Smaller faith groups suffer from low participation on AU’s campus
“Unless you’re one of the larger faith communities, it’s almost impossible to attract new students unless they search for you.”
Only one student regularly attends the Quaker meetings at American University, but Gene Throwe, a community partner, advertises the meetings in front of the Kay Spiritual Life Center every Tuesday evening.
He unfolds a standing banner that welcomes passersby to “worship in silent meditative prayer.” Then, School of International Service graduate student Sean Murphree arrives and the two begin their worship in Kay.
Quakers strive to live life guided by God through testimony and silent worship, according to the Quaker Friends General Council website.
For Murphree, the small size of AU’s Quaker community means a longing for more community.
“It gets kind of lonely and it feels almost isolating in just not having other people there,” said Murphree, who began practicing Quakerism while attending the University of South Florida, where 10 to 15 people would attend meetings.
“I wish that there were more people to maybe stand up and have testimony or more people to communicate what they thought about the quote for the day,” Murphree said. “I just wish there was more.”
There used to be more. Throwe said five to 12 students would attend the weekly meetings before the coronavirus pandemic. When Throwe tried to rebuild during the summer of 2022, he said he couldn’t.
AU used to send him data on incoming students’ religious affiliations they received from students’ Common Applications. But The Common Application, which prospective students must use to apply to AU, stopped asking students about their religious affiliation in 2021, according to a Common App blog post.
“That made it impossible to attract new students,” Throwe said. “Unless you’re one of the larger faith communities, it’s almost impossible to attract new students unless they search for you.”
AU asks students to identify their religious affiliation in the Campus Climate Survey, according to Jasmine Pelaez, AU’s internal communications manager. The information is sent to Kay, Pelaez said.
The first Campus Climate Survey was first conducted in 1992, with the most recent results being from 2019. The 2023 survey was conducted early in the spring semester and responses are currently being examined by the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.
The Eastern Orthodox Fellowship, secular humanism and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community leaders said they haven’t received any recent data on students’ religious affiliations.
Members of AU’s Soka Gakkai community said they would also like to expand; a sentiment shared with the other three organizations, who said changes from the pandemic and the AU administration hurt their ability to connect with students.
AU’s Eastern Orthodox Fellowship lost one-fifth of its members over the summer and fall 2022, according to Eastern Orthodox Fellowship President Anthony Bayyouk, a junior in the School of Public Affairs. A year ago, 10 to 15 people would attend the fellowship’s biweekly meetings, Bayyouk said. This semester, Bayyouk said two or three students meet with him every other Monday.
The club used to receive a list of students who identify as Orthodox Christian, Bayyouk said.
“But now we don’t have that,” he said.
Not only did the fellowship lose the names of potential members, they also lost their status as a club in 2021, according to Bayyouk, who said he joined the fellowship his sophomore year because the leaders emailed him.
Bayyouk said he thinks the previous leaders of the fellowship forgot to transfer the registration documentation to new leaders, which resulted in the club not being renewed.
The Eastern Orthodox Fellowship does not appear in the organization lists of AU’s Engage website for extracurricular opportunities and events. Neither do the Quaker, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Soka Gakkai chaplaincies.
The Humanist Chaplaincy has a page on Engage, but only one member: the sponsor of the club.
Not having official club status means the fellowship meets unofficially in Kay, according to Bayyouk. Reserving a time and space for their meetings was difficult too, Bayyouk said, as he said Kay staff were not responsive to emails.
Kay Spiritual Life Center Associate Director Morgan Redmond declined The Eagle’s request for an interview. University Chaplain Reverend Bryant Oskvig did not respond to The Eagle’s request for an interview.
Bayyouk said he posted flyers around AU as an alternative way of bringing students to the Fellowship. The flyers have QR codes that send people to a group chat.
Bayyouk said 10 people have joined the group chat, but none of them have attended the meetings.
“I feel like the Orthodox Church scares people away a little bit because they seem old-fashioned or backward,” Bayyouk said.
But for Bayyouk, the Church represents a unity of people.
