||Members of USC’s Interfaith Council
from left: Riaz Dini, Charu Gupta, Andrew Shepherd and Onder Oor
Photographs by Joe Pugliese
Issue: Summer 2004
Leap of Faiths
USC replaced its chaplain with a dean of religious life, a spiritual
and ethical current flowed into students’ academic and social lives. A
new era of religious pluralism was born.
By Diane Krieger
students enter slowly, single-file, heads bowed, reciting in unison
their respective creeds. Out of sync but mysteriously in harmony, the
words form a serene babble (or should that be Babel?).
“O Lord! Unto Thee I repair for refuge…”
“Our Father who art in heaven…”
“Aum bhoor bhuwah swaha, tat savitur varenyam, bhargo devasaya dheemahi, dhiyo yo nah prachodayat.”
is no life, truth, intelligence nor substance in matter. All is infinite
mind and is infinite manifestation.”
“Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai eloheinu…”
“An it harm none, do as you will…”
“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar.… ”
They stop and face the congregation. One at a time, each student steps forward and declares his or her faith:
“I am a Bahá’í,” says Riaz Dini.
“I am a Christian,” says Azure Williams.
“I am a Buddhist,” says Darryl Ng.
“I am a Muslim,” says Noor Kazmi.
“I am an Atheist,” says Fong Chih.
“I am a Roman Catholic,” says Junelle Mallari.
“I am a Christian Scientist,” says Andrew Shepherd.
“I am a Hindu,” says Charu Gupta.
“I am Jewish,” says Sander Granat. And so on.
litany sets the tone for an interfaith evening, the kick-off event in
USC’s Religion on Campus Week. “You may not want to say ‘amen’ to
everything you hear tonight,” event coordinator Brigid McManama, a
non-practicing Catholic student, tells the ecumenical crowd of
worshippers. “That’s OK. We just want you to be true to your faith and
keep an open mind.”
The 90-minute service that follows is a
whirlwind tour of world religions. One minute the gospel choir Saved by
Grace is rocking the Davidson Conference Center with “Glory to God.”
The next, a young woman who identifies herself as “a pagan and a
Wiccan” is calling on the four elements to “bless this space.” A Quaker
student leads the assembly in silent worship, then starts a “hand
chain.” Ankle bells and bangles churning, a silk-garbed dancer
interprets the nine emotions of humanity as invocation to Brahma. A
Jewish student chants the Hashkiveinu,
calling down God’s shelter of peace. In dramatic monologue, a Christian
leader conjures an eye-witness account of how Jesus turned water into
wine. A young man faces east and intones the Adhan, or Muslim call to prayer. A Buddhist monk pounds ecstatically on the Dharma drum.
This spiritual potpourri is a microcosm of religious life at USC today.
It could also pass for a textbook definition of “religious pluralism.”
If you’ve never encountered the term before, think of it as the
metaphysical counterpart to multiculturalism: a live-and-let-live,
variety-is-the-spice-of-life take on the divine.
“This is a new way of looking at things,” explains USC Bahá’í religious
director Randy Dobbs. “Each faith used to think it had exclusive rights
to the truth. Now many of us accept that everyone is ‘right’ in the
spiritual sense. Every faith is valid; all have value.”
That may not sound particularly radical in a nation founded on the
Enlightenment principles of 18th-century deists and free-thinkers. But
it’s only in recent decades that Americans – and more specifically,
American college students – have been in a position to actually
practice what the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson preached.
Two hundred years ago, our universities were mostly Protestant
institutions in an overwhelmingly Protestant land. Catholics, Jews and
secularists have gained a certain foothold in American life over the
past 150 years, but it was only with the lifting of immigration bans
and quotas in the
1950s and ’60s that non-Western religions made headway in this
hemisphere. Between 1990 and 1999 alone, the Asian population grew 43
percent nationwide to 11 million. According to demographers, far more
Americans today are Hindus and Buddhists (about 500,000 each) than
Quakers or Unitarians. And there are about as many American Muslims as
American Jews (5 to 7 million), well ahead of Presbyterians and
Episcopalians (2 million each).
Laemmle is something of a celebrity among university-based religious
professionals. “They recognize that Susan is doing something special,
that she is a pioneer,” says law and religion professor Ronald Garet.
colleges have done much to accommodate what Harvard religion scholar
Diana Eck calls this “new geo-religious reality.” On a recent visit to
Yale University, USC dean of religious life Susan Laemmle found that
speaking roles at this world-class university’s freshman baccalaureate
service are always taken by the same three faiths: Protestant, Catholic
“That doesn’t make any sense!” says Laemmle,
who brought Colby College religion scholar Nikky Singh, an authority on
Sikhism, to speak at USC’s 2003 baccalaureate.
