DG Roundtable: How is Religious Life At Swarthmore? (Part I)

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

avishwanath (Arjun Vishwanath ’16, Opinions Editor) [8:33 PM] Hello! My name is Arjun Vishwanath, and this week we are talking about religion at Swarthmore. I’m joined by Allison Hrabar, Salman Safir, Aaron Wagener, Heitor Santos, and Jacob Demree. I’d like to start off by talking about your religious practice at Swarthmore; have there been any difficulties practicing your religion here? Do you feel as if there are communities of people who share your faith who you can meet with?

heitor (Heitor Santos ’17) [8:42 PM] Hello! I am Heitor and I am the current president of Swarthmore Christian Fellowship. I personally don’t think I ever found any difficulties practicing my religion here. Swarthmore has a fairly “large” number of Christians (although the number of members in SCF has decreased over the past year) and there is a fairly organized system to allow people to go to church, join Bible study groups, etc…

aaron (Aaron Wagener ’17) [8:43 PM] Hi, I’m Jewish and part of Kehilah. I got involved halfway through freshman year and have been going to Shabbat most Fridays ever since, which definitely wasn’t something that I expected to do when I came to Swarthmore! For me, it was the people and the values of the community that got me involved. Practicing Judaism at Swarthmore is a way to connect with my family’s traditions, but it’s also a way to challenge and transform those traditions, and it was awesome to find a supportive place to do that at college.

jdemree1 (Jacob Demree ’19, Assistant News Editor) [8:45 PM] Hello. I am Roman Catholic, and participate in weekly Masses with the Newman Catholic Group on campus. In my experience, it has not been difficult to find a way to engage in religious practices, and the familiarity of the ritual of a Catholic Mass has helped ease the transition to college. To bounce off of what Heitor and Aaron said, I would add that most people at Swarthmore do seem willing to talk about religion in my experience, even if they do not entertain the same set of beliefs. Even in my first two semesters, I have had many opportunities to challenge my own beliefs, as well as to develop a greater understanding of those of others!

salmansafir (Salman Safir ’16) [8:45 PM] Hello Friends! My name is Salman. I am a current co-President of the Swarthmore Muslim Students Association. Alhamdulillah, we have had a significant and wonderful group of intellectually and spiritually involved group of individuals in the MSA. It is an incredibly diverse group whether in regards to sect or practice which allows for rich conversations and friendship!

jdemree1 [8:49 PM] I think that is one thing unique about practicing religion at Swarthmore. The fusion of intellectual and spiritual experiences is not what I expected, but more than I could have hoped for. It seems that most people are willing to discuss religion from personal and academic standpoints, which can be occasionally difficult due to how integral religion is as an identity. Has that been a similar experience for others?

aaron [8:52 PM] Hmm, do you mean the difficulty of those conversations? As in people are only comfortable discussing religion through an academic lens?

allisonhrabar (Allison Hrabar ’16, Co-Editor-in-Chief) [8:53 PM] Hello! I was raised Roman Catholic, but was very active (like, church three times a week active) in the Presbyterian Church throughout middle and high school. I didn’t expect to practice my religion much here, but have wanted to dive back into it in the last year. Signing up for the Newman Group Listserv and going to Ash Wednesday services was about as far as I got. It’s not that it is  technically  difficult to practice my religion here now that Newman exists, but the Catholic community is definitely very small. I think I feel a disconnect with the few fellow Catholics there are here, which makes attending services feel awkward at best. But the structure is what I love about Catholicism, so SCF isn’t a great fit either.

jdemree1 [8:55 PM] Aaron, I actually didn’t think about it that way, but wonder if that is true as well. I meant to say that it can be more difficult to address religion through the scrutiny of academic analysis, but it may instead be correct to say that it is harder to talk about religion without that distance.

allisonhrabar [8:56 PM] I agree with Jacob that religion is often looked at academically or intellectually here. I’ve heard debates about what faith is or about culture, but the only actual  religious conversations I’ve felt I’ve had are in my Dostoevsky course. It was in those classes we grappled with ideas about grace, forgiveness, sin, etc. in a personal way, instead of at arm’s length.

salmansafir [9:01 PM] I think these are excellent points! I think one of the issues I am grappling with as I take more courses in religion is how my academic experiences alter my practice. If I write a paper on prayer in Islam, does that change the way I pray? If I write about God in Islam does that change my perception of the God that I pray to?

heitor [9:02 PM] I also agree that people are usually willing to talk about religion here, be it from a personal or an academic standpoint. I have met many people who, just like Allison, are used to religious discourse and to liturgy itself, even though they are not necessarily practicing their religion while here. That means that even though we don’t have that big of an active Christian community, many people are still willing to try church or some religious event…

heitor [9:07 PM] However, I don’t think the issue is that simple. There is a general trend to be “progressive” at Swarthmore, even from a religious standpoint, which makes it harder for people from more conservative religious backgrounds to actually feel affirmed.  This is actually pretty disappointing sometimes, because it seems like it’s OK to be religious, but only if you do it in a certain way.

