By Rosie Spinks
Campus News Reporter
It was his first experience tabling at UC Santa Cruz, and Rabbi Shalom Bochner was sitting in the Quarry Plaza.
“Don’t you know God isn’t allowed on this campus?” a passerby remarked, as he strode past the Santa Cruz Hillel table.
Bochner didn’t know the man who had offered this cautionary wisdom — perhaps in a quasi-joking tone. But now, after several years as a rabbi serving students in the Santa Cruz community, Bochner has become familiar with these sentiments. Since its inception, UC Santa Cruz has been a place where free ideas reign and individuals live the lifestyle of their own choice. Anarchy, atheism, homosexuality, paganism and marijuana use are just a few of the myriad of ideas that are accepted and embraced here in a way that is not seen on many other colleges campuses. However, when it comes to more traditional belief systems, such as organized religion, the Santa Cruz attitude of openness doesn’t always apply.
“This is a very liberal, welcoming and open-minded campus as long as people share the same particular liberal thoughts,” Bochner said. Whether or not Bochner’s assessment of UCSC is true, the number of religious groups on campus are as varied and diverse as the students who comprise them. With about 10 different groups officially registered with Student Organization Advising and Resources (SOAR) and 15 groups listed as members of the University Interfaith Council (UIC) in addition to other unaffiliated groups, students seeking religious guidance and counsel have no shortage of options.
As a state institution, the University of California must maintain a stance of neutrality when it comes to religious and political matters. However, UCSC’s Student Policies and Regulations Handbook states that student religious organizations are in no way treated differently from other student organizations on campus. This is seen in section 41.11, which states, “Religious, political, and ideological registered campus organizations shall have access to university properties on the same basis as all other campus organizations.”
The members who join these organizations do so with different motivations, from strengthening their faith and exploring unanswered questions, to casual fellowship and reaffirming social networks.
Omar Aziz, a fourth-year co-chair of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), noted that MSA members have a wide range of religious, personal and cultural reasons for joining the organization. “A part of it is to become more spiritual and enlightened about the religion,” he said. “A lot of us Muslims come from immigrant families, so religion is both a part of our lives and our identity.” Another group that students are drawn to for both cultural and religious reasons is Santa Cruz Hillel, one of the largest religious groups on campus, serving approximately 1,000 students. Bochner spoke about the strong community that Santa Cruz Hillel offers, providing free weekly Friday night Shabbat dinners and services. “I think there is a human desire for community right up there with food, shelter and clothing,” Bochner said. “In the case of Hillel, that community includes 4,000 years of Jewish culture, history and expression.” Also promoting the spirit of community is Faith, Education, Action, and Service Together (FEAST), a progressive Christian group on campus that emphasizes social justice and all-inclusiveness. Derek Denny, a first-year, was drawn to the proactive nature of this group. “We all have certain problems with our faith, and that’s why we sought something different,” Denny said. “I was tired of just sitting in church — this group actually does stuff about the problems in the world.” Religious groups can also be a way to help students stay strong in their faith throughout college, said Jason Rieckewald-Schmidt, the team leader for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group on campus. “I think a number of students are worried that the faith they grew up with will no longer be a priority by the time they graduate from college,” he said. “In college, people are motivated to make their faith their own and to just continue in their faith at UCSC, which can be a hard place to practice religion.” Bible Thumpers and Fundamentalists
In a place where the exchange of liberal ideas is heard throughout campus daily and full-body tattoos and multiple piercings are considered commonplace, it may seem incongruous that living out one’s own belief system can be such a challenge to some religious students.
Rieckewald-Schmidt delved into the root of where some of the challenges come from.
“I think practicing Christianity at UCSC can be hard because the experimental lifestyle here, in terms of sexual orientation, drugs and alcohol, tends to go against teachings of the Bible,” he said.
While stereotypes about Islam and Judaism often run rampant in the media, it seems that those practicing Christianity also have especially strong stereotypes to overcome.
