Keeping the faith: Being a religious minority at a religious school

Published: Thursday, Jan. 5 2012 5:00 p.m. MST

Honors College - Baylor Interdisciplinary Core (BIC Brochure) faculty and students interacting - Tom Hanks, Lenore Wright - Alexander Reading Room - 03/17/2010

Robert Rogers,

Even the slow ticking of the clock is distracting to Azeem Malik this late Sunday night in the Baylor University library. Suddenly, a vibration from his pocket caused by a concerned mother brings his wondering mind back.

"Azeem," the calm yet urgent voice on the phone says. "Osama Bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan. You should get home to avoid any trouble."

A sense of nervousness fills Malik as he pushes open the library doors and is hit with the sticky Texas air. He hasn't had any big issues at the privately owned Baptist university even though he is a Muslim from Pakistan, but doesn't want to take any chances with such a volatile situation as this. He feels a sense of relief as he reaches his dorm, but as his roommate greets him, his mood soon changes.

"Hey Azeem, you hear the news? Your father is dead," his roommate teases.

Unaware of how important respect for parents is among Azeem's culture, the misguided slight touches on Malik's sensitivities on multiple levels — talking about his father, and then relating him to a mass murderer. Yet the unintended insensitivity is not something new to Malik or other American minorities. With more than 35 percent of the United States population being minorities according to the 2010 census, misunderstandings and prejudices continue to unfortunately be a part of American culture.

Compounding the situation for Malik is the fact that he has chosen to attend a private religious university owned and operated by a faith group with which he is not affiliated. And he is not alone in that decision. Two of the most prominent religiously oriented universities in America, Baylor and Brigham Young University, have achieved a good deal of national prominence lately through the athletic exploits of BYU's Jimmer Fredette, who was the consensus national player of the year in men's basketball last season, and Robert Griffin III, who recently snagged Baylor's first Heisman Trophy for football. At the private Baptist university in Waco, Texas, roughly 94 percent of Baylor's approximately 15,000 students are Christian, while members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up 98 percent of the 33,000 total enrollment at LDS Church-owned BYU.

The collective 8 percent who don't share the faith affiliation of their college peers find themselves driven to these institutions for a variety of reasons — lower financial costs, strong educational traditions and a perceived culture of morality, to name a few. From dealing with an honor code that doesn't always line up with their personal belief system to trying to get official institutional recognition for an atheist organization, religious minorities who have chosen to attend Baylor and BYU have had their share of both frustrating and gratifying experiences.

Nathan Freystaetter, a member of the Unificationist Church from Florida, became interested in going to BYU after watching a BYU football game on television. After researching more about the university, Freystaetter said the Honor Code played a big part in helping him make his decision to go to BYU, since the Unificationist movement, which started in South Korea, shared many of the same moral beliefs contained in the code.

"Knowing that I would be on a sober campus was a great plus because that's how I lived in high school," he said. "There were a lot of people where I lived that did drugs and alcohol and I always tried to avoid them. Not having to worry about any of that gives me a lot of relief."

Matt Sager, an agnostic from San Antonio, had a similar experience when he looked into what Baylor had to offer. Although he was religiously unaffiliated at the time, he felt Christians would share his personal moral code, although the culture did surprise him.

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