Whitman Wire

Lack of religious presence on campus complicates celebration

Audrey Kelly

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Illustration by Sophie Cooper-Ellis.

It’s the people, not the perks, that are important to Whitman students when it comes to religious holidays. Celebrating with the people they know is what is important to Whitman students, not decadent meals and days off of school, especially when their holidays don’t line up with a school-wide break.

Adam Kirtley works as the Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life on the top floor of Reid. He started working at Whitman in the Counseling Center, talking with students who had questions or doubts about their religious life or spirituality. Though he still has similar conversations with many students as the Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life, there is a now more of a programming aspect to his job.

Kirtley himself is an ordained minister for the United Church of Christ, a liberal doctrine that recognizes many different ways of practicing spirituality. He does not lead services on campus but sees his role as mostly administrative, and says he most often is asked to come forth in times of tragedy.

One of his primary roles is to “create opportunities for students to deepen their spiritual faith,” and to facilitate interfaith dialogues, he said. These facilitated conversations in the Glover Alston Center some Fridays at noon. Each meeting has a topical theme, such as the intersection of faith and politics, or sexuality and faith.

He also helps students plug into religious communities while at Whitman. Sometimes this means connecting students with the broader religious community in Walla Walla. The students that practice religions that are not widely represented in the Whitman community oftentimes can celebrate holidays or services with groups from Walla Walla. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to leave campus, as Whitman buildings provide space for religious groups to meet.

“For a while, Walla Walla Muslims were coming to the spirituality room almost every week,” said Kirtley. He added that there is also a Quaker group that meets on campus.

Kirtley orchestrates an email that is sent every year to the student body and faculty detailing which religious celebrations Whitman recognizes. Kirtley chooses the celebrations from a list on interfaith.org, a website that provides information on world religions, alternative spirituality and ancient mythology. There is even a link to a forum on green policy on the main page.

“There are crazy amounts of holidays listed. I sort through them to find the major holy days,” said Kirtley. He culls some of the more obscure, less widely observed holidays, such as some Catholic feast days, of which there are many. However, the email he sends out “is more a guide.”

“Whitman’s policy for religious holidays is that the professor and the student need to decide together,” said Kirtley. Whitman respects religious diversity, but each student needs to initiate a conversation about their observance of religious holidays with their professor far enough ahead of time for both student and professor to negotiate conflicts between the syllabus and religious observance.

Senior Maya Abramson went home to the Bay Area to celebrate Rosh Hashanah this year and to perform music for the service at the Jewish summer camp that she has worked at over the last three summers. The fun part, Abramson said, was being in “a community that I know,” and she valued being at her home synagogue to play her violin for the Rosh Hashanah services.

Senior Umair Meredia echoed Abramson’s sentiments, saying that one of the most important things he will look for after college is a tight-knit community.

“I was raised to value the close community feeling,” he said. “I’m not necessarily attached to it being a religious community, though oftentimes they are linked.”

Meredia said he can tell his parents are thinking of him on important Islamic holidays when they send him texts on the days of the celebrations.

“They send me texts wishing me ‘happy so-and-so!’ and that’s when I can tell that they wish I was able to come home,” he said.

Abramson says that she has been raised with a strong sense of Jewish identity and that her parents understand that she is developing that identity for herself in college.

“Having a Jewish identity is very important,” she said. “[I’m] figuring out what being Jewish means to me, creating my own experiences, which are meaningful with or without services.”

Abramson’s experiences have included going to Fridays and Five, a short weekly Shabbat celebration in Prentiss Hall, and Yom Kippur services here at Whitman. Celebrating with students does not give Abramson the same sense of community, however, that she has when she is celebrating with people she has grown up with.

“Celebrating Yom Kippur is different when you don’t know the people; it’s more important that you know the people there,” she said. “It’s comforting [with people from home] to know that it’s always going to be this way.”

Meredia doesn’t have the same options when it comes to celebrating Muslim holidays, as there aren’t many Muslim students on campus. It has always been this way for him, since he went to a Christian high school.

“I can see the benefit of having a large group [to celebrate with], but I’ve never had that luxury,” he said. “Since Islam was originally born among nomadic groups, having a large group celebrating together meant that you would prosper.”

He knew when coming to Whitman that there wasn’t a strong Islamic community.

“My parents were concerned that there wasn’t a place of prayer nearby,” he said. “But I knew that my religious values would still be there, a part of the path.”

Though he doesn’t have the opportunity to go to regular services, it is evident that his faith plays a large part in his life.

“I often feel that I have two lives, my academic life and my religious life … The viewpoints I get on life, how to conduct myself, and helping people that Islam has taught me shape my academic goals and big ideas,” said Meredia.

For Abramson, religion and academic goals are more directly intertwined. She has enjoyed working at the Jewish summer camp in the last years and hopes to find more experiences similar to that.

“I like creating communities, playing music with young people … plus it’s what I have previous exposure to,” she said.

Kirtley said that 70 percent of first-years entering Whitman say that spirituality is important to them. Forty percent of first-years have a religious heritage, a number that he said is low for the United States but not for the Pacific Northwest. Kirtley explained that he finds spirituality as a tool for “meaning-making,” or a way to answer the big questions about identity and meaning in life.

“I don’t want to make Whitman more religious, but encourage a discussion on the endeavor of why we’re here [at Whitman],” he said.  “Religious identity is an important facet of identity.”

Kirtley said he is frustrated that, despite these high percentages, students often don’t recognize the presence of the Religious and Spiritual Life office.

“[They] are surprised that this office exists,” said Kirtley. “There is a kind of ethos that Whitman is hostile toward religion, which isn’t exactly true because there is more religious activity every week than most Whitman students realize.”

Moreover, students sometimes feel that their religions and the students that follow them are misunderstood. Abramson feels that Jewish people can sometimes be “commoditized” in a sense at Whitman. She wishes that Whitman students better understood Jewish students’ relationship with their religion.

“Every Jewish person does celebrations differently, but celebrations are a time to come together and talk about those traditions,” she said.

Meredia is a part of SASA, the South Asian Student Association, and he says that students often assume everyone in SASA is of the same religious backgrounds.

“Islam is confusing,” said Meredia. “I have spent most of my life learning about it.”

He wishes that Whitman students would ask him about what he has been learning.

“It’s okay if you are wrong about something,” said Meredia. “I would much rather have a conversation [about what’s confusing you.]”

Kirtley also encourages discussion, saying that he sees Whitman as “super affirming of diversity of everything, except of religious and political diversity.”

To help bridge this gap, he hopes to bring more “faith leaders” to campus. In the past, he brought David James Duncan to Whitman, the author of “The Brothers K and The River Why.” Kirtley explained that Duncan is an avid fly-fisherman, and that the way Duncan talked about nature and environmentalism appealed to many Whitman students who were skeptical of organized religion.

Though there are opportunities for students to celebrate religious holidays in Walla Walla, lack of community and awareness on campus and locally can make it difficult for students away from home and family.

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Lack of religious presence on campus complicates celebration