Keeping the faith:
Working at Muhlenberg College I am cautioned, by some, that the college isn't Lutheran anymore. Cautionary tales tell me about the pain that some feel about the perceived loss of "their college." Memories of Muhlenberg are still rooted in the strong Lutheran-Christian presence on campus through the faculty, the curricula, and Chapel attendance. Such things form the heart of cherished experiences. When it seems that these hallmarks aren't preserved for future generations, a grieving process begins; brief for some, excruciatingly long for others. These tales express that grief. The college years are profound in our lives. When the memories that we carry with us after graduation begin to fade, a sense of loss invades.
The remarkable thing that I've discovered about religious life at Muhlenberg College is the beauty of difference. I'm glad that we're not all Lutherans. Religious differences do not threaten faith on campus, they stimulate growth! Mutual conversations and questions have created a dynamic religious community. Not everyone sees it that way. Difference can make people uncomfortable, and sometimes scared. From those pains and fears, we make myths to help us to explain and endure the gap that is difference. The problem is that these myths are not usually rooted in the truth. Some of the pain that I've spoken of is rooted in the myths and cautionary tales that have been created for Muhlenberg.
Some suggest that there are no Lutherans at Muhlenberg! The numbers aren't what they used to be, but times and connections have changed. Muhlenberg College is growing where it is planted and the Northeastern soil is diverse - racially, ethnically, economically and religiously. That diversity should be a cause for celebration! When students leave Muhlenberg College, they enter a world that includes people from a wide variety of faith traditions. Preparing students to learn, to live and to work with difference, to celebrate those things that bring flavor and mystery to the world, is one of our primary calls. We do it well. More than 1/3 of our students have a Roman Catholic background; between 1/5 and 1/4 of our students consider themselves Protestant Christian, Jewish, or our fastest growing group - unaffiliated. A small number of students are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or other faith traditions. Because of the beauty of difference, our students, faculty and staff are immersed in a living laboratory that raises questions about religious diversity each day.
Another popular myth is that young people are no longer interested in faith and religion. The "dis-interest" myth results from those who look around their place of worship and see a dwindling number of young faces. A new generation is still seeking community, but not in all the traditional places. Religious communities at Muhlenberg College are strong and stable. Our students are investigating their own faith backgrounds and that of their peers through course work, discussions, and community service. Muhlenberg's living laboratory provides opportunities for our whole community to think and wonder about faith as a central part of life.
With so much to be happy about in religious life, one might think that Muhlenberg College is too good to be true. We have our struggles. Each chaplain works hard to integrate his or her work into the larger life of the college, and at the same time to make space for the other opportunities of student life. Religious groups don't always understand each other; students' religious traditions are not always accommodated as well as we would like; and yes, there are misunderstandings that lead to hard feelings and anger. It is then that it's most important to remember that no new life, and no growth, happens without some pain.
Perhaps you remember your faith journey in college, or have heard the stories of families and friends. If so, you'll remember the questions, the confusion, the joys and sorrows of searching after the divine. I'm writing on the morning of Move-In Day 2001. Today more than 570 students will begin their Muhlenberg experience. They'll be looking for answers in classes, residence halls, athletic fields, and MILE houses. They'll ask friends, teachers, coaches, staff, and chaplains for guidance and advice. Whatever the search brings, we'll be there to offer our help, it's what we're called here to do.
Ainsley's other words say it all: "Faith is not a requirement at Muhlenberg, where you would have to go to chapel or Hillel for services. I knew it was around the campus the entire time I was there...it was just a matter of finding it for myself. Perhaps that is the most challenging aspect of religious life in college...finding faith when you can't find yourself."