Religions carve niche on campus

Like most Duke students, Rev. Wakoh Shannon Hickey sometimes has to pull an all-nighter to finish everything she needs to do.

But it's not just a full academic schedule that keeps Hickey from bed.

The Zen priest and third-year Ph.D. student in modernity and religion also volunteers her time as the chaplain of the Buddhist community at Duke-a job similar to full-time, salaried positions held by some other on-campus religious leaders.

Echoing the sentiments of students in minority religious communities, Hickey said the University seems to be generally receptive to the presence of a Buddhist organization. But she said she has to fight an uphill battle against a cultural inertia that exists on campus.

"Duke's motto is 'Eruditio et Religio,' and usually religion means Christianity," Hickey said. "We'd like it to be more than that. We'd like to be part of a broad conversation about the intersection of religious cultivation and scholarship."

Despite their lower profile, students from Duke's Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim communities nonetheless say the University is generally a positive place for them to exercise their religions.

According to statistics provided by the Office of the University Registrar, about 63 percent of undergraduate students and 34 percent of graduate and professional school students reported a religious affiliation.

Currently, there are 44 reported undergraduate Buddhists, 130 Hindus and 61 Muslims. Among graduate and professional school students, there are 40 Buddhists, 109 Hindus and 29 Muslims.

The numbers, however, are small compared to the 979 undergraduate and 386 graduate students who identify themselves as Roman Catholics and 513 undergraduate and 83 graduate students who identify themselves as Jewish.

Among the three largest non-Judeo-Christian religious groups on campus-Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists-only the Muslim community has its own gathering space. None of the groups has a paid, full-time leader.

The Muslim Student Association maintains a prayer room in the Office of Religious Life. The room is outfitted with prayer rugs oriented toward Mecca, several tablets inscribed in Arabic and a framed magazine cover picturing the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem.

The small, white-walled, fluorescently-lit room stands in stark contrast to the Gothic grandeur and stained glass of the nearby Duke Chapel and the elegant modernism of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, but MSA members say they have a healthy and growing niche on an open and inviting campus.

"I don't feel any discrimination," said junior Saad Mir, who serves as Programming Coordinator for MSA. "People are pretty open to Islam on campus."

He cited the high turnout-between 250 and 300 people-for a campus-wide fast during Ramadan and the establishment of a new Islamic studies institute as examples of receptiveness to Islam at the University.

But finding space for religious activities has been a challenge for the groups.

The Hindu Students Association has weekly meetings in the Multicultural Center-located in the basement of the Bryan Center-and sometimes holds events in the East Campus Union.

The lack of a permanent space, however, has not been a detriment to the group's collective life, said junior Mitha Rao, publicity chair for HSA.

"I think not having a single space has been a benefit to us because it's allowed us to attend to different audiences," Rao said. "Changing spaces gives us different physical and mental ways to invoke certain issues and have certain conversations."

BCD and MSA representatives, however, said not having stable meeting or administrative space makes their work more difficult.

Hickey's office, which she shares with Imam Abdul Waheed, the volunteer leader of the Duke Muslim community, was donated by the campus' Unitarian Universalist minister. The small, windowless room has a metal locker, a chair and a single desk.

Hoping to find a gathering space similar to the MSA prayer room, BCD submitted a letter to Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, and Zoila Airall, assistant vice president for student affairs, Jan. 20.

The letter, endorsed by about 60 people from across the University community, calls for the establishment of "an adaptable, nonsectarian meditation space for the whole campus community."

It suggests the appropriation of half of the Bryan Center's Louise Jones Brown Art Gallery, saying the space could retain its gallery function.

"Both Dr. Moneta and I received the proposal and we have been talking with other colleagues in the division to try to find space that is appropriate to their needs," Airall wrote in an e-mail Jan. 31. "This is a community issue and concern, and [it] is taking the community to address the concern."

Richard Jaffe, an associate professor of religion and faculty advisor to BCD, said the scarcity of space is a challenge for all parties involved.

"The fact that there's a Buddhist chaplain at Duke is a good sign from the Religious Life office," he said. "The problem is actually carving out a space for regular worship for these students, and that's kind of a thorny issue."

Another obstacle for the groups is the lack of a support network provided by an overreaching organization like a Catholic or Episcopal diocese or Hillel, a national organization for the promotion of on-campus Jewish life. Instead, groups like MSA, BCD and HSA have formed strong bonds to other religious and cultural campus groups. Hickey said communication and collaboration between the representatives of all the traditions represented on campus is strong. In addition, BCD and MSA both work with the Multicultural Center, and BCD has worked with Counseling and Psychological Services and Duke Hospital to promote meditation exercises.

MSA members also reach off campus, collaborating with Muslim groups at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at North Carolina State University and volunteering at a local Muslim Sunday school as well.

The long-term outlook for BCD is still vague, Hickey said.

The group's success in finding a worship space all their own will determine how the group develops over the next few years.

Meanwhile, Mir is optimistic about the future of Muslim life at Duke.

"Freshman year, when I wanted to attend prayer, I had to go all the way to the hospital," he said. "Then we moved to the Prayer Room, and now we have to go to the Multicultural Center because there are so many people. [MSA] is getting bigger and better."

Rao also spoke warmly about her religious experience at Duke.

"It's a great place not only to be a Hindu, but to explore lots of different religious traditions," she said.


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