhist chaplain, teaches students, staff and faculty how to meditate and leads a group in the practice. He said such services generally attract up to 13 people, some who are active Buddhists and others that are just interested in the religion.

“It gives people the opportunity to … make active the teachings of Buddha,” Gephel said. “It helps us to overcome what makes not peace, what destroys our peace.”

Smith also helps students come to a better understanding of their faith, but in a very different context. In serving the Cornell Catholic Community, with a membership of 2,700 students, Smith celebrates mass, administers sacraments, preaches, leads discussion groups and develops outreach events. Even if all of the students are not consistently active, he estimates that about 1,000 students attend one of the mass services over a period of two to three weeks.

He said that the CCC caters to Roman Catholic students but also hopes to contribute to the “great conversations” within the larger Cornell community.

“It’s one of the most ancient Christian traditions,” he said. “[It has] an enormously rich intellectual and cultural tradition.”

The Protestant Cooperative Ministry is another major Christian group within CURW. It is a multi-denominational group, with the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church and American Baptist Church all supporting it. Rev. Taryn Mattice said the purpose of PCM is to help “people to grow in their faith and reach out to others and reach out to the world.”

In addition to weekly formal worship services and large group meetings, PCM has historically been known for its concern for social justice issues, according to Mattice. The group runs a volunteer work-trip every year during spring break and sometimes another one during senior week.

PCM also runs Wesley House on North Campus, an “intentional, residential Christian community.”

Corinne Michels ’05, vice president of the student-run part of PCM, said that she lives in the house because of the sense of community it fosters.

“It kind of feels like a home in my heart, so it should be physically my home too,” she said.

Mattice is not the only chaplain who doubly serves as a club advisor. Rabbi Ed Rosenthal is both the director of Hillel and a Jewish chaplain through CURW. As a rabbi, he serves the approximately 3,500 Jewish students on campus.

“I wanted the opportunity to work with future leaders, not just of the Jewish community, but of the country,” he said, describing his reason for choosing to become a University chaplain.

Rosenthal’s favorite part of being a chaplain is “interacting with the students in every way, shape and form.”

He sees religion as serving as a source of strength for many students, allowing them to make good decisions and resist peer pressure.

“What religion provides is a constructive format and environment to say no, or yes, as the case may be,” he said.

Although they do not serve as large a group of students in comparison to the Jewish and Protestant groups, the Ithaca Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends holds its own place on campus. Better known as the Quakers, the group has no permanent leaders, and the official chaplains for Cornell serve more as contact people than pastors.

“The Quakers believe there is a light of God in every person and we’re joined in a corporate spiritual search,”
said Melody Johnson, a member.

Along with offering religious services, the Quakers also participate in a number of peace activities. In particular, they collect and maintain records of conscientious objectors. Objectors can use these files as proof of pacifist beliefs if the draft is reinstated. The variety of religions under CURW allows students the unique opportunity to interact with people holding very different perspectives from their own. However, the fact that students predominate in the CURW communities does have some disadvantages.

“We lose some things in not having more intergenerational conversations,” Mattice said. “It’s a tradeoff.”

Smith voiced a similar opinion saying, “It is a slice of the human race, but not the whole thing.” However, overall he sees the CURW community as having a positive influence on students who are involved and the campus as a whole.

“Genuine religious life leads to a deeper communion among people,” he said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher
Sun Senior Writer