“What I enjoy about the Orthodox Church is that it brings people from all over the world together [and] from all different identities together,” Bayyouk said.
The fellowship sometimes joins Georgetown’s Orthodox Christian Fellowship, Bayyouk said, adding that the fellowships learn from each other.
He said he hopes fellowship members will hold social activities like the Georgetown fellowship and start participating in service projects. Meanwhile, Bayyouk said he wants the biweekly meetings to help students.
“I hope that they learn something from the lessons,” he said. “I hope that if they’re struggling with something, that somehow the teaching correlates with what they’re struggling with. I just want them to feel safe and welcome.”
The first step is renewing the club and getting more Orthodox Christians to join, he said.
“I feel bad that I haven’t found them yet and that they don’t have the ability to reach out to us,” Bayyouk said. “So we’re working on that.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
AU students in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also worship with neighboring universities. According to community partner Michael Cottle, 40 to 50 students from the D.C. area gather for his Bible study every Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
Inside that group of 50, there are three AU students who regularly attend.
Those students are “a big part of the community,” according to Cottle.
“They contribute their ideas, their thoughts, their insights into the topic we’re discussing for that night,” Cottle said. “As well as just their interaction with others.”
Cottle said he hopes the Bible study creates a sense of belonging, feels relevant and acts as a “safe haven” for students.
“We view everyone as brothers and sisters and so everything is with that filter,” Cottle said. “I’m seeing everyone as a brother and sister, so that relationship is important to me. It drives me that way. That’s what I find to be really fulfilling.”
Cottle said he surveys the students to figure out what they want to see from the Bible study. He said he found that students enjoy newer courses that they might not have studied before. As such, he has taught about women in the scripture and the divine gift of forgiveness in addition to older courses including the parables of Jesus, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine Covenant.
He also hosts a dinner before each Bible study so students can socialize with one another. Adding more students to the Bible study would benefit the community, Cottle said.
“If we could get more LDS youth to come out, I think that would strengthen that group just by having numbers,” Cottle said. “There’s something about having more people there that helps.”
Victoria Lemon, a junior in the School of Education, said she met one of her closest friends through the Bible study because of its welcoming nature.
“You can go and sit next to anybody and anyone’s happy to have you sit next to them,” Lemon said. “You get to meet people all the time.”
Through those connections, she has received advice from peers about renting apartments and finding jobs. Lemon said the Bible study meetings also reinvigorate her when she is feeling stressed in the middle of the week.
“You feel the Spirit, you feel this warmth and this peace in your heart and you know that it’s all going to work out,” Lemon said.
Lemon said she encourages people from any faith to attend the Bible studies.
“Just come and have dinner,” she said. “We have visitors come and it’s totally okay and totally normal.”
For AU’s Humanist Chaplaincy, which practices secular humanism, more people coming to the community is vital to the club’s leadership, according to club sponsor Ben Biber.
The club, a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance, has not met in person since 2022, according to Biber. Its Engage page lists two events from September and October 2022. Biber said officers have not organized any meetings or activities after a shift in leadership.
“The AU chapter is struggling,” Biber said. “A couple officers stepped down at the end of the fall term and the two remaining officers really have struggled to pick up and run with it.”
Biber is hoping people will “play a more active role starting next fall.”
“I’m sure there are students out there who are interested,” Biber said. “It’s a question of whether they want to prioritize it, to, again, step up and play an organizing, leading role and that can be some small thing.”
He said he hopes the Humanist Chaplaincy can hold monthly discussions and social events like it did before. In the past, Biber said, the Humanist Chaplaincy would hold two monthly meetings. During one of them, secular humanists discussed topics such as free will and the evolution of culture. During the second meeting, students socialized with one another by going to music performances, eating dinner and participating in advocacy.
As part of the group’s advocacy, Biber said, the Humanist Chaplaincy traveled to the Supreme Court in 2014 to protest the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores ruling, which allowed businesses to remove birth control coverage from their health care plans, and co-hosted 2013 Endowment for Democracy award-recipient Gulalai Ismail with AU’s South Asian Student Association.
