Although it was founded in 1831 under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Wesleyan ended its religious affiliation in 1907, ostensibly over Professor of Chemistry Wilbur Atwater’s experimentation on the nutritional value of alcohol in the face of Episcopal disapproval.
Though the University’s religious affiliation may be history, that history is embedded in the fabric of Wesleyan’s campus. The school’s ubiquitous coat of arms consists of a shell-studded cross and was taken from John Wesley’s family crest, and until the 1930s, varsity athletic teams even went by the moniker “the Fighting Methodists,” which was only later swapped out for the more generic “Cardinals.” The Old Methodist rugby team has still not received the memo.
Today, Wesleyan students build on that history with a wide array of religious affiliations and backgrounds. Though a great many Wesleyan students describe themselves as non-religious, or as religious only in a cultural sense, an open and inclusive religious life still thrives on campus, centered around program houses such as Buddhist House, Light House, Turath House, and the Bayit, where Shabbat dinners draw dozens of students every Friday night.
“When I came to Wesleyan I did not immediately find my community,” said Emma Golub ’16, a former Bayit resident and a current Jewish Renaissance Fellow. “I’m so happy now to at the end of my Friday go to Shabbat, sing, reflect, think about my week, do the Rabbi’s activities, and eat a really delicious meal with my friends. There’s something nice about having that Friday night tradition. We want to be open to everyone on campus, so that anybody who is interested in that kind of community experience is absolutely welcome.”
Many Jewish-affiliated events are organized through collaboration between the Bayit; Rabbi David Leipziger Teva, Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and University Jewish Chaplain; and Rabbi Levi Schectman, a member of the Jewish Chabad organization and its representative at Wesleyan.
“It’s wonderful to collaborate with student musicians, activists, and poets to make events on campus that are meaningful and transformative,” Teva said. “It’s inspiring to see eighty people at a Shabbat service and dinner like we had last week.”
For those looking for a more intimate experience, Rabbi Schectman offers students a smaller venue for weekly celebration.
“We do have Shabbat dinner, but we do it a little bit different,” Schectman said. “We do a more intimate family-style dinner. So when we invite students for Shabbos, we don’t make an event inviting people. But we create relationships, [and] ask, ‘Would you like to join our family for Shabbat?’ So typically we have a much smaller handful of students. In a certain sense we aim to create a home-away-from-home environment.”
For many Jewish students, last week was particularly abuzz with preparation for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.
“It’s different than most services that go on here,” Golub said. “It’s such an important event. It’s the New Year. It’s a bit more official. Whereas you can roll up to Shabbat in your sweatpants 20 minutes late and it’s fine, Rosh Hashanah is an important holiday in the Jewish calendar.”
Though many students return to their families to celebrate the holiday, there is a flurry of programs and activities on campus, such as the annual shofar (a traditional instrument made of a ram’s horn) factory outside of Usdan, run by Schectman.
“Whenever the holidays come around we do events like that shofar factory,” Schectman said. “We’ve done that every single year that we’ve been here; it’s been 4 years. We like to do as many different events as possible. It’s hard to cater to everybody on campus, when everybody has different Jewish experiences, what they expect, et cetera. But we try different things, different entry points, [so] that people [can] be comfortable with getting in touch with their Judaism or exploring it even for the first time.”
For Christian students as well, the campus also offers a sense of community and welcoming. In the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Teva is joined by University Protestant Chaplain and Reverend Tracy Mehr-Muska, who coordinates Christian life on campus. Together with students of various faiths, the two are developing an Interfaith Council to coordinate religious life on campus.
“[The Interfaith Council] will host interfaith events and programs on campus, with the goals of helping build relationships between diverse spiritual and religious communities and increasing awareness of these different groups among the student body at large,” Mehr-Muska said. “I am grateful to students who have shown great initiative in this regard and will help create this important cohort.”
The Christian community at Wesleyan is active throughout the year.
“We have five distinct Christian groups that work both independently and collectively to develop programs and events: the Wesleyan Christian Fellowship, Multicultural Campus Ministries, Wesleyan Association of Christian Thinkers, Lighthouse, and the Catholic Student Organization are each vibrant and active,” Mehr-Muska said. “They have regular weekly gatherings for prayer, Bible study, informal fellowship, and spiritual development, and we collectively have special gatherings, such as our barbecue at Lighthouse, community service activities, a Christmas service and dinner, an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service, Easter services, and more.”
On Sundays, Mehr-Muska is also in charge of Christian services on campus. The air is familial and open at these small services in Allbritton’s conference room, high above the bustling campus below. These services are always followed by dinner.
