A Week with Religion at one of the nation’s ‘least religious’ colleges
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A Week with Religion at one of the nation’s ‘least religious’ colleges

Participants filled the CRSL during lunch Tuesday for a panel of professors and staff speaking about religion in their life and work.  Professors Wessam El-Meligi, Lin Aanonsen, David Bressoud, and Zornitza Keremidchieva, Dean of Students Jim Hoppe and DML coordinator Afifa Benwahoud shared stories from their experiences with religion and spirituality. Photo by Sonia Pollock ’15
Participants filled the CRSL during lunch Tuesday for a panel of professors and staff speaking about religion in their life and work. Professors Wessam El-Meligi, Lin Aanonsen, David Bressoud, and Zornitza Keremidchieva, Dean of Students Jim Hoppe and DML coordinator Afifa Benwahoud shared stories from their experiences with religion and spirituality. Photo by Sonia Pollock ’15

Shengdi Zhang ’16 had never celebrated Easter until last Sunday’s afternoon service at Weyerhaeuser Chapel, which he attended with his roommate and several friends. Decked in a black suit and slacks, Zhang sat in the front row, in front on the altar. When it was time for communion, he presented the cup of wine to Father Bob O’Donnell.

The Easter service unofficially marked the beginning of Macalester Week with Religion, an event that, according to Chaplain and Associate Dean for Religious and Spiritual Life Lucy Forster-Smith, has existed for more than five years but stems from a tradition conceived in the 1930s.

Zhang’s experience paralleled some of the Week with Religion’s key themes of identity and welcomeness. Zhang, who follows the philosophy of Confucianism, was grateful for the way he was welcomed into the Christian worship service. “Macalester is very welcoming,” he said. “[Father O’ Donnell] knows I’m not a Christian, but he still trusted me and asked me to handle the wine. I felt really moved by him.”

Zhang said he enjoyed the service and admired the students of faith. “I just feel happy to see people who have religious beliefs … believing in their religion from the bottom of their heart,” he said. “I feel like they have beautiful spirits, beautiful souls.”

After the service, Zhang expressed his excitement for the Week with Religion, which included an awareness campaign for victims of sex trafficking, a panel on the mix between religion and academia, and a film showing led by an award-winning director and the historically popular Cafe Spiritus show. “A lot of cultures are very complicated, but really interesting, so I’m looking forward to getting to learn about them,” Zhang said at the time.

Macalester Christian Fellowship takes 27 hour stand against modern slavery

Macalester Christian Fellowship (MCF) members Hawi Tilahune ’16, Paul Schubring ’15 and Jonathan Melms ’16 spent part of their Monday afternoons standing outside of Weyerhaeuser Chapel in association with the International Justice Mission’s 27 Hour Stand for Freedom to raise awareness for the 27 million slaves in the world today. At least one member of MCF had been standing there since 9 p.m. the previous evening. Melms said he was inspired to help after watching a documentary on the problem last semester. “Seeing how it can affect one person’s life… it made me personally want to get involved and help in any way that I can,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s easy to see issues like this and go, ‘Oh there’s really nothing I can do,’” Tilahune said. “As a Christian, I feel like I’m called to be the voice for the voiceless, and I’m called to be able to stand for those that are victims.”

“It’s crazy to think that [they] wake up in some sort of horror and you have no way out of it,” Schubring said. “We’re supposed to look out for people in those situations.”

Aside from their 27 Hour Stand, MCF led a screening of Girl Rising, a documentary showing the story of nine girls from around the world that experienced arranged marriages, child slavery and other injustices.

“It’s kind of fun doing events like this where [we] as Christians can combine with people who wouldn’t really care about Christianity at all, but because we have some sort of social cause we’re all uniting behind, it gives you an opportunity to work in a better environment,” Schubring said. “It’s a way we can share our faith with those who don’t believe.”

Professor panel on religion receives strong turnout

Tuesday’s professor panel on religion in Weyerhaeuser Chapel had a strong showing with more than 30 people in attendance. The event featured Professors Wessam El-Meligi (Classics), Lin Aanonsen (Biology), David Bressoud (Mathematics) and Zornitsa Keremidchieva (Political Science) along with Dean of Students Jim Hoppe and Department of Multicultural Life Coordinator Afifa Benwahoud.

