April 12, 2005

CURW Begins Sage Chapel Anniversary Celebrations

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The Cornell religious community celebrated two milestones this weekend: the 130th anniversary of the dedication of Sage Chapel and the 75th anniversary of the creation of Cornell United Religious Work (CURW). A special Sunday speech by Rev. Prof. Peter Gomes at Sage Chapel commemorated the benchmarks.

“I know perfectly well why I’ve been invited to speak here today. I’m a living link to your past,” said Gomes, referring to the designing and founding of Sage Chapel by Harvard’s James Babcock in 1875. A minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church for 35 years and a noted speaker and author, Gomes delivered his address, entitled “So Far, So Good, So What?”

The often tongue-in-cheek sermon praised the progress of Sage Chapel throughout the years and the courage it takes to keep one’s faith in the heart of an institution that believes “either we know it or we can figure it out, and if we can’t then it’s not worth knowing.”

As a minister at another church in the heart of a progressive and powerful research university, Gomes spoke on trials of preserving the need for nontangible spiritual enlightenment in such an environment, comparing worshippers to radicals “flying in the face of convention.”

“The most precious research building of all on this campus is this chapel, because it invests in the future,” said Gomes.

In an earlier interview, Rev. Kenneth Clarke, director of CURW, spoke on the excitement and magnitude of the 75th birthday of the organization, calling it “perhaps the first intentionally nonsectarian religious organization on an American campus.”

Clarke said the CURW was founded on “a notion of faith and understanding, providing one umbrella as opposed to a loose confederation.”

Cornell has always been famous for its open and non-exlusionary religious principles since its creation by A.D. White and Ezra Cornell, earning it criticism at the time as a “godless institution.” Though originally created to accommodate all forms of Protestantism, Catholic and Jewish faiths were well represented by the CURW’s inception in 1929 with 26 faiths represented today.

Clarke talked about the proud tradition in addressing religious and social needs in the community. During the 1960s “CURW was involved in addressing tensions on campus with race and the Vietnam War.” Since CURW then performed many of the duties of the Public Service Center, it was often a mediator and was “vibrant with activism.”

CURW has continued to be active in the community. The groups MECCA and Hillel completed a mosaic for Anabel Taylor’s One World Room. The effort won the 2003 Perkins Prize, given for efforts to increase intercultural understanding. Early planning is also going on for an “interfaith service of thanksgiving” that will be held early in the fall and hopefully become a tradition.

Clarke called these two anniversaries a good time to look at the religious challenges facing us today given the religious feuding and turmoil in our times.

“We must look for a more depthful understanding of each other,” said Clarke. “It is most moving to see people moving beyond courtesy to engage each other deeply.”

The anniversary continues this week when Karen Armstrong will also be delivering an address at Sage Chapel Thursday afternoon in honor of 75 years of CURW titled “God and the Religious Quest for Humanity.”

Archived article by Stephen Nelson
Sun Contributor