Wesleyan’s Christian communities are rather open affairs as well. Mehr-Muska has supported the Catholic community while Wesleyan’s Catholic chaplain Father Hal Weidner is on leave. Mehr-Muska aims to extend her engagement with the student body beyond denominational boundaries.
“Only about half of the students I met with privately last week, for instance, identify as Christian,” Mehr-Muska said. “There is also significant theological diversity within the Christian community itself, and it is a joy to see students who may not agree on everything theologically or politically work together and support one another. I believe that questions related to the meaning of life, major [or] career choices, relationships, and struggles and joys are all spiritual issues, and I enjoy exploring those questions with the diverse and intellectually engaged students at Wes.”
Among the students who regularly work with Mehr-Muska is Ben Zucker ’15, the coordinator of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Campus Ministry. The group, which has been active since 2011, holds small services upstairs in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life on Sundays.
“For the most part, this is solidly a student community,” Zucker said.
The group receives many students from UU backgrounds, but also from a range of other beliefs and traditions.
“Part of UU is that it’s a faith that takes in a lot of people,” Zucker said. “Not that it’s a faith of refugees, but I know a lot of people who are Wiccans or ex-Catholics. We have these mainline Christian things, and we also have UU services. We’ve gotten a lot of people who have no idea what it is, so I’ve had to pitch it to them in kind of a ‘What is UU?’ elevator speech. Some of the more active UUs sought me out. So I think it’s great that people come to it in a variety of ways.”
As the group is entirely student run, it often engages with the UU community at large for support and direction.
“Places we get support from include some of the local UU churches,” Zucker said. “There’s one in Meriden. The director of religious vocation there has always brought us over for meetings [and] dinners. Also UU churches in Hartford and Bridgeport are places we’d be interested in visiting. People have expressed an interest in helping us get our feet off the ground, whatever that involves.”
Zucker hopes to continue to hold UU events throughout the year.
“We’ve done some nature meditations sometimes, so we’re thinking of what we can tie together between climate and nature,” Zucker said. “We might go and do a little thing and hang out near Wadsworth Falls next Sunday, so that’s a sample of the many things we have down the road. This is something important that I want to take time and do. It’s important to keep yourself thinking broadly.”
Though Buddhist practice has a somewhat looser structure than those of the Judeo-Christian religions on campus, the Buddhist House (BuHo) on Washington street forms a hub for those interested in Buddhist practices, beliefs, or philosophical traditions. While BuHo is perhaps best known for hosting frequent and eclectic concerts throughout the year, the house provides an environment in which students can explore Buddhism. Visitors are expected to remove their shoes when entering the house, which hosts regular meditations, among other events.
Alex Donesky ’15, who has attended meditation sessions at the house but does not consider himself to be a Buddhist, discussed the state of Buddhist life on campus.
“In my past experience it seems that there are a few core practicing Buddhists and many more students who dabble here and there in the meditation sits, the classes, and the other events the community puts on,” he said. “Though the community doesn’t have extensive resources, if you’re looking, I’d recommend initially attending one of the triweekly sits at BuHo and reaching out to students there.”
Donesky emphasized the openness and breadth of the Buddhist community at Wes.
“You will find students with diverse backgrounds and durations in Buddhist practice who will be happy to give advice and provide community,” he said.
Wesleyan is also home to a to a small but diverse community of Muslim students. Despite the recent departure of Imam Adeel Zeb from Wesleyan, the community remains a largely student-run affair.
“We’ll often have a community gathering like we had growing up,” said Rizky Rahadianto ’15, a film major and the former secretary of the Muslim Students Association (MSA). “There are people from so many different countries, so we’ll bring our own dishes and eat things we’ve been eating since we were kids.”
The group also hosts on-campus events to educate people about Islam and social issues. However, these events often remain under the radar for many Wesleyan students.
“We used to do the Fast-a-Thon,” Rahadianto said. “It’s not just the Muslim people; it’s collaborating with other student groups to donate points for charities. It uses the value of charity in Islam. We also had coffee talks to educate the Wesleyan community about us. Mansoor [Alam, ’15] gave a talk about Islamic economies. It didn’t last that long, though. It was really interesting, but only about five people came.”
The MSA plans regular prayer sessions and holiday celebrations in order to maintain a sense of community for Muslim students.
“We still organize Jumua (prayer) together every Friday, and after that there is a lecture where you look at Quran together,” Rahadianto said. “It’s like a discussion or a class. And for our holidays, we usually organize a trip to the Mosque. After that, we usually go to iHop. That’s always fun.”