For Keremidchieva, intellectualism and the religious experience are equal parts of her that don’t need to be reconciled. Bressoud and Aanonsen described how their study of math and science naturally led them to the nature of transcendence and the origins of the universe. Meanwhile, Hoppe explained how in some ways, being gay led him to the church. El-Meligi and Benwahoud, both practicing Muslims, added their religious experiences in their home countries to the United States.

Week with Religion started with an Interfaith Art Lectio Divina. The activity encouraged students to produce drawings or writings based on quotes from religious or spiritual traditions. Photo by Sonia Pollock ’15
Week with Religion started with an Interfaith Art Lectio Divina. The activity encouraged students to produce drawings or writings based on quotes from religious or spiritual traditions. Photo by Sonia Pollock ’15

Forster-Smith praised the work of the Multifaith Council in making the event a success. “It’s been pretty dynamic this year,” she said. “What’s been exciting to me about it this year is that there have been a lot of collaborations.”

Off World brings award-winning film director to campus

The festivities continued Tuesday evening as renowned French-Canadian director Mateo Guez hosted a showing of his film Off World in John B. Davis Lecture Hall. The film depicts the fictional story of Lucky, a Filipino orphan who was raised in Toronto only to return to his birthplace of Smoky Mountain, a slum in the Filipino capital city of Manila that Guez described by saying, “sometimes you walk and your feet go down in what is one meter of shit.”

Despite this, Guez said he was fascinated by the region. “I always felt that something was attracting me visually, but not only the place, the people,” he said. “It’s like when you fall in love and you’re like, ‘Wow, there’s something there.’”

The event was organized by Cecilia Martinez-Miranda ’13, a native of the Philippines and an issue coordinator for the Civic Engagement Center. As a high school student, Martinez-Miranda worked with a community of garbage scavengers, an experience that inspired her to co-found the NGO, WE International Philippines that works on education projects in the country.

One day during her first year at Macalester, Martinez-Miranda received an email from one of her NGO co-workers who said that they had ran into a French director, Mateo Guez, at the dump site. “I had never met Mateo; I just sent him an email,” Martinez-Miranda said. “We weren’t able to make it work that first year … This year I had mentioned it to my supervisor [Karin Trail-Johnson in the Institute for Global Citizenship (ICG)] and she said, ‘Oh, why don’t you just make it happen. We’ll give you $1,000 and you can figure out the rest.’ So now it’s happening.”

Aside from the ICG, the event received support from the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (CRSL), the Multifaith Council, Program Board, the American Studies Department, the Department for Multicultural Life and Macalester College Student Government. “[Off World] is a way of raising questions of spirituality in the social context,” Forster-Smith said.

Following the film showing, local Filipina activist and curator Marlina Gonzalez moderated a discussion and Q-and-A session with Guez. In their dialogue, Guez explained how he had visited Smoky Mountain once before to do some filming for fun; however, at the end of the trip, he realized that he hadn’t done any filming. “It was so real,” he said.

Before leaving the village, he talked with an elderly woman and asked her if he could return to make a movie in the village, and she agreed to help him. “I always dive into the unknown,” Guez said. “My life is at risk when I do that …When I told [my dad] that I was going to go to there he said, ‘It’s a no.’ But I said, ‘Well dad, I’m 30 years old. You can’t tell me no.’”

Guez discussed his identity as a white filmmaker and the process of making a film in an isolated Filipinian slum. “Every time I enter a new place, I feel … like being an intruder or conquistador,” Guez said. “At the same time, coming in with my heart and my personality, I hope all of my good intention [will show.]”

“That’s the risk you take,” Guez said. “You can either stay at home and watch the movie. It’s great. Or, you can go and [make] them.”

As the event wrapped up, Gonzalez begged the audience to reflect on Off World. “Will you please take this film to heart?” she asked. “This is maybe your one Filipino experience.”

Students, staff debunk ‘least religious’ label, but recognize room for improvement

A school founded by Presbyterians, Macalester has made recent headlines as one of the ‘least religious’ colleges in the country. This year’s Princeton Review rankings list Macalester’s student body as the 12th least religious. Forster-Smith refutes this claim, pointing to the campus’ assortment of religious organizations and programs. “You have to be careful when you read those magazines,” she said. “This is a very secular space, and we do not base the way we educate our students in terms of religious practice … We’ve never been shoving religion down anyone’s throat, but we have also not been disrespectful of people who carry a range of religious traditions.”

