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

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

"In high school, I didn't go to parties or get drunk, or do anything crazy, and so I went to Baylor because I figured there were like-minded people there," Sager said. "My experience with Christians in high school was people who were like 'On Sunday I'll go to church but every other day you won't be able to tell that I'm a believer.' So I figured that's how Christians generally were. But when I went to Baylor I was very surprised at how much more adamant they were about their faith."

Prashanta Shreseha, a graduate student from Kathmandu, Nepal, said the only thing he knew about Mormons before coming to BYU was what he saw on a "South Park" episode. He, like Sager at Baylor, found the dominant Mormon culture to be surprising.

"At first it's hard because they have a different way of life and it's hard to fit in," Shreseha said. "Also, the fact that they would do anything for the church was a little intense for me."

That intensity for their faith is displayed in many ways in the lives of LDS students at BYU. Many of them have served — or are preparing to serve — 18-month or two-year evangelical missions for the church (there are currently 52,000 LDS missionaries serving around the world). Religious minorities at BYU often catch the remnants of their evangelical zeal.

"'Every member a missionary' is such a strong thing here because everyone is Mormon, but then when they find someone that's not, they're like, 'Oh I can change that,'" said Andres Mallipudi, a non-LDS student from Anchorage, Alaska, who decided to come to BYU after seeing how inexpensive tuition was. "There was one kid who did this whole 'I challenge you' thing and shook a Book of Mormon in my face; another kid in my chemistry class got my number to study and then met with me for lunch and bore his testimony for 45 minutes. It can be a bit much."

Baylor's culture is not as missionary-oriented, but the university has been successful in challenging the minds of its students — especially those who are not Christian. Through an honors' program called the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core (BIC), many non-Christian students find themselves not only questioning their belief system, but also looking for answers.

Sager, who went to Baylor as an agnostic, found himself practicing Christianity after going through BIC.

"They were able to talk about their faith in terms of reason. They weren't afraid to be intellectual and say 'This is why I believe,'" Sager said. "I would also talk to chaplains and they were never like, 'You need to repent.' Instead it was, 'You should seek out truth and ask your own questions to see where you come up.'"

Malik, too, has been influenced by the BIC program. He went to Baylor as a Muslim and now in his second year finds himself an agnostic, although he recognizes that may not be the end of his search for truth. He credits BIC for challenging him.

"It has been a very powerful program," Malik said. "What it does is it introduces you to a lot of liberal topics but then ties it back to religion. If you believe in something your whole life and are never challenged, you'll always believe that thing. Baylor does a great job of expanding your mind as a religious person."

Although programs like BIC at Baylor challenge students academically and exposes them to different views and perspectives, some students feel the culture is not welcoming to non-Christians. Britni Pelton, an atheist from Tulsa, Okla., said the overwhelming pervasiveness of Christianity made her feel like an outsider.

"I felt really lonely in the beginning, just because I wasn't expecting it," Pelton said. "I don't think I met anyone who wasn't a Christian for months."

During Pelton's second semester she found a group on Facebook called the Atheist and Agnostic Society that had meetings at Baylor. The small group of 12-15 members met weekly to offer support to one another, and Pelton felt it filled a social need for her. However, she was disappointed to find out the club could not be sanctioned by the school, since the school only sanctions traditional Christian clubs.

Pelton said the policy makes it difficult for her to feel included at the university.

"I wish that we had received a little more respect, like being acknowledged by the school that we were there, instead of pretending like we weren't there," Pelton said. "Which is kind of what I felt happened."

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