College Gripped by Spiritual Uncertainty

Samantha Miles, Staff Writer

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Juniata College was founded by the Church of the Brethren, opening under the title “Huntingdon Normal School” on April 17th, 1876, and changing to “Brethren’s Normal College” and “Juniata College” within a twenty-year period. Without the Brethren in our College’s title, often students don’t realize that Juniata College started out as a Christian school––or consider how these origins have influenced the community we have today.

Out of the 55 students we surveyed, 45 students believed that Juniata was not originally a religious college. Even online sources do not label it so; the U.S. News best colleges ranking, Forbes, and College Consensus all either state “not applicable” or simply “no.” However, the Church of the Brethren, which established this institution, is a Christian denomination that originated in Germany over three centuries ago. Juniata is the oldest of the colleges affiliated with the Brethren, with some others including Elizabethtown College, Manchester University, McPherson College, Ashland University, Grace College, University of La Verne, and Bridgewater College.

But what does it truly mean for Juniata to have been established by the Brethren? According to the Church of the Brethren website, “An education at a Brethren college or university encourages free inquiry, intellectual curiosity, academic achievement, and offers programs that foster maturity, leadership, and service. Brethren institutions of higher education focus on the whole person and the worth of an individual. Ultimately, a Brethren education joins the world of work with the world of the spirit.” Does Juniata join “the world of work with the world of the spirit”? This depends, of course, on how one defines spirit.

In my quest to understanding this part of Juniata’s origin, I surveyed various random students as they exited Baker or crossed my path during the day. Some of their interesting responses included: “an energetic feeling inside, when you’re in touch with your inner fire,” “a force that connects all of humanity,” “our particular energy in the universe,” “something that keeps you alive,” “the soul of a person that you can’t sense but is ever-present and all-encompassing, but not overpowering,” “hope,” “enthusiasm,” “whatever you believe in that gives your life meaning,” “a belief in something bigger than you,” “a person’s essence or personality,” “ghosts,” “a horse movie,” “the Dao,” and “what every religion tries to answer.” As intriguing as the diversity of these responses was, it didn’t quite help me a definition, so I went looking for a more experienced source.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Deb Kirchhof-Glazier on the topic of spirituality in the Unity House on campus. She had such a plethora of intriguing and positive insights – so much that I couldn’t possibly write them all down in this single article. When asked, she responded, “I’m a member of the Bahá’í Faith, which defines spirit as the soul, and if I operationalize that for myself, what I talk about is the little voice. And it’s sort of like around your heart’s space. And I always say that the little voice doesn’t talk – but if you don’t listen to it, it won’t shut up. And so for spirit, that’s kind of… it’s the intuitive place in your being.”

While the Church of the Brethren is a Christian group, there are similarities between the Bahá’í Faith and the Church of the Brethren. Both formally stated to be open to students of all religions and values – this can be found both on the website of the Church of the Brethren, and is among the goals of the Bahá’í Faith, which is, according to Deb Kirchhof-Glazier, “the unity of God, the unity of humanity, the unity of religion.”

So, let’s break down a few of the most important principles that make up a Brethren institution and compare this with the Juniata of today – free inquiry, academic achievement, and joining the world of work with the world of the spirit.

Free inquiry – Juniata is a community full of appreciated diversity, and never once have I been told not to share my beliefs or express an argument. However, this has not always been the case in all of Juniata’s history; for instance, in my conversations with Deb, she has pointed out that when she suggested a course exploring a topic of interest to her, environmental ethics, it was immediately turned down by the professors, who claimed that “students don’t need to know that,” before moving on to another subject. Free inquiry requires all points of view to be heard and encouraged, but at this point in Juniata’s history,  there were at least some members of the faculty not adhering to this principle. This also discourages intellectual curiosity by preventing students from obtaining a whole other wealth of knowledge that could be integral to their futures.

Academic achievement – many of my teachers, I have found, grade students not based on achieving the set goals, but on exceeding them. In doing everything that is asked, for instance, a student may not receive an A, but a C, unlike in high school, in which fulfilling all requirements ensured an A. Participation is graded by putting in phenomenal unrequired effort, thus pushing students to achieve and impress. However, I’ve heard complaints from some students that many teachers don’t seem to give students enough opportunities to go above and beyond, by putting page and word limits on papers, giving assignments that take up too much time to allow for more independent studying, and by grading based on verbal participation in class rather than outside work effort and class preparation.

And finally, joins the world of work with the world of the spirit – Juniata prides itself on well-roundedness. At Juniata, I’ve met the friendliest people I’d ever met in my entire life. When someone loses their toothpaste, several others will offer their new backup tubes; when people hear that someone needs an emotional support animal, they don’t scoff – they tell them “I’m here for you,” and they ask if any help is needed in caring for the pet; when people hear that someone needs a ride to Sheetz or Walmart or Mountain Day, they offer it right away. When our FYC assignment required watching The Little Mermaid and taking notes on things you hadn’t noticed as a child, someone offered to drive us to her house, watch the movie in comfort, and eat pizza.

Little acts of kindness go a long way, and they aren’t as prevalent in many other places in the world – but when it comes to becoming a successful employee, or even a future employer, these characteristics can turn a profit. In short, I believe that Juniata makes a constant effort to follow its old creed, despite failing sometimes in certain areas and while, according to many of our students, being non-religious. The majority of Juniata’s students do not adhere to the religion of the Brethren – and many do not consider themselves religious at all, for that matter. Out of the 55 students surveyed, 7 were agnostic, three were atheist, and 10 simply said they were non-religious. There were 10 who labeled themselves as Christian, and 17 others who stated they were part of Christian denominations – three Methodists, seven Catholics, two Protestants, two Lutherans, two Episcopalians, and a single student from the Church of the Brethren. There were also two Jews and one Jain.

