My closest friend from Yale is agnostic, bordering on atheist, so needless to say, we met in neither temple, church nor mosque. We made completely unmemorable introductions in Blakey Vermeule’s “Major English Poets” class during shopping period freshman year, but what I do remember is the moment when I realized Kerry would be a lasting friend: when she asked if she could accompany me to a service at Christ Church, across the street from the bookstore.
I had no idea why an agnostic would want to attend an Anglo-Catholic Mass with a lifelong Episcopalian, but there she was, standing in a woolen coat and listening to our choir sing the Gloria. Afterwards, she asked questions: What did it mean to consecrate the bread? Why did the priest wear green, and for goodness sake, how could I so firmly believe in God? I never tried to change her mind — I had no interest in doing so — but I did try to share what my tradition believes, what I believe, because I wanted her to know about the things that form me, that make me who I am. Kerry listened; she asked more questions.
Friendships like the one I have with Kerry became the hallmark of religious life at Yale for me. After all, that is why we come here in the first place — to meet thinkers who will forever challenge and transform our perspectives. During my freshman year, I ate waffles after French class with a conservative Christian friend who forced me to consider my views on controversial issues like human homosexuality and abortion; my roommate in Silliman took me to the Slifka Center where we shook maracas and ate hamentaschen to celebrate Purim; I discovered Islamic mysticism from a Sufi in my biology class and learned about May Day celebrations on Glee Club tour in California from a polyamorous Pagan.
The spiritual challenges came not only from friends but from professors as well. My early English drama class was as much about medieval Christianity as 14th-century theatre; the courses I took on world religions, the formation of Islam, and the history of Christian thought continue to influence how I understand who God is and how God relates to us. I learned from all of these experiences that Yalies find God not only in Christ Church or the Slifka Center but in Commons, seminars in L.C., lunches with professors and late-night conversations with friends. It is in these places that we share the notes from our day’s lecture with God; we see that they all look different, and we are formed not only by our own notes but by those of others, be they carefully inscribed or quickly jotted.
But Yale also offers diverse ways of finding God in more traditional settings. Battell Chapel provides ecumenical Christian worship where students can explore different beliefs and question or confirm the ones they already have. St. Thomas More is available for students and other seekers to discover the thriving life of the Roman Catholic faith, while the Slifka Center exposes students not only to the different branches of Judaism but also to the Jewish heritage (no one, Jew or Gentile, should miss the blintzes and pizza bagels they serve on Fridays!). Buddhist meditation occurs nightly; the Muslim Students Association holds weekly prayer meetings; and the Yale Vedanta Society and Hindu Council hold weekly services as well. There are student groups to explore and question faith as well as music groups that let students sing their praise to God. And outside of Yale’s walls, faith in New Haven thrives in forms ranging from Quaker meetings to Baha’i and Unitarian Universalist services.
As an undergraduate at Yale College and now as a graduate student in the Divinity School, I discovered God in the places I expected — like church or the choir — and some I never anticipated, like in the dining hall and professors’ offices. And though I remain a Christian, I am a changed Christian for these experiences. They made me realize all the more that though from a Christian perspective we are made in God’s image, we are nonetheless constantly surprised by how diverse that image is. We are all so incredibly different, and if we really are made in God’s image, then Yale gives us a picture of what must be a very creative, varied and welcoming God.
Danielle Tumminio is a 2003 graduate of Yale College and a third-year Yale Divinity School student.