Macalester’s Center for Religious and Spiritual Life is home to two student councils (the Multifaith Council and the Religious Student Organization Council), nine student religious organizations and a friendly team of chaplains that offers religious services spanning numerous faiths and one-on-one conversations for interested students. Forster-Smith said these conversations don’t have to be religious based and are great for students in need of a “good listening ear.”
That listening ear proved helpful for Martinez-Miranda. “When I first came to Macalester, there was a part of me that wanted to stay in the Philippines because the work I was doing was so much more real,” she said. “[K.P. Hong] was really one of the main people who helped me wrap my head around what it meant to be here and be patient … It’s been less about the programming for me and more about the resource.”

Sonia Pollock ’15, Heather Renetzky ’15 and Anissa Abdel-Jalil ’15 are three members of the Multifaith Council that helped organize the week’s events. The group varies in religious background. Pollock and Renetzky were raised in the Jewish faith, while Abdel-Jalil came from a Muslim-Episcopalian background. Pollock entered Macalester looking to explore her spirituality further, whereas Renetzky planned on maintaining her Jewish faith tradition. Abdel-Jalil, meanwhile, identified with a comment Keremidchieva made during the professor’s panel that religion is something one can practice on their own.

“I would say that I feel there are spaces available, but sometimes students don’t realize they’re there,” Abdel-Jalil said. “I guess that’s part of our job as the Multifaith Council, to just remind students that there are spaces to practice their faith traditions, but also to challenge them to engage with people from other faith traditions.”

Pollock, Renetzky and Abdel-Jalil had their own thoughts and critiques on Macalester’s perception of having less of a religious presence. “All of these rumors fly around that Macalester’s a godless place, but there’s people like us that [worked] tirelessly to put this week together, and we’re having 30 plus people at an event, so clearly it exists,” Renetzky said.

“It’s kind of this vicious cycle,” Abdel-Jalil said. “We’re told that it’s this godless place and we’re just fulfilling the prophecy.”

Schubring agreed. “I think there’s a writing-off, you know, religion is something foolish or a waste of time,” he said. “There’s a part of me that wishes people would give it a shot.”

Zhang reminded people of the opportunity to learn about different cultures through religious experiences. “It would benefit [students] after they graduate,” Zhang said. “A lot of students go to the UN or just working in other countries … You have to know about other countries cultures. If you know about their religions, you will be welcomed.”

Pollock said that there might be a perceived divide between Macalester’s secular and religious communities, but “when it comes down to it, Macalester students in general are really open to all sorts of experiences and opinions.”

Renetzky hypothesized that Macalester’s perceived lack of a religious presence comes from the school’s progressive traditions and its location surrounded by the ‘saint colleges’ including St. Thomas, St. Catherine and St. Olaf. She also compared Mac students involved with religious organizations to those involved in the campus’ theater and athletic programs. “There’s a group on campus that is really involved in religious and spiritual life … and it just happens to be that there are people on campus this campus where it’s not their jam, that’s not their thing. But I think if it is your thing, it’s not a big deal [to do it],” she said.

Four-year Multifaith Council member Angela Butel ’13 recommended that students interested in religious, faith or spirituality issues apply for the council. “It has been a wonderful, ever-changing but always-supportive community,” she said. “You definitely don’t need to know exactly what you believe or which tradition you identify most with to be a member. Most of our members, I think, are still questioning and searching for answers one way or another.”

Forster-Smith recommended that students new to the Macalester religious scene attend a Compassionate Conversation, which is a monthly lunchtime meeting that discusses an important religious issue often in a broader perspective.“We would love to have more students involved in everything that we do,” Forster-Smith said. “We’re really trying to work with students on what’s most important to them and ask, ‘What’s my purpose in life?’ I think if we work at that level with students and we ask that kind of question and probe at that level, even with a small group of students, that that catches on and people say, ‘You know, they’re doing important conversations over there.’”

“We encourage people to just ask questions,” Renetzky said. “It’s beneficial to people who are curious … and it’s beneficial to people who have those beliefs because it forces them to question themselves in a positive way.”

April 5, 2013

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