jdemree1 [9:07 PM] I feel similarly, Salman! I have only taken two religion courses so far–one on the Talmud, and one on Latin American Christianity, but was been forced in each to address beliefs, concepts, practices, and traditions unfamiliar to me. In Mass, I would see the lavabo , where the priest washes his hands, and think of rabbinic purity rituals…. Really, though, what does it mean to redefine religion, which is often personal, through study?

aaron [9:09 PM] Salman, that’s an interesting point. I’ve found that is actually one of the cooler things about being religious at Swarthmore. Before college there was a lot of “well, this is just the way it is” in response to questions about religion, so it is refreshing to be able to explore those questions without having to walk away from Judaism.

avishwanath [9:13 PM] I think a few of you are getting at an interesting point here – there seem to be differences between religion at Swarthmore versus religion in the outside world. Heitor observed the more progressive nature of religion here that differs from more conservative schools of thought that may be different outside of Swarthmore. And as Aaron and Allison said, religion is examined from a more academic perspective sometimes. So my question to you all is have you explicitly noticed these differences between the religious groups here at Swarthmore and the religious groups you are a part of at home, and do these differences create any tensions? Or are the differences not that significant?

salmansafir [9:20 PM] The point Aaron made resonates very much with me. Religion was not something I was able to challenge much before I got to Swarthmore. Yet being at Swarthmore I have often had to reconsider many of our thoughts and ideas in response to an environment that challenged my ideas and exposed me to new ones. These are questions I hope to explore, as Aaron said, and bring it back to my home community. I think the Muslim community back home tended to be at an intergenerational crossroads, where the ideas of the older generation were the ones espoused, but given that much of the youth of my community back home is exposed to very different conditions (being raised primarily in the US), there are not a lot of spaces to address these questions in a way that resonates with both the faith and the real experiences of the young Muslim community. I should note that I am very much thinking about the Pakistani Muslim community as opposed to other Muslim communities that have been in the US since its origins!

aaron [9:25 PM] Arjun, for me it has been different in a good way. So good that I sometimes worry what will happen after Swat. I don’t think there’s too much tension over what we do with the outside community, unless it’s Hillel International we’re talking about. One challenge which does come up is the type of services to lead. There are a number of different Jewish movements and they all conduct services differently, so while Kehilah’s usual services work well for me, other people aren’t used to them. It’s tough to find a balance between changing things up and sticking to one formula, but I guess that comes with being in a community. It seems the most important thing is to do a lot of asking and listening, and have a willingness to change.

heitor [9:25 PM] Oh absolutely. Conservative Christians at Swarthmore would be considered fairly liberal/progressive back home (Brazil) and in many large American protestant churches. I often have arguments with my parents back home about my stances on certain controversial political issues.
I agree with Salman and Aaron that Swarthmore has allowed be to challenge some of my religious views and certain beliefs that I never questioned growing up. The only consequence of this process is that sometimes I found it easier to conform to the “Swarthmore norm” to be progressive, despite the fact that I was not sure if that was really what I believed. So I think there is also a personal process of negotiation that involved deciding certain areas of my spiritual life where I would choose to be different from people around me.

jdemree1 [9:28 PM] At home, there is not a large, young, Roman Catholic community that is actively engaged in practicing the religion, so much of my religious experience as a younger child was with adults in the church. Oftentimes (not always!), and I relate to Salman’s point here, the older generations’ views would dominate the narrative in religious settings.  I was fortunate to be raised in a family where challenging dominant views was encouraged, so transitioning to the general community at Swarthmore was not a large issue. I guess that my answer to your question, Arjun, is that things are different than the norm, but, as Aaron and Heitor mentioned, are different in good ways.

allisonhrabar [9:35 PM] I probably would not have returned to religion had it not been for my experiences at Swarthmore. My experiences in the Catholic Church were occasionally very alienating (I love my priests, and my family is very active in the Church, but Arizona is a conservative state) but through my conversations in class and with friends, I developed a very personal sense of God that I don’t think I would have found through passively attending mass every week.

Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore Interfaith Center. 

Due to the length and substance of the discussion, this DG Roundtable has been split into two parts. Part II will be published next week. Stay tuned!

The Daily Gazette

The Daily Gazette is Swarthmore’s daily newspaper. The Gazette is sent out every work-day to more than 2,500 people, and has thousands of readers from across the world.

The Daily Gazette was organized during Fall semester 1996 by Sam Schulhofer-Wohl ’98. The goal: to provide timely coverage of campus news and Garnet sports while maintaining complete independence from the administration and student government.

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