At first blush, you wouldn’t expect USC to be a trailblazer in this
arena. Like most private universities, its early history was
church-affiliated. But even in 1880, Troy’s inclusive character was
tacitly clear: its three founders – a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew
– had written into the charter that admission was to be open to all
races and all faiths.
By 1928 – the year USC formally severed ties with the Methodist Church
– Catholics and Jews already made up 15 percent of the student body. In
2004, Methodists and other mainline Protestants make up less than 20
percent of Trojan undergraduates.
None of this is really surprising given the demographics of Los
Angeles, which has to be the most spiritually diverse city on the face
of the planet. In 1999, USC religion professor emeritus John Orr
counted 600 individual faiths actively practiced in the Southland.
While the region is heavily Catholic (40 percent in 2000), who knew
this was a major center of Buddhism? With more than 300 temples, Los
Angeles is home to the world’s greatest Buddhist diversity – from
Koreans and Vietnamese to Sri Lankans and Anglo-Americans.
of religion Don Miller, whose department’s general education courses
are regularly filled to overflowing with non-religion majors. “This is
a trend all over the country,” he says. “Religion departments are
in three Angelinos today is foreign born; as the city’s population
grows, so does the number of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains and
Sikhs living here. Religious diversity is even astounding within
denominations, reports USC religion professor Don Miller, who
specializes in the effects of immigration on religion. He points to a
single Presbyterian church near the University Park campus, where
Arabic-, Tagalog-, Spanish-, Korean- and English-speaking congregations
take turns praying.
President Steven B. Sample talks about
USC as an “urban laboratory” in the heart of multicultural Los Angeles.
The same social forces make it a religious laboratory too, a place
where spiritual diversity isn’t only studied in theory but encountered
face to face.
On the gateway to the Pacific Rim, USC is now the nation’s No. 1
destination for international students. Currently 6,370 foreign
nationals study here, the majority of them coming from India, China,
South Korea and Taiwan. That’s not counting the thousands of students
who are naturalized citizens and hyphenated Americans with strong roots
in non-Western cultures and faiths.
No fewer than 57 religious groups are now active on the University Park
campus, twice the number from a decade ago. The list goes well beyond
the various flavors of Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism – though
this sturdy troika remains prominent. Growing numbers of Muslims,
Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Bahá’ís and Pagans are standing up to
be counted. Among the Christians, evangelical and pentecostal sects are
booming, while Latter Day Saints, Christian Scientists and the Seventh
Day Adventists continue to flourish. And don’t underestimate the Coptic
and Armenian Orthodox.
Even doubters are made welcome under USC’s multifaith tent. Last fall,
Laemmle birthed a new group called Soul Search, designed for students
“in quest.” With that group still in its infancy, Laemmle continues to
seek new avenues for students to discuss metaphysical questions and
spirituality outside any specific religious dogma.
Episcopal priest with a dozen years of student affairs experience at
USC, associate dean of religious life Elizabeth Davenport still
preaches monthly at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where she is an
for the hard-core non-believers, “we’re very proud of our atheists and
free-thinkers,” says associate dean of religious life Elizabeth
Davenport. She smiles. “We think of them as the loyal opposition.”
Bill Buttrey, advisor to USC’s Atheist, Humanist and Freethinker
Alliance, has no problem with being the “atheist chaplain,” as he’s
sometimes playfully called. “Our members see skepticism as a life
philosophy. That’s consistent with being part of the Office of
Religious Life,” he says.
Like all the other campus faith groups, AHFA members must adhere to
strict guidelines. High on the list: no denigrating of other faiths.
Buttrey admits that can be tricky when your belief system dictates that
every claim – be it secular or divine – be objectively tested.
Yet somehow they all get along. Much of the credit for that goes to one woman.
Sitting in her cozy office in the University Religious Center, Susan
Laemmle is a study in contradictions. On her head she wears a beaded kippah
– the skullcap worn by observant Jews. USC’s dean of religious life is
a Reform rabbi and a past director of the Hillel Jewish Center. Yet she
considers “serving as midwife” to the birth of the USC Hindu Student
Organization one of the triumphs of her deanship, now in its eighth
year and building steam.
When she began, there was no
Buddhist student group, no Hindu student group, no Muslim religious
director, no visible presence of Jains or Quakers or Unitarians or
Pagans or Wiccans. Now they’re all here.
“We’re hoping to get a Zoroastrian group going soon,” Laemmle says with a twinkle.
You may wonder, what kind of rabbi goes around recruiting for other faiths? Answer: the religious-pluralist kind.
“I love being Jewish and a rabbi,” Laemmle says, “but my particular
Jewish identity is not the issue. My role is representing all religious
and spiritual traditions equally.”
student Nidhi Agrawal, with Susan Laemmle. A political science and
biology major headed for medical school, she enrolled in a senior
seminar on religion and politics. “It was amazing.”
believes it’s vital for anyone doing this kind of work to be ordained –
“because only then can we feel in our bones the urgency and
non-negotiability of committed practice.” As for the inherent tensions
between personal faith and public responsibility, Laemmle says she
relishes the “constant oscillation between openness and drawing
boundaries, between respect and rootedness.”
