Anika Banerjee ’24 (she/her), Staff Writer
For me personally, I’m from the Northeast, and coming to Davidson, that was the first time I had met anyone who had never met a Jewish person. I think a lot of Jewish students at Davidson have similar experiences. So there’s obviously a lack of awareness towards what Judaism is, including how it is both an ethnicity and a culture as well as a religion, and I think that lack of awareness sometimes breeds insensitivity. Not in an intentionally harmful way, but sometimes those things come up,” said Josh Lodish ‘22, the Co-President of the Jewish Student Union (JSU).
Despite the fact that Davidson’s religious affiliation lies within Presbyterianism, specifically the Presbyterian Church (USA), the college is home to 17 religious groups. The college also has the Chaplain’s Office, which provides religious groups with spiritual guidance, program planning resources, and pastoral counseling. Ranging from Davidson Dharma, a Buddhist group, to the Canterbury Episcopal Fellowship, these student-led organizations at Davidson provide outlets for many different expressions of religion. However, as a school that has a set religious affiliation that differs from the majority of the student body, the college’s structure and history mean it is inherently set up for Presbyterian worship, though Presbyterians only make up 13.3% of religiously identifying students on campus and 8.9% of the total student body.
Virginia Adams ‘23, the current Vice President of UKirk, one of Davidson’s student-led Presbyterian groups, stated that the one notable difference she sees between the treatment of these groups is that UKirk receives more spatial preferences than the others. “The biggest difference I have noticed is the allocation of space. The Davidson College Presbyterian Church is right on the corner of campus, and they rent/lease their property to the College, so we have our own space in the church where we are allowed to meet.” Adams compared that to how the Episcopal group is given spaces on campus, such as the Union, but that can never fully replace having a place dedicated to their faith on campus.
This is most certainly an experience that is felt by the Davidson Wesley Campus Ministry as well. Laura Auberry ‘21, the student leader of Wesley Campus Ministry, a group for United Methodist Students, found her group having issues with space. Although the Wesley Campus Ministry is not a Presbyterian group, they have felt support from the college through administration such as Dr. Anne Wills, a professor from the religion department; Reverend Rob Spach ‘84, Davidson College Chaplain; and also the entirety of the Chaplain’s Office. Their support unfortunately is countered by their inability to find a space on or near campus that fits their needs.
Auberry said, “We used to serve meals at our meetings in the Oasis in the Chaplain’s Office, but we switched out of meetings in the Oasis because it was not really suited for serving food and our organization grew too large for the space. So we have switched around to various spaces that accommodate a growing organization but would also allow us to serve food.” She continued by stating how finding spaces on campus would be an easier task if the identity of their religious group matched the religious affiliation of their school.
Other groups, however, have a different perspective on what it is like to be a non-Presbyterian on a Presbyterian-affiliated campus. Lodish spoke of how being isolated from your religion and stepping into a community where you are a part of the minority allows you to embrace it further. He believes that the isolation gives you the opportunity to see why your religion means something to you as opposed to having your family or society influence that part of your life.
Julia Mahoney ‘23, who acts as President within the leadership team of Catholic Campus Ministries, was afraid that upon entering a Presbyterian college, she would have to outsource her faith and find a church off campus to practice. Her preconceived notions were proven wrong when she received support from Catholic Campus ministries and Rev. Spach which allowed for her to continue practicing her faith without having to leave Davidson by giving her the resources she needed.
Similarly, Cassandra Blau ‘23 of Davidson Dharma sees their presence on a Presbyterian campus as an opportunity to bring awareness of Buddhist practices and events to the community.
Rayed Hamid ‘24, President of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), seconds Blau’s opinion. “I think Davidson being a Presbyterian campus has not impacted how we practice our faith much. The members of our group come from various backgrounds and levels of religiosity, so we appreciate any resources we are given to allow our members to explore their faith and learn about Islam,” stated Hamid.
For some of the groups, the college’s faith goes relatively unnoticed. “I don’t think that Davidson‘s affiliation with the Presbyterian Church is very present in active student life on campus. Had I not known of the affiliation prior to attending, I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it,” said Aspen Dyer ‘23 from the Latter-Day Saint Student Group. Dyer continues by detailing how Davidson does not push religion on to their students, and that the only rule they enforce upon the community is the Honor Code; while the Code can be traced back to practices within certain churches or other religious bodies, it is more of a universal idea that Davidson wants for their campus.