Members of the Humanist Chaplaincy organized and attended those events to uphold their humanist ideals, such as improving the world and engaging in citizenship.
But advocacy relies on participation in a larger group, according to Biber, something he says the Chaplaincy does not have right now.
“We can’t really do a lot to change big outcomes just by ourselves as individuals,” Biber said. “We have to work together.”
Soka Gakkai International
The Soka Gakkai International community at AU shares similar qualities, according to SGI community sponsor Barbara Kraft. Soka Gakkai is a Japanese Buddhist religious movement that promotes peace and respect for the dignity of life, according to the organization’s website.
Kraft said the meetings, where members chant the Buddhist law of myōhō renge kyō, which translates to “devotion to the mystic law of the lotus sutra,” emphasizes relationships, happiness, communication and respect.
“We place a lot of value on sharing experiences,” Kraft said. “And so we get to know each other on a level that’s not superficial. It’s really a life-to-life communication.”
The number of people community members get to know varies throughout the semester, according to Kraft. She said there are about eight members in the community but anywhere between one and 15 people have joined the chants depending on their availability.
“Now that it’s the end of the semester, it’s likely people are drawn to studying, so we don’t see them quite as much as we would at other times,” Kraft said.
More people participated in the community between 2016 and 2018, Kraft said, which had its advantages.
“The more people, the more encouragement and the more fun and the more sharing,” Kraft said.
The ability to speak and gain support in the club was critical for AU alumna Momoca Federline, who said the community fosters a deep understanding of people.
“I feel like the Buddhist campus club or even the Buddhist community is a space where you can open up about your life and what you’re going through,” Federline said.
Participating in AU’s Soka Gakkai International community helped Federline in managing two jobs during her graduate studies in the School of Communication, she said.
“It helped me to never give up,” Federline said. “Just constantly reminding myself that I am a Buddha, which means I am capable and I have limitless potential and anything that tries to discourage me from that is a delusion.”
Chanting also helped Julia Smith, a sophomore in SPA, become more hopeful for herself and others, she said. Smith said she joined the Soka Gakkai International community near the end of spring 2022, but the group has focused on compassion since at least 2016, according to AU alumnus Tako Kinoshita. He participated in the group from 2016 until 2018, when he graduated from AU.
“This is not your father’s Buddhism,” he said, adding that for him, the community is a group of friends where he can openly talk about life and plan his goals.
For Kinoshita, the Soka Gakkai International community is “cathartic self-help,” something he said he hopes new members experience, too.
“This isn’t about benefiting anyone outside of them,” he said. “This is about benefiting themselves.”
Quakerism has given Murphree a similar sense of self-help, but he said he wished more people participated in the group.
“It’s just a sense of community,” Murphree said. “A sense of people you can go to, who you can rely on and say, ‘Hey, I’m wondering if you can give any sort of advice on this’ or just having someone to pray with that understands what it is you’re praying for.”
He said collaboration between religious organizations could benefit outreach efforts.
“Maybe having a co-authored letter between all the faith communities and especially a lot of the smaller faith communities that can reach out to AU administration and say, ‘Hey, we’re floundering over here,’” Murphree said. “We need that kind of support.”
Pelaez said the pandemic caused challenges for religious communities and other groups on campus.
“We are currently accessing how to best support them, including our continued effort to connect students with local religious community partners that can further serve their needs,” Pelaez said.
For Throwe, the answer is being able to once again reach out to agnostic students who might be interested in Quakerism.
“It would be lovely if the administration could bring back the [religion] survey,” Throwe said. “Not just for the Quakers, but for all the other chaplains. I think we would all benefit from that. And not just us, but the students would benefit knowing that us chaplains are here for them.”
Throwe said he hopes students will be able to find community and belonging through the Quaker community, no matter what they believe. Even without students’ emails, Throwe still invites people to ask questions and reflect for 30 minutes.
“At some point,” Throwe said, “I’m just going to be sitting here in this chapel by myself every single Tuesday night with no one coming because people don’t know I’m here.”
This article was edited by Zoe Bell, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Stella Guzik.