• Southwestern University

Religiosity and spiritual diversity on campus

Historically, Southwestern University has a special affiliation with the United Methodist Church. According to Ralph Wood Jones, author of Southwestern University 1840–1961, Southwestern was unique in being founded collectively by all five of the Texas Methodist Conferences extant at the time, and it was forged as the central institution of higher education for all of Texas Methodism (xii–xiii). The University has provided special consideration of prospective students of the Methodist faith, and SU maintains the United Methodist tradition of higher education. But what exactly is the status of spirituality and religion on the campus today?

Southwestern Chaplain and Director of Spiritual and Religious Life Megan Danner ’06 says that the University is home to a diverse range of spiritual perspectives. For example, some “students experience a really vibrant place where when they lean in, dig in, and seek out community, including spiritual community, and they find it.” That group is part of the trend of growing involvement in student religious organizations, of which there are currently five on SU’s campus, and Danner sees “those pockets [as] healthy and dynamic.” Those undergraduates congregate to explore why spiritual life is important to them, how their faith has grown since arriving on campus, and who inspires them to keep growing spiritually.

From those students, “you might get the impression that Christianity is what dominates,” says Danner. However, Southwestern also welcomes students from diverse religious backgrounds. “If [non-Christians] seek it out, then I can help them find those other pockets of support on campus.” However, the University chaplain also says that students can find places of spiritual connection through other mentors and advocates: “They can reach out to any number of people on campus to find a supportive environment.”

Danner works closely with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a well-respected national nonprofit organization that works with colleges across the country to help people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions see beyond their differences by focusing on common values. She credits IFYC with developing a useful working distinction between two definitions of interfaith. One is religious diversity, which is just the neutral demographic fact of having various belief systems present in the same space at the same time. The other is religious pluralism, which is a more of an objective to be pursued and achieved because it entails individuals and groups engaging in conversations with people who orient around religion differently with the specific aim of shared action for the common good. Danner considers that distinction “a perspective shift that is helpful because it’s not that we’re trying to be diverse for the sake of fulfilling a quota but rather for the sake of improving the world around us—with that key component of orientating around religion differently.”

That’s my hope: that we’ll be a campus that really helps those worldview conversations to happen in such a way that we’re preparing our students to be successful in a pluralistic world.

Danner believes that “Southwestern is moving toward that latter goal. … That’s my hope: that we’ll be a campus that really helps those worldview conversations to happen in such a way that we’re preparing our students to be successful in a pluralistic world.” So Danner is working on transforming SU into a campus that truly champions religious pluralism. Students educated at such institutions will be more likely to become effective changemakers and leaders in industries such as business, medicine, and education—to name only a few—because those fields are all profoundly affected by religious diversity. For example, at hospitals throughout the world, the training of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare staff often includes interfaith components because patients’ religious perspectives can significantly affect the medical decisions they make for themselves or for their family members. Danner wants Southwestern undergraduates to be better prepared for those future dialogues. In addition, advocating religious pluralism at SU will better assure that “our students are civically engaged and good citizens,” Danner says. After all, supporting productive conversation among citizens representing divergent perspectives and promoting the common good are cornerstones of a strong democracy.

The value of practice

As University chaplain, Danner says, “One of the things I’m passionate about on this campus is making sure that everyone feels welcome and valued, regardless of religious or nonreligious perspective or spiritual understanding.” One of the ways she promotes such inclusivity is when delivering invocations at various University events, she opens by encouraging attendees “to recognize that we all come from a variety of religious perspectives and spiritual understandings.” So if prayer is not a part of particular attendees’ traditions, she invites those participants to spend those quiet moments to simply be still or enjoy a pause during what is likely a busy day. It was something Danner first said when opening matriculation several years ago, and although it was purely improvisation in the moment, she went on to refine the same invitation at different events and gatherings. “I almost always say something like that before a prayer or invocation because I want people to feel at ease,” she reflects. “That is a value of mine: I want to create these inclusive environments, spiritually speaking.”