Sean Tai, a 2006 alumnus and campus minister of FEAST, knows firsthand what it’s like to be viewed with such a stigma.
“A lot of people come with preconceptions of Christians and don’t want to talk to us,” he said. “To be Christian often means that people think you hold certain political views like anti-gay and pro-war.”
Aziz explained that while Muslim stereotypes do exist, they are not as deeply rooted on this campus as those associated with Christianity.
“A lot of people have personally negative experiences with Christianity, he said. “But people are relatively interested and understanding [about] Islam as long as you explain your beliefs to them.”
Breaking Down Stereotypes
Despite the hostility these various groups experience, they share the common thread of being welcoming to believers and nonbelievers alike. With events that range from religious holiday celebrations, weekly Bible or Torah studies, informal barbecues and community service projects, there is no lack of outlets for religious expression and fellowship on campus.
Aziz highlighted the welcoming nature of MSA.
“What separates MSA from other Muslim groups is that we try very hard not to judge,” he said. “Because we have such a broad spectrum of followers, we try to say that no one ever knows your personal relationship with God.”
Many individuals take the initiative to learn about different faiths for themselves, an encouraging sign that students are breaking down existing stereotypes on campus. More often than not, meetings include students who don’t necessarily consider themselves religious but want to both educate themselves and be part of a positive and active community on campus. Josh Wolf, a second-year who attends MSA meetings, is one such student.
“I came here to learn more about the religion,” he said. “Studying comparative religions is very interesting to me.”
Tai explained that FEAST has members who do not fit into a stereotypical vision of Christianity, such as atheists and gay people. This welcoming nature is what the group is all about.
“You don’t need to be a Christian to follow Jesus,” Tai said. “We welcome all to learn the teachings of Jesus.”
Both the UIC and the more recently formed Student University Interfaith Council (SUIC) seek to make religious life on campus more available to students of all faiths. Bochner is chair of the SUIC.
“[The SUIC] are there to support one another, to raise the profile of spiritual life on this campus, and be the connection point between spiritual students and the administration,” Bochner explained.
The SUIC has similar goals. Nathan Ellstrand, a third-year student who serves as the facilitator of SUIC, explains that the religious beliefs of members include Judaism, Islam, paganism and atheism.
“Members of our group are not necessarily part of organizations, but represent a point of view,” he said. “They come to the meetings to learn about one another’s faith.”
Bible versus Buddha
While students may be wary of so-called religion or belief in God, the idea of spirituality seems to be more openly expressed on campus because of its less binding nature. Seemingly less dogmatic groups such as the World Peace Buddhists, a group that practices a style called Nichiren Buddhism centered on chanting, may be viewed differently.
Fourth-year Lisa Noon, World Peace Buddhists’ facilitator, emphasized the appeal of a more individually based belief system.
“Santa Cruz is very open to spirituality but a lot of people don’t like to follow something that’s already established,” she explained. “I think people are seeking a philosophy to empower their lives, not necessarily something to follow.”
Schmidt points out the distinction. “Ask people: what’s your baggage with Buddhism?” he said. “People don’t have any baggage with Buddhism, but lots of people have baggage and weird experiences with the Christian church.”
Bochner sums up the apparent disconnect between organized religion and spirituality.
“I’m not convinced this is such an unreligious place,” Bochner said. “[UCSC] is a deeply spiritual community but for some reason, it’s OK to be spiritual while mainstream religion holds a negative connotation.”
While the teachings of the Torah, Christian Bible, Qur’an and other religious texts may not be as widely followed on campus as the tenets of, say, Bob Marley, there is no need for faith-seekers to be discouraged.
Bochner looks to the future with the hope of highlighting the strong connection between spirituality and religion.
“If spirituality is ‘in’ and religion is an expression of spirituality, why isn’t religion ‘in’?” he said. “That’s our challenge as people of faith.”