More than a third of the students at Juniata considered themselves spiritual or otherwise interested in religion, but they expressed uncertainty regarding what events they might attend or even what they would label their beliefs as. In my interview with her, Deb stated that, “I find most students I talk to, and maybe it’s because I’m involved in independent stuff, are the students who are searching. I call them ‘seekers,’ or ‘independently spiritual kids,’ who are disenchanted with religion as they have seen it. There’s a lot of hypocrisy and there’s – you know, they don’t keep up with the times, and it’s a shame – people are disillusioned with a church that is very much wired in old time things, and is not moving with the times, addressing the issues, and… and also there’s a lot of distractions, and a lot of churches are anti-science, so there’s a lot of things that turn people off about church. … We’re a mind, body, and spirit, whether you like it or not. And so that spirit can express itself in a lot of different ways. … A lot of kids that I see, at least on the surface, don’t even want to deal with spirituality… Either it’s uncool to do things like that, or they’re too busy – and certainly you can relate to that – so I would say…Yeah, we’re not really a religious school anymore.”

Many of our students have claimed they don’t even consider attending any spiritual events. Only 10 students out of 55 stated that they had attended spiritual events on or near campus, and out of the 45 who had not, only 14 were even considering attending any.

I believe we should consider each of them fully. We should consider what each of these events would have to offer us, and consider taking the opportunity to broaden our minds. It’s perfectly fine to spend your evening working on a school project, or going to rugby practice, or attending a Caring For Kids with Cancer meeting instead of sitting in a church, or at a round table meditating and discussing empowering spiritual quotes. But often we tend to involve ourselves so much in one or two events that we forget or ignore the world of opportunities around us. Or, rather, we can become so stressed out with everything happening at once, and we need to take a few moments to relax and get in touch with our spirit. We may not have a name for what we believe in, but that doesn’t mean there’s no place in the community where we can belong. There are plenty of ways for us seekers to get involved – we just have to be open-minded and willing to consider more. Explore. Learn. Seek.

There are several ways for students to begin their own spiritual exploration. One way to learn about more of these opportunities is by putting your name on the Campus Ministry’s email list to receive weekly bulletins about spiritual events, Faith Quest, prayer sessions, Bible studies, talks, periodic discussions, meals, service opportunities, etc. There are several religious groups on campus that one could join, and there are churches around, and even the Peace Chapel, for those who would prefer quiet meditation out in nature. The Campus Ministry Office (the Unity House on 1905 Moore St) has places of worship for over a dozen denominations listed on its website, and there is even a meditation room available whenever the Unity House is open. For those who consider themselves “spiritually independent” and are interested in speaking with others of a similar mindset, Deb has her own Monday night gatherings from 7:00-7:45 p.m., which consist of a discussion and quote readings. As for the Church of the Brethren, its roots are still here. According to Deb, “that’s part of how we became very active in peacemaking and peacekeeping, and that’s why we have the Baker Institute for Peace Studies.” Other elements of the church still remain – the Stone Church of the Brethren on 1623 Moore St, the Brethren Student Fellowship, and the Church of the Brethren Scholarship (up to $5,000).

I asked Deb whether she believed there would be enough interest in our student body to support all these different clubs, or whether some would disappear over time. She said, “There are certain things, like Hillel, and the Catholic Council, and the Christian Fellowship – I think those are gonna stay, ‘cause there should be a significant number of students that are part of that, and I think the Independent – whether it’s me or someone else doing it – I think those things will remain.” She also expressed hope in Juniata one day having other religious groups, such as Buddhist and Muslim, saying “This Better Together thing is really awesome… We went last year to an interfaith youth conference, and it’s so important to understand the different religions and to appreciate and be open-minded – if you don’t believe it, it’s fine, but to accept and value different opinions…” That’s what college should be all about – learning to understand and appreciate those who are different from you, as well as respecting their values. It’s how we grow as a community.

Perhaps certain student organizations won’t live on for as long as Juniata remains standing. But at least they can leave a positive mark on the community and us as individuals, as long as we remain open-minded and curious, and we continue to seek out our spiritual community.

 

 

BEHIND THE STORY

  1. Why did we report on this?
    • Sami is interested in exploring various religions that she didn’t have access to as a child. She has been attending weekly discussions about spirituality in the Unity House, which has been a positive experience and has made her interested in finding out the amount of religious diversity we have on campus.
  2. How did we get the information to report on this?
    • Sami sat outside of Baker Refectory for a few hours to survey a few dozen people who were willing to stop and answer her questions. She also interviewed Deb Hirchhof-Glazier from the Unity House on her insights over they years at Juniata.
  3. How can the reader get more information on the topic covered?
    • For further information on Juniata’s religious history, ask the library for Juniata records, research online, or contact Sami (milessb19@juniata.edu) with questions for Deb or other long-residing members of the Juniata community. For questions on religion, reach out to Sami (milessb19@juniata.edu) to get in contact with a professor from Juniata’s religions department.
  4. Did we miss something?
    • Let us know! Contact Sami (milessb19@juniata.edu) with any further questions, comments, or concerns about this article, or to suggest further articles about this topic.