Philosopher John Rawls put his finger on the dilemma in his 1996 book Political Liberalism:
“How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable
society of free and equal citizens who remain profoundly divided by
reasonable religious, philosophical and moral doctrines?” he wrote.
For Laemmle, the answer lies in “taking calculated risks by encouraging honest – even if not always full – expression.”
A more practical question is, how does one accommodate an enormous
diversity of religious needs, given limited resources and a roster of
religious advisors who aren’t on the university’s payroll?
In 1996, USC reinvented its Chaplain’s Office as an Office of Religious
Life, and replaced the university chaplain with a dean of religious
life. In addition to the traditional functions of organizing and
offering blessings at ritual occasions, providing spiritual and other
counseling and finessing the intersections of religious holy days with
the university calendar, the new job title carries the broader mission
of infusing spiritual and ethical concerns into USC’s academic and
social life. The existence of an Office of Religious Life means there’s
oversight of things that had previously been left to chance.
Not everyone is pleased with the results of religious pluralism.
Laemmle has dealt with her share of irate parents blaming USC for their
child’s apostasy. Laemmle referees such conflicts as best she can,
respecting the views of both parties. When students seek her out for
counseling, she makes a point of directing them back to their own
religious roots first. From there, the spiritual journey is
freewheeling and uncircumscribed. In many cases, says Laemmle, the
seeds of doubt have been present since high school, though carefully
hidden from parents. Living away from home allows the spiritual journey
to run its unimpeded course.
Some students today come from interfaith families, notes Davenport, and
may arrive on campus truly unclear about their own beliefs. The college
years are a time of intellectual and moral exploration. It’s naive to
imagine that spiritual exploration won’t be part of the package, says
Laemmle. Given that young people are going to explore, and that we want
them to explore, the goal is to have them explore safely, under the
supervision of accountable religious professionals and in plain view of
the university community, she argues.
When you throw the doors wide open, of course, you risk letting in
mischief makers. College campuses – and USC is no exception – are ripe
hunting grounds for religious poachers.
Laemmle keeps a watchful eye on her religious leaders. Little by
little, she has changed the climate here, regulating the practice of
leafleting- and cracking down on door-to-door proselytizing in favor of
more thoughtful kinds of religious discourse.
Even with the more aggressive sects, she finds it better to bring the
messengers into the fold than to warn them off the premises. Signing on
to the Religious Life roster means honoring a code of conduct.
The task of ministering to or advocating for a particular faith
community falls to USC’s campus religious directors. Currently, 25 such
professionals – including two rabbis, a Muslim imam, two Hindu swamis
and a Buddhist monk – work at USC. All meet monthly with Laemmle and
Davenport. They are subject to strict rules set out in a 25-page manual
ending in eight pages of contracts, regarded by many in academe as the
magna carta for achieving religious pluralism on a university campus.
This document clarified for the first time the mutual obligations of
the university and the various religious directors, and it also created
standards of practice. Groups have to adhere to truth-in-advertising
rules, for example – they can’t bill a Bible study as a social event.
They have to put their full name on every piece of publicity, every
flyer, every e-mail. They can’t preach door-to-door in residence halls
– once standard practice for some groups. And whatever they privately
think, they may not denigrate another religious group publicly.
Laemmle is something of a celebrity among university-based religious professionals thanks to her 2001 Guidelines and Governance
document. USC law and religion professor Ronald Garet was struck by
this a few years ago at a meeting of the Association for College and
University Religious Affairs.
It was clear to him that this
gathering of mostly male, almost exclusively Christian chaplains
“recognized that Susan is doing something special, that she is a
pioneer,” he says.
Judging by that homogeneous group, you’d never guess the country had
gone through 30 years of profound demographic change. The religious
establishment at American universities remains predominantly Christian.
There’s a danger in that, says Garet, himself a Protestant. Even if a
chaplain is a thoroughgoing religious pluralist, as a Christian she may
give the false impression that she speaks for the shared religious
views of the university.
It’s a problem Laemmle doesn’t have. “Because she is a rabbi rather
than a Protestant minister, I don’t think people look at Susan when she
stands up and speaks at university events and assume she’s representing
the designated faith of USC. She’s there to represent everybody,” Garet
He sees Laemmle’s “outsider” status through membership in a minority
religion as “an extraordinary opportunity to imagine how the Office of
Religious Life should relate to all the religions represented on the
campus.” Garet chairs the strategic planning committee formed last year
by the Provost’s Office and charged with the task of “thinking big” on
the broad topic of campus religious life.
