This fall, Michigan State University created a ‘reflection room’ in Anthony Hall, which students of any faith can use for prayer. Certain faiths, such as Islam, require daily prayers during the hours classes are normally held, which can be difficult to fulfill on days when students have classes and have to find a quiet spot to pray. Yet prayer is just one religious obligation that students of a religious minority must fulfill. Sometimes students have trouble eating cafeteria food due to dietary restrictions, are unable to celebrate religious holidays not recognized on the university calendar and must work to overcome misconceptions about their faiths.
MSU does not collect information on students’ religious beliefs, said Paulette Granberry Russell, director of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. “I think the diversity of religious beliefs that are represented on campus is hard to gauge,” Russell continued. “It’s not mandatory for anyone to disclose that kind of information.”
While the university does not collect statistical data on students’ religions, it does try to ensure that these students feel included. “When MSU identifies and states that we value inclusion, that’s intended to include one’s religious values,” Russell said. MSU has a non-discrimination policy and has held workshops for faculty and administrators on the legal aspects of non-discrimination and how to accommodate students’ different needs. The university also has a religious observance policy that allows absences for religious holidays so long as they are prearranged.
Despite these efforts, some students of minority faiths still find campus life challenging.
Geoffrey Levin, an international relations junior and president of the Jewish Student Union, said Kosher food rules forbid eating pork and shellfish, and mandate other animals be killed in a way that drains their blood and minimizes pain. He said he keeps Kosher, though other Jews don’t always.
“I’m a vegetarian while I’m in the dorms,” he said. “It’s rough not being able to eat meat on campus, but you sort of get used to it.”
Kosher also requires different pans and cooking utensils be used for meat and dairy products. The Lester and Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center has separate kitchens for preparing different foods, Levin said, and Jewish students can set up to eat there for Passover.
“If you have the meal plan the university will give the money to Hillel to pay for the food,” he said.
Levin said there are three movements of Judaism who differ in how strictly they apply Halakha, Jewish religious law: reform, conservative and orthodox. Orthodox Jews observe the requirements for worship and daily life, including Kosher, as closely as possible, he said, and conservative Jews looking for a compromise between traditional law and modern society.“The reform movement is the most progressive. They think that the Jewish law is not binding … and they think that Jews should do what they find spiritually meaningful,” Levin said.
The Jewish Student Center holds services for all three movements. Kesher and Koach, the student groups for reform and conservative Jews respectively, both have meetings there. Levin said he has gone to a reform synagogue and has orthodox friends, but went to a conservative high school.
“It tends to be more fluid than most religions,” he said.
Levin said, in addition to holding weekly services, the Jewish Student Center also holds special services the high holidays, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah, observed in the fall, requires Jews to apologize to anyone they have wronged. Yom Kippur is celebrated 10 days after Rosh Hashanah and is dedicated to prayer for forgiveness for a person’s sins the previous year, he said. Yom Kippur also requires Jews to fast.“That definitely doesn’t make going to class any easier,” Levin said.
Fasting is also required by other religions represented on campus.
Sarah Bashir, an apparel and textile design sophomore and outreach chairwoman for the Muslim Students Association, said Muslim students have to fast until sundown during the holy month of Ramadan. Bashir said some Muslim students find it harder to focus in class during the fast, but others find it easier because they don’t have to interrupt whatever they are doing to go to the cafeteria. “When you’re busy and you have classes … it makes the day go faster,” she said.
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid-ul Fitr by going to their mosques, visiting friends and doing charity work. About a month later, they observe Eid-ul Adha, when a sheep or goat is sacrificed to symbolize Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his older son Ishmael. The meat is often given to charity, Bashir said.
Bashir said Muslims can only eat an animal if its throat was cut to kill it quickly, and its eyes were covered so it would not be frightened by the blade or the sight of other animals dying. The concept, called Halal, is similar to Kosher, she said.
“It has to be from a place where the animals are treated right,” she said. “It’s quite difficult [eating in the dorms] for people who are carnivores.”
She said Muslim students can get Halal food off-campus.
Some Muslims may find it easier to eat off campus, but schedules often demand they find a place to pray between classes. Bashir said Muslims from all traditions have to participate in daily prayers facing the Ka’aba, a large stone cube in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Muslims pray before sunrise, in the early afternoon, in the mid-afternoon, at sunset and at night.
She said the prayers generally take five to 10 minutes, beginning with specific phrases, followed by personal prayers and time with God. Some students find it difficult to find a quiet place to pray.
“We do have a reflection room [in Anthony Hall] now, which makes it easier,” she said.
In addition to having to adjust to dietary differences and challenges finding a place to pray, Bashir said students from countries with Muslim majorities sometimes experience culture shock because many American students have more relaxed attitudes toward drinking alcohol and interactions between males and females. Islam forbids premarital sex and using alcohol or drugs. “I think it’s eye-opening for some Muslims,” she said.
