Keeping The Faith

November 1, 1998

Suzanne Johnson

There is an old cartoon, faded but classic, that holds a lot of truth for members of the Religious Life Staff at Tulane. In the cartoon, a high school senior kneels in prayer. "Goodbye, God," he says. "I'm going to college." "College is the students' time to be free of parental control," acknowledges the Rev. Richard Wells of the United Campus Ministry--Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. "Religion is seen as part of that."

Providing programs for religiously active students, maintaining a presence and availability for those who aren't, and handling counseling and emergencies--those are the roles of the heads of 10 organizations that make up Tulane's Religious Life staff (see sidebar), says current staff chair Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner of the Hillel Center.

The Religious Life Staff works through student affairs, holds courtesy staff status with the university, and meets every two weeks to talk about policies, problems and matters more philosophical. For example, how can college students integrate the new ideas they're exploring at Tulane with the religious beliefs they learned early in life?

"It's a real challenge," says Chris Klingenfus, head of the interdenominational group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. "We try to work with students to help them integrate in a healthy way the knowledge they have from growing up in church or synagogue with what they're learning at the university.

Some will retreat into defensive dogmatism and not interact with the new knowledge they've been given. Others will totally capitulate to culture and will assimilate into what the rest of the university is like, and will not be distinct in their practice of faith." More and more often, students come to the university with no religious affiliations at all--or at least none that they claim.

"In terms of the religious preference cards (filled out by incoming freshmen as part of the freshman survey), the number of students even responding to that question is way down," says David Kaufmann, program director at Chabad House Jewish Student Center.

Twenty-five percent of those who answer the question on the freshman survey claim no religion at all. The Rev. William Morris has noticed the decline in religious experience among the students who visit the Episcopal Center.

"It used to be that most students had some religious involvement before coming to the Tulane campus, which they might dump when they got here," he says. "But there are growing numbers of students who have had no involvement with the church or synagogue--ever. It is simply unknown territory to them. Some are very curious; some are very receptive; some do not know how to take in what they see and hear."

Meeting their needs--as well as those who have maintained active religious affiliations since childhood--presents another challenge for the Religious Life staff. But as Kurtz-Lendner points out, being on a university campus allows them to find creative solutions.

"We have the opportunity to try creative programs that may not work elsewhere," he says. At the Hillel Center, for example, the staff is working on programs--from Israeli-theme night to concerts--that will help enhance Jewish identification without stressing service attendance.

For other centers, service availability is a key to their ministry. "Liturgical participation is at the center of the Roman Catholic religious practice, so students know there are certain things that are available to them and are here on a regular basis," notes the Rev. R.B. Williams of the Tulane Catholic Center, which holds daily mass on campus.

All of the centers have regularly scheduled activities, and attest to word-of-mouth, student-led ministry as their best means of reaching new students. "We find that student ministries are very effective," Morris says. "Students inviting other students works very well, where the idea of a chaplain running around campus strong-arming students to participate--well, it probably never worked, but it certainly doesn't work now."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000