Taking a few moments to pray or else to just breathe and contemplate represents another of Danner’s commitments: embracing mindfulness, self-regulation, and wellness. “It really is a practice,” she says. “We often talk about the practice of law or the practice of medicine. I think that word practice would serve us well in other spheres of life, too: the practice of breathing, the practice of yoga, of writing, of ministry. We don’t have to be experts and perfect at everything, but we can always make progress and continue practicing.”

Championing religious pluralism

Another way that Danner has worked toward achieving religious pluralism at SU is by organizing the Engaging Religious Diversity Training session, which took place at the end of September 2018. The purpose of the event was to expand the number of people on campus—faculty and students, staff and administrators—who are aware of and invested in interfaith cooperation, and the participants were self-selecting rather than required to attend. “The catalyst really came from conversations I’d had with the Texas Methodist Foundation,” recalls Danner. “They really felt a calling that an intentional effort was needed to be made on Methodist campuses across Texas that we’d have effective interfaith initiatives, programs, and environments on campus.”

With grant support from the Texas Methodist Foundation and the help of two IFYC consultants, Danner coordinated sessions in which participants strategized about making interfaith fit into Southwestern’s mission and identity. Approximately 20 attendees shared their experiences of when they first started to recognize different worldviews, when they first began to ask critical questions of their own beliefs, when they first felt deeply connected to someone from a different perspective, and at what age did they become affiliated with the worldviews they currently held. Such deeply personal, significant topics aren’t common fodder for conversation among University staff and faculty—or among colleagues in any work setting, for that matter.

After the session, Danner was somewhat concerned that there was no closure on the discussion, but one trainer from IFYC assured her that the sessions were simply an opening: “Interfaith work is not that clean-cut. It’s messy, and it involves really personal topics that needn’t always be so clean,” he told her. Danner took that message to heart, linking it to something else she had learned before the training sessions. “A lot of times, people will stay away from talking about religion because [they’ll say,] ‘I’m a private person,’” she says. “But someone encouraged me to push back against that: it’s a personal topic, but it doesn’t need to be a private one. In a community of trust, we can open up about very personal things, but those things don’t need to be cut off or disallowed in conversational spaces.” So on a campus like Southwestern, with its Mosaic approach to cocurricular experiences, religion and religiosity are considered just two of the many parts that constitute an individual’s identity, and discovering, exploring, practicing, or deciding not to practice faith—or multiple faiths—is part of the process of holistic personal growth.

Pushing past the challenges of talking about faith

Although diversity is a major initiative at Southwestern, Danner believes that spirituality can often be a forgotten aspect of that commitment—but “not just on this campus,” she says. “I wonder if there’s a fear of proselytization: If we talk about this openly, then we’re going to have to confront in ourselves the places that we might rather not go.” Nevertheless, Danner is steadfast in promoting religious pluralism. “They’re not easy conversations, and that is why I think they’re so important,” she says.

Danner is steadfast in promoting religious pluralism. “They’re not easy conversations, and that is why I think they’re so important,” she says.

Through future training sessions, a planned lunch-and-learn series, and the current weekly gatherings of Common Ground, which Danner hosts at 11:30 a.m. each Thursday in the Lois Perkins Chapel, Southwestern’s intrepid chaplain continues to push for students, staff, and faculty to “connect across their shared humanity.” She argues that although scripture tells readers, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” that does not mean we should not cast judgment—especially considering that we must make judgments every day, from whether to stop at a yellow light or who to vote for in an election. Rather, Danner interprets that biblical caveat as warning against condemning others. She believes that modeling and practicing empathy are crucial if students, faculty, and staff are truly committed to making others feel welcome and valued regardless of faith or spirituality: “I’m not going to write you off because of the judgments that you make, because of the person you vote for, because of the deity or the higher power that you worship. I’m not going to let those differences—that diversity—break down our relationship. Instead, I’m going to connect with you as a human being and let our shared humanity influence the way that I treat you.”

Are you interested in helping move the campus to be a more welcoming and religiously pluralistic community? Danner would love to hear from you! You can contact her at dannerm@southwestern.edu.