While the specifics of each student’s situation vary, being religious at Oberlin can be a challenging and even isolating experience for many.
Presidential scholar of Islam Jafar Mahallati has seen this isolation manifest in Muslim students soon after their arrival on campus.
“In my conversations with Muslim students, one of the religious minorities on campus, I have realized that upon their arrival, some of them feel very isolated and homesick,” he said. “With the Muslim Student Association and courses offered on Islam, however, they become self-confident… They learn, again in a new way, that the religious ‘others’ are not a threat, but in fact a blessing.”
Another challenge for some religious students, especially those raised in religious traditions that are prevalent in other parts of the United States, is suddenly becoming part of an environment where they are a small minority.
“I think that it just took a little while getting used to the attitude of not having as many religious people around me and not being able to assume that everybody that I meet is from the same background that I am,” said Anita Peebles, a College sophomore and member of the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin. “It was just a little bit of an adjustment in how I think about people and their affiliations with religions.”
Oberlin has a significantly higher number of non-religiously affiliated people than the national average. According to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, only 16.1 percent of Americans say that they are not affiliated with any specific religion. At Oberlin, 34.5 percent of students in the Class of 2013 listed their religious identity as “None,” “Agnostic,” “Atheist” or “Spiritual” in the Big Book of Forms filled out before Freshmen Orientation.
Despite these large numbers of non-affiliated students, the question of what role these students should play in multi-faith dialogues is also cause for debate among some members of the religious community.
“Some people would disagree with me, but I think that atheists and humanists and non-religious people are really, really important for this [multi-faith discussion],” said College junior and multi-faith community service coordinator with the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life Adah Hetko. “I don’t think those people should be excluded at all [from] these discussions and these projects.”
However, Hetko also notes that this dialogue may not be happening as much as it should.
“There’s not very much communication between religious groups on campus, but there’s even less, I think, between religious groups and non-religious groups.” said Hetko.
Despite the lack of dialogue between these two communities, there are still issues to address within the larger religious group.
Pastor Steve Hammond, Protestant Affiliate in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Pastor at the Peace Community Church, believes that more work must be done in order to address some of the struggles that religious students experience.
“I just get the sense that a lot of people on campus don’t know what to do with religion. They don’t understand it, it doesn’t figure into their own world views; so even though there’s a lot of organizations and stuff, I still hear a continuing refrain from students of all faiths [that] they still feel marginalized,” said Hammond.
Oberlin Christians are often labeled as the odd ones out on a campus where Judaism and Islam seem to be more easily accepted.
“Oberlin is particularly skeptical of the Christian tradition and so I think that our Christian students have some of the most difficulty of any of our students because many people have a lot of baggage about Christianity,” said Reverend Gregory McGonigle, director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
“Many of our Christian students talk about other students, and sometimes even professors, are saying negative things about Christianity in class. Now, some Christian students say that they never experience that, but there are always some who feel like Oberlin is a kind of anti-Christian place.”
Others cite frustrated with having to explain or defend their faith to their peers.
“I don’t want to make it sound like I’ve had mostly bad experiences, because I’ve had mostly good experiences,” said Peebles. “[But] I’m not comfortable with people assuming that I’m going to do the hellfire and damnation thing just because I’m a Christian. That’s just not the way I work and I feel like I have to explain my religious views to people and be like, ‘I’m a Christian but probably not how you think of them generally.’”
Despite these challenges, Professor Mahallati also emphasizes the possibilities that an academic institution like Oberlin can provide.
“Religious students at Oberlin have challenges but have also great and unique opportunities,” said Professor Mahallati. “It is not easy to start looking at something too familiar, too close and too intimate from a new perspective. Religious students in particular come with a strong sense of belonging to their respective faiths. Their first reaction to a liberal and open intellectual space is to become a bit protective.
“After a while, however, they begin to appreciate the intellectual diversity at the College. They gradually learn that the ultimate test for any belief system is to expose it to open critique and comparative studies. More importantly, they learn that the educational space at Oberlin has helped them learn more about their own faith.”
College junior and member of the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin Allie Lundblad experienced both of these aspects in religious life at Oberlin.
“Intellectually, and in terms of making sense of things, obviously Oberlin has been a challenge, and so I’ve had to think things through,” said Lunblad. “But it’s also been a big help… I actually feel good about the way that I’ve portrayed my faith because people have responded well to it.”