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,) 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.

Christmas on Fifth Street, Baylor campus ? 12/01/2011    (Robert Rogers,) Christmas on Fifth Street, Baylor campus ? 12/01/2011 (Robert Rogers,)

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.

Hakawati performer Hani Almadhoun reads a monologue during the Annual Dinner on October 1, 2010. The piece was based word for word on an interview conducted earlier in the year in the Middle East by ANERA staff.   (David Snyder,) Hakawati performer Hani Almadhoun reads a monologue during the Annual Dinner on October 1, 2010. The piece was based word for word on an interview conducted earlier in the year in the Middle East by ANERA staff. (David Snyder,)

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.

"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."

Baylor University Chaplain Dr. Burt Burleson acknowledged the university could make some progress to be more inviting. Only recently has policy changed to sanction all traditional Christian groups instead of just Baptist groups.

"I think we have some room to develop there," Burleson said. "We're really beginning to try to work in a more serious way to figure out how to offer the hospitality of Christ and how to welcome the 'other.'"

The inclusion of other groups is something BYU's university chaplain, Jim Slaughter, focuses on in Provo. To help non-LDS students adapt to the Mormon culture, Slaughter said he encourages students to become involved as much as they can in the student body. In recent years, non-LDS students at BYU have created a non-denominational Cross Seekers club, a Newman Society for Catholic students and a Muslim Student Association.

Hani Al-Madhoun is one of those who became heavily involved in student body leadership. He came to BYU from the Gaza Strip after receiving a scholarship linked to the BYU Jerusalem Center. While at BYU he became the president of an Arabic Club in 2002, and helped found the BYU stand-up comedy club Humor U a few years later.

Working with other students helped Al-Madhoun fit in after having a difficult time at first.

"Struggles were cultural mostly — I had to adjust," Al-Madhoun said. "But now, even after graduation from college, most of my friends out here in (Washington) D.C. are members of the LDS Church. We have a lot in common as more brings us together and less drive us apart. I would recommend BYU for my relatives and friends."

Although Malik felt slighted the night of Bin Laden's death, he actually looks back on it as a positive experience, and he learned from the situation as he and his roommate made amends. He was able to explain the importance of parents and family in his culture and came to understand the "Family Guy" sort of humor that pervades American society.

"At the end of the day we became more culturally aware of each other," Malik said. "And I feel that's a great thing."

EMAIL: jbolding@desnews.com

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