A chest of Good Humor ice cream sits outside the Office of the Chaplain in the basement of Bingham Hall. “Take one,” Sharon Kugler advises.
The ice cream is a relic left over from her time spent as Chaplain at Johns Hopkins University. Free ice cream used to make only annual visits during orientation to the Multifaith Center where she worked in Baltimore. In 2001, however, the company was a little late in picking up the machine, leaving Choco Tacos and ice cream sandwiches sitting outside the Muslim prayer room on Sept. 11.
“The ice cream machine suddenly became this healing, calming element,” Kugler said, explaining her decision to make Good Humor — in addition to the Good News — a permanent fixture in her office. “Most people think you have to have a reason to visit the chaplain, like something bad’s happened or you have a deep question. Having the ice cream machine here has lifted that a little bit.”
As a female Roman Catholic who is not a member of the clergy, Kugler represents three revolutionary firsts for the Yale Chaplaincy. Though she’s only been in New Haven for a few months, there is a palpable buzz among those who have met her or have felt the repercussions of the few decisions she has made. She is a listener, she is committed to meeting the spiritual needs of every student and she makes a mean bowl of chili.
Both her appointment and her attitude reflect the larger changes in religious life that Yale has experienced over the past few decades. Kugler is not trying to force the organized rituals that many secular students would associate with religion into busy Yalie lives. For most students, Kugler explained, religion has moved to a friendlier setting.
“When you finally relax on a Friday night at Chabad or if you’re shooting the breeze here with a cup of tea, that’s every bit as spiritual as a formal service, and in many ways quite renewing,” she said.
Religious groups on campus acknowledge that there is a substantial middle ground of students at Yale who do not want to be part of a formal, serious religious organization, but value spiritual matters and would be interested in attending casual events hosted by student groups. While some people do come to Yale looking for organized religion and find niche communities of support once they arrive, the majority of students are finding that Yale today is more accommodating of their religious needs — even those they never knew they had.
As Protestant prayer echoed through Woolsey Hall at the freshman Convocation ceremony, Minh Tran ’09 — who was raised as a Mahayana Buddhist — got a little nervous. So did his mother. Actually, she got very nervous.
“She called my grandfather in Vietnam and said, ‘Oh my God! He’s going to turn Christian!’” Tran said.
When Tran called home to Los Angeles a few weeks later to let his mother know that he had found Indigo Blue, a Buddhist student organization, she was more than relieved.
Yale’s religious diversity has increased exponentially in the past few decades, but many freshmen are still pleasantly surprised when they learn their religious community is represented on campus. Kugler wants to expand religious representation to include all faiths, however uncommon. When she first arrived this summer, Kugler reformatted the religious questionnaire sent out to incoming freshman, adding a few more specific denominations to the typical “Muslim” and “Presbyterian” options — “just to pull out the folks who are usually relegated to that nebulous ‘Other’ category,” she said.
Though many people seem to be under the impression that the Ivy League has become a breeding ground for godless liberals, over 95 percent of the class of 2011 identified with a religious background.
“This isn’t a wasteland for religious or spiritual life at all,” Kugler said. “I think you’re going to have students that perhaps don’t duck in the door of a synagogue or church, but would probably describe themselves as believing in something bigger than themselves.”
Rabbi Shua Rosenstein of Chabad at Yale agrees that there is a greater interest in religion on campus than there was when he arrived in 2002, partly because of the diversity of new opportunities being offered, but mostly because of a growing global fascination with spirituality in the post-Sept. 11 world.
Tran, now president of the advisory board to Indigo Blue, said that informal discussions and questions about God — or someone like Him — are common.
“I used to think that at Yale, you’re either really Christian, really Jewish, really Buddhist or you want nothing to do with religion,” he said. “But I’m not sure of that anymore. One word I’ve been hearing a lot lately is ‘agnostic,’ or ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious.’ People know that they can’t just live life without thinking about the larger unknown, and this larger unknown has to be dealt with somehow.”
“Fellowship” vs. Partying
Megan Goldman stood at the Elm Street gate of Cross Campus one afternoon several weeks ago, dressed in an enormous bumblebee costume. The table beside her was covered in paper cups of juice, plastic jars of honey, apple slices and a sign proclaiming in big bubble letters: “Free shots for a sweet New Year.” On the side, in smaller lettering, Megan had written in parentheses: “Ask me about going to Israel for free!”
Goldman, who has worked as a Jewish Campus Service Corps (JCSC) fellow at the Joseph Slifka Center since last September, tries to rejuvenate Slifka’s image by offering passing students a Jewish take on the tequila shot, using customary Rosh Hashanah fare. She worries that Hillel — the umbrella organization which oversees the Slifka Center, as well as most of campus Jewish life in the United States — spends too much time and effort catering to the needs of the 5 or 10 percent of Jews who sought a Jewish community as soon as they arrived on campus, rather than reaching out to those she describes as not feeling “Jewish enough.”