Additionally, there are some benefits that these groups have found in the college maintaining a Presbyterian affiliation. “I think it’s really crucial that the college has an identity, because through its religious identity, they can respect other religions,” said Ben Haden ‘22, a member of the Canterbury Episcopal Fellowship. “Because the Presbyterian theology is so particular in understanding that they do not know everything about God, or about the world, that mindset allows Davidson to welcome and foster students to grow in their own worldview whether that be religious or personal.”
Regardless of the difficulties some of these groups have had in terms of spatial distribution and general unawareness for their religions, they are all proud to have platforms upon which they can share their faiths with the Davidson community. This includes hosting events and practicing their faiths around campus to bring attention to their messages.
In the years before COVID-19, weekly gatherings took place in almost every religious group on campus. Bringing certain cuisines to campus, having discussion sessions, and participating in philanthropic events are all normal activities for these groups when CDC restrictions are at bay.
According to Auberry, “During a normal year, we [Wesley] meet once a week for some food, check-ins, and a scripture lesson or activity. We also usually have two retreats a year, which usually take place over a weekend. These events are open to everyone.”
They also do several campus outreach events, including serving hot chocolate and cookies in Union, a dog-study break during finals week, and a fruit exam break. These events are done with the motivation to reach out to students on campus so people can become aware of what the Wesley Campus Ministry is. They also do service projects throughout the year, one of which involves volunteering at Davidson Community Garden.
Hamid spoke to how the MSA engages in activities during a normal year. On Fridays, Islam’s holy day, they host a weekly prayer service in the Oasis. They also have bi-weekly meetings for members of their group. In order to keep in line with their faith, the MSA caters halal food from Charlotte and nearby restaurants to help Muslims on campus feel comfortable in practicing their faith.
Eid is an incredibly important holiday within Islam; however, since the date it falls upon is dependent on the lunar calendar, Eid does not always occur during the school year. This year was one of those where Eid did not occur when school was in session, “So instead this year we brought a halal food truck from Charlotte to campus as part of a Ramadan, a holy month in which Muslims fast. We served over 260 meals to Davidson students,” said Hamid.
In a typical year, Davidson Dharma would bring a speaker to campus and hold a meditation retreat at the start of spring break, and hold educational field trips. The Latter-Day Saint Student Group normally gathers twice a year in April and October to listen to a four hour live broadcast from their church. They accompany this by ordering food and reflecting on the videos afterwards.
The Canterbury Episcopal Fellowship now gathers in Hobart Park by the labyrinth on Sunday afternoons, and on occasion they will gather for dinners afterward. Prior to COVID, they would meet in the Oasis for the Eucharist and then go to the Sprinkle Room for a dinner provided by St. Albans Episcopal Church.
All of these groups put an immense amount of effort into creating safe and educational places on campus for students to express their faiths or even to just learn about different religions. In terms of the college making steps to advance their religious diversity, Davidson altered their bylaws on January 28th and reduced the required amount of Presbyterian presence on the Board of Trustees. On top of that, Davidson no longer requires their president to be Presbyterian.
Lodish, who was one of the students involved in the movement to change Davidson’s religious bylaws, stated, “The bylaws, which recently changed, initially said that non-Presbyterians could not serve in a lot of different roles on campus, and non-Christians could not serve in leadership roles around campus, including the Board. So for the Board and the President, people were barred from serving in those positions because of their religious identity, which I saw as religious exclusion.”
Adams emphasizes that no religion is superior to another, and the changes in the bylaws are beneficial as they will allow for religious diversity to be a pillar of the college. All of these religious groups are happy to see that there are going to be opportunities for people of their religions to impart their perspectives and knowledge onto the Davidson community.
“No one’s particular worldview in terms of religion is going to be universal, but Davidson is making steps towards ensuring that most, if not all, religious perspectives are valued, and this is not the case at all liberal arts colleges. Davidson’s transparency of what their institution is grounded in allows them to accept and foster a healthy environment for religions different from theirs,” said Haden.