One big idea already percolating to the surface is the dream of a new
multifaith center built where the University Religious Center now
True, the University Park community abounds with houses of prayer.
Within the square mile surrounding USC are no fewer than 20 religious
institutions for students to choose from. There’s St. John’s Episcopal
Church at Adams and Figueroa, but some students prefer nearby St.
Philip’s. St. Mark’s at Vermont and West 36th, with its active
community outreach, draws a fair number of civic-minded Lutherans.
students Derek and Abigail Allen, whose usual place of worship is the
Latter Day Saints church at Vermont and Jefferson, in front of the
Masjid Umar Ibn-Al Khattab, a mosque a few blocks south at Exposition.
Catholic students, besides the USC Catholic Center, there’s St. Agnes
and St. Vincent de Paul, both on Adams Boulevard. Close by are two
Mormon churches (one Spanish-speaking), a Christian Science church, a
Korean Presbyterian church, an African Methodist and a Baptist church,
the Senshin Buddhist Temple and the Umar Ibn-Al Khattab mosque – all
within easy walking distance of campus.
students, there’s the campus Hillel Center and Chabad House, along with
the abundant resources of Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary on
Hoover Boulevard that doubles as the Jewish studies department of USC.
“We consider ourselves somewhat fortunate, incidentally, that we have
no historic church in the center of campus – no Sunday services to
manage, no cruciform building to adapt to today’s very different
religious needs,” says Davenport.
Contrary to popular belief, the United University Church does not
belong to USC. And the University Religious Center, though it houses
the Office of Religious Life, isn’t under Laemmle’s control. Paid for
by Christian groups decades ago, the current center with its
glass-walled Fishbowl Chapel is a tight squeeze for USC’s 40 or so
Judeo-Christian groups. It misses the mark completely in meeting the
needs of non-Western traditions.
Consider, for example, the difficulty of reserving the chapel for
Muslim prayers, which occur five times a day and change according to
the hour of sunrise and sunset.
“We need a place where Muslims can pray, where Hindus can worship,
where Buddhists can meditate,” says Davenport, a religious pluralist
cut from the same cloth as Laemmle.
Davenport is an Episcopal priest with a dozen years of student affairs
experience at USC. She signed on as Laemmle’s lieutenant last summer.
Among other things, she’s been tapped to do for the Health Sciences
campus what Laemmle has already done for University Park.
For example, Davenport is initiating a project to educate future
physicians how different religious requirements may conflict with a
doctor’s orders. “If you tell a Muslim patient to take his pills three
times a day with food during Ramadan, that’s not going to happen,” she
Davenport also plans to migrate the most successful programs of the
Office of Religious Life – such as the popular “What Matters to Me and
Why” series of soul-baring faculty talks – to the Health Sciences
In the basement of the mosque, Derek and Abigail Allen clasp hands as
they give thanks for the delicious saffron rice, eggplant stew and
they are about to receive. The married students’ usual place of worship
is a few blocks north of here, the Latter Day Saints church at Vermont
and Jefferson. But this Friday, the Allens are visiting the Masjid Umar
Ibn-Al Khattab at Vermont and Exposition.
A section of the
mosque had been cordoned off for the USC guests – seated in folding
chairs apart from the Muslim worshippers who stand, bow and kneel at
their midday prayers. At the service’s conclusion, a woman had pressed
chocolates into the visitors’ hands and invited them down to the social
hall for lunch and an informal discussion. Before tucking into the
Middle Eastern feast, the USC guests browse a literature table filled
with pamphlets refuting common stereotypes about Islam – that it
legitimizes the oppression of women, that it advocates the killing of
non-Muslims, and so on. Pretty soon conversation is flowing. A Turkish
student is explaining about the 90 names of Allah, and the Christian
students are discovering, to their amazement, that the Koran calls
Jesus “al-Masih” – the Messiah.
The following Monday, students milling around Trousdale Parkway at
lunchtime encounter a Religious Explorations Fair. Planned by Laemmle
and Davenport in conjunction with the 27-member, student-run Interfaith
Council, the event eschews the customary “tabling” associated with
campus fairs. Instead passersby are invited to meditate with a Buddhist
monk, discuss karma with a swami, learn to write their names (or God’s)
in Arabic calligraphy, try their hand at swinging incense or move to
the rhythms of a gospel choir.
The fair is strictly informational – no proselytizing allowed. There’s
no need to be defensive. After a while, students feel safe to stop and
stare, maybe smile, ask a question.
It’s Milton’s free marketplace of religious ideas. Buy all your produce
at one stall, or cherry-pick what looks best from each; take free
samples or buy nothing at all.
“People ask me, is it OK for a Christian to meditate?” says Davenport.
Never mind what her Anglican forebears would have said. She gives the religious pluralist’s answer: “Of course it is.”
Amen to that.