Along with Rachel Hixon — a second JCSC fellow who came to Yale this year — Goldman tries to meet the needs of the rest of the Jewish population with something she calls “low-barrier programming.” This is why, on Tuesday afternoons, you can find Goldman and Hixon lounging on Old Campus with pita chips, hummus and a hookah, chatting with whomever happens to pass by.
“People are a little scared to walk into a high-intensity Jewish event, especially if they have to commit to being there the whole time,” Goldman said.
Agnes Coakley ’08, who serves on the Multifaith Council, has noticed a similar trend in attendance at the discussions and events the Council has held over the past few years.
“You just have to get people there with food or something exciting,” she said. “If it sounds too much like a section, then people aren’t going to come.”
Some events held by religious organizations attract larger crowds of curious or hungry students. Slifka’s most popular event by far is a bi-monthly Bagel Brunch, which features piles of lox and cream cheese. Faez Syed ’10, who serves as alumni coordinator on the board of the Muslim Students Association, said that the MSA was expecting over 400 students at the annual Ramadan Banquet last night in Commons.
“And there’s nowhere near 400 Muslims at Yale!” he added.
Even within religious groups, a more informal environment has become the norm. Leon Powell ’08, director of the Yale Gospel Choir and member of the Yale Christian Fellowship, said that Christian groups on ca
mpus are less about serious worship and more about fellowship, which he defined as “basically the Christian variation of hanging out and having fun.”
Rosenstein said once students have found their way down Edgewood to the unassuming Chabad house on a Friday night, they usually come back.
“Some people will love an intellectually stimulating conversation, some will love the food or the schmoozing,” he said. “We want our events to be able to accommodate as much of those needs as we can by creating a mixture of all those qualities. And we try to make our events as entertaining as possible.”
And it shows. While the upstairs dining room will swell with 70 or 80 rowdy students Friday nights, only 10 or 15 will come to participate in solemn Shabbat services the next morning.
“That right there tells you the amount of people who are there for more of a social atmosphere than a strictly religious atmosphere,” he said.
But not all groups consider fun to be the focus. Syed emphasized the MSA’s organized prayer schedule and contributions to academic events — like the annual Critical Islamic Reflections Conference — are more important than study breaks and movie screenings, especially since most members of the group do not drink alcohol. According to Syed, the MSA will never host a large party or a dance because some members would be uncomfortable.
“People are really conscious about not letting the MSA just be a social organization,” he said. “[But] most of the kids who are involved are drawn in because of the social aspects.”
A Welcoming Community?
Though nearly all religious groups on campus try to create a base of support for their members within the larger Yale population, not every group is looking to expand its membership. While Yale’s religious roots extend back to its founding as a Protestant seminary, Coakley said Yalies today either shun faith altogether or congregate in small, self-segregated spiritual enclaves.
“There are these little groups of Christians over here and Jews over there who have really wonderful communities and activities and find fellowship with each other, but don’t always reach out to Yale as a whole,” she said.
While open events like the Ramadan Banquet or Indigo Blue’s nightly Stillness and Light meditation at Battell Chapel are popular with both secular and devout Yalies, the deeper side of religious groups exist almost entirely for the interested few.
You will never find anyone on Old Campus advertising Chabad at Yale or Indigo Blue. Some groups prefer to keep events more intimate, relying on word of mouth rather than fliers or mass e-mails.
“We want to create an environment where a student can walk in and feel as if they’ve just walked home,” Rosenstein said.
Tran explained that Indigo Blue makes no overt attempts to bring in new members because Buddhists believe that every individual has Buddha nature within them.
“While you don’t know it yet, you’re actually Buddhist,” he said. “In that sense, there’s no point to recruitment.”
But other groups actively try to find more participants. After meeting a student on Old Campus, Goldman will often send him a follow up e-mail about how Slifka can provide more events catered to his interests.
“Smoking hookah is not an end in itself,” she said. “I just want people to feel like the Jewish community is somewhere they can turn if they ever need it.”
Powell said that the Yale Christian Fellowship also aims to provide a network of support and understanding, but that playing board games or Nintendo 64 is “not so much a hook as a part of the mission,” because friendship and fun leads to a more tight-knit group. Powell himself has come to understand the potential these groups have to provide something more profound than video games. At the end of his sophomore year, as he straddled memberships in the Yale Christian Fellowship and the Reformed University Fellowship, both groups advised that he choose one and “go deep,” he said.
Many students mentioned the deeper connections possible within their religious communities, with the understanding that they could just as easily sit around discussing last week’s episode of “The Office” as this week’s Torah portion.
But while many students associate religious groups exclusively with worship, others say socialization has always been an important part of traditional religion. Joshua Au ’08, a member of Yale Students for Christ, said his religious group has both spiritual and relational components.
“You put your faith in someone.” he said. “We don’t just study about God all the time.”