She said some non-Muslim students also are shocked when they encounter Muslim social norms. Bashir said she started wearing a headscarf about a year and a half ago, and many people she met initially thought she was being forced to cover her hair. The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, does not explicitly require Muslim women to veil, or practice hi’jab, although this issue is constantly debated among Muslim scholars and academics. “I really loved the idea of being viewed as an individual … for my mind and my personality and my thoughts,” she said. “I think once I explained it to people they saw the beauty in it”
Ginger Gamble, a senior studying global and area studies- gender and global development and a member of the Bahá’í faith, said many students also have misperceptions of her faith. “A lot of people get it confused with a sect of Islam or Christianity,” she said.
Bahá’ís believe all religions come from the same God, and their religion’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh, is the most recent messenger from God.
“Bahá’ís believe in progressive revelation … God sends different manifestations for different ages,” Gamble said. “As long as humanity needs some guidance on social teachings and on their own spirituality, God will continue to send manifestations throughout the ages.”
Gamble said Bahá’ís pray one of three prayers daily. The shortest prayer is three or four sentences, she said, and the longest takes about five to seven minutes. The prayers can be read silently or spoken aloud.
“In college, specifically in the dorms, it’s difficult to navigate that roommate relationship [with prayer],” she said.
Bahá’ís hold a worship service called feast every 19 days, Gamble said, where they come together for prayers, singing, readings, and socialization. The 19-day cycle, based on the Bahá’í calendar, means that feast can fall on weekdays, making it more difficult for students to attend.
“There’s a lot of flexibility,” Gamble said. “When you go to church, it’s every single Sunday. That’s the way the calendar’s structured.”
Gamble said the Bahá’í faith started in Persia (modern day Iran), and its holidays are celebrated in ways similar to Muslim ones. Bahá’ís fast from March 2 to March 20, one month in their calendar, and celebrate the new year March 21. Part of the fast usually falls during spring break, she said, making it easier to use those days for reflection.
“You start thinking about why you’re fasting and why you’re a Bahá’í and why you believe what you believe,” she said.
Bahá’ís also celebrate the birth of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of their religion, as well the birth of the Bab, Bahá’u’lláh’s forerunner. Bahá’ís believe both are manifestations sent by God to guide the world. Other holidays include the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh and his son. Work traditionally stops on those holidays, but Gamble said observances vary depending on an area’s Bahá’í population.
Kritsada Kittimanapun, a physics doctoral student and practicing Buddhist, said Buddhist festivals are also celebrated somewhat differently at the Dhammasala Forest Monastery, near MSU, than in countries with larger Buddhist populations. He said in Thailand people traditionally celebrate the Buddha’s birth, death and entrance to Nirvana by giving food to the monks in the morning, listening to the monks’ teaching in the afternoon, and walking three times around the temple and meditating at night.“Here in Lansing we have the first two activities,” he said. “If [a holiday] is a weekday, we usually move the day earlier or put it off a little later to have it on a weekend.”
Kittimanapun said unlike followers of some other religions, Buddhists in the Theravada branch, commonly practiced in Thailand, are not required to attend services. They meditate to reach enlightenment by concentrating on breathing, though practices vary among the branches of Buddhism.“If you are in a quiet place, it might help you do it better, but in principle we can do the meditation anywhere,” he said.
Kittimanapun said Buddhists emphasize mental control and are also not supposed to drink alcohol.“Some people, if they’re not so strict, might drink some alcoholic stuff, but in the small amounts so they can control themselves,” he said.
Buddhists are also forbidden to kill animals, Kittimanapun said, but they can eat them to maintain life.“We can eat meat, but we are not allowed to kill a dog that just walks by us,” he said.
Raman Anantaraman, a physicist at the MSU Cyclotron and webmaster for the Bharatiya Temple of Lansing, said Hindus are not allowed to injure other living things, and vegetarianism is encouraged, though eggs and dairy products are allowed.
Anantaraman said the Hindu students have a temple nearby that holds worship services every day and provides spiritual resources. Each day of the week is dedicated to a different group of deities and the length of the services varies. For example, Ganesa, a deity with the head of an elephant, is worshiped for 45 minutes Sunday mornings.
Anantaraman said Hindus can also worship at home. The pooja can last from five minutes to an hour, and involves making offerings of food and other gestures to a picture or statue of the god being worshiped, after consecrating the objects involved.
“You invite the god as a guest to your home. He is like a guest who has gone a long way,” he said.
He said as Hindus grow spiritually they can move beyond using physical objects in worship.“The ultimate concept is that God is in you,” Anantaraman said. “Every human is potentially divine, and the core purpose of life is to manifest that divinity.”
Anantaraman said the university is inclusive, but believes that it is not the university’s business to do anything special for religious minority students.“They aren’t discouraging it. They are facilitating it at some level,” he said.
The students interviewed said the university has done a good job being inclusive to religious minority students. “I think with the diverse group on campus, the university has become more understanding,” Bashir said. “There are still some professors that need to have more training.”
She said the university could do better by providing more reflection rooms around campus and more funding for campus religious groups. Levin said the Jewish Student Union also is talking to the university about possible improvements.“If we could get just one mini-fridge in one dorm with some Kosher meat that would be a major accomplishment,” he said.
The university is legally prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion, but is not required to accommodate all of students’ needs. Providing extra services, including the reflection room in Anthony Hall, is optional. Religious minority students will continue to face different challenges in terms of dietary requirements, holidays not on the university calendar and views of their faiths.