According to the American Religion Data Archive, “Oregon and Washington are notable for being the U.S. states with the highest proportion of religiously unaffiliated and self-identified ‘non-religious’ residents.” It reports that only 1.2 percent of Oregonians believe themselves to be agnostic and even less identify as atheist. However, 17 percent refer to themselves as “non-religious,” compared to only 7 percent nationally.
With this information in mind, we were curious about how students at Portland State fit in with this picture. We knew that while some students are raised in pious homes and veer away from religion at college, others find unique ways of spiritual expression during their university experience.
As we conceived of this feature, our editorial board was tremendously concerned with inclusion of students, both religious and non-religious. Our intentions were never to touch on the religious or spiritual experiences of every student, but to highlight some of the diverse ways in which students maintain, expand, abandon or ignore religious expression. In addition, we are striving to inform students of the myriad spiritual resources available on or around campus, such as Campus Ministries.
The four students below have been generous enough to share their stories to help highlight this very personal aspect of student life. We would like to express our gratitude.
New faith provides insight into universal questions
Jennifer Rost paused and looked down at her bumblebee umbrella, then explained why she never misses a Saturday service at Cedar Mill Bible Church.
“It’s a rock and roll service,” she said, “I love rock. My favorite bands are Metallica, Tool and Alice in Chains.”
A microbiology major and avid “Simpsons” fan, Jennifer doesn’t necessarily look like a hardcore metal-head, but she finds the rock services a great way to combine her love of music and Christianity.
Jennifer’s recent faith is a far cry from her childhood, growing up in a non-religious household.
She explained how as a child she would occasionally visit churches for Sunday school, weddings or funerals.
“I was exposed to the basic ideas,” she said, “Jesus dying for our sins, a merciful god, you should love him, but I thought it was a foolish, childish faith. I thought all Christians were like Ned Flanders’ kids.”
Jennifer’s reasons for not believing in God as a child were simple: No one could give her a reason as to why she should.
“I’d ask my mom, ‘Is there a god?’ and she’d say, ‘Yes,'” she recalled.
“I’d say, ‘Well, how do you know?’ and she’d say, ‘You have to have faith.’ That’s when I started thinking that there probably wasn’t a god. If you can’t support it with facts, it probably doesn’t exist. I like empirical data, and they couldn’t give me that.”
Jennifer attributes her recent conversion to Christianity in large part to her best friend.
She explained how three years ago she was an atheist and fought with him tooth and nail over the existence of a god. After hearing all of his arguments, she decided he was right.
“My big hang-up with the Bible was creation versus evolution,” she said. “Now I think we take evolution with as much faith as we take the creationist point of view. It’s a lot of speculation presented as fact.”
Jennifer’s chosen field of science hasn’t deterred her from her beliefs. “There needed to be a god for the creation of the world,” she said. “The further I go into science, the more I believe that.”
Not that she has always been so firm in her convictions: Jennifer admitted that for a while she couldn’t completely commit to Christianity.
“I was a wishy-washy Christian for a while,” she said, “I’d be way more Christian-like some days than others.”
Jennifer also feels that she had challenges with letting go.
“I had a hard time with the idea that you have to give up things,” she said. “You know you should, you know it’s for the best, but when it comes down to it, it’s hard. It’s a submissive thing.”
After being baptized Oct. 26, Jennifer acknowledges that sometimes she still struggles with her faith.
“Christianity takes a lot more strength than I originally thought,” she said. “It takes strength to stand up for what you believe.”
In order to challenge herself, Jennifer admits that one of her guilty habits is arguing with Daniel Lee, otherwise known as “Preacher Dan,” while he is evangelizing in the Park Blocks.
“He’s fun, because he makes me read scripture,” she said. “You have to have arguments. He makes sense sometimes, but sometimes he’s so crazy that it makes me want to make sure I’m not crazy. I want to go home and make sure that I have reasons I believe what I believe.”
In addition to the Saturday services, Jennifer finds time to attend Sunday services, as well as read her Bible regularly.
She explains how when she reads on the MAX, she often has other passengers talk to her.
“A lot of people just like to say where they are in their walk,” she said. “Others say, ‘I used to read the Bible, I used to be a Christian.’ That’s what I hear the most.”
In order to keep gaining knowledge, Jennifer is constantly reading books on Christianity and trying to learn more about her faith.
“I like when people ask me questions and I can answer them,” she said, “and I like to figure out what other people believe.”
Jennifer is happy in her new faith, and enjoys finding religion in the world around her.
“You can appreciate the world and the beauty in it, but you need to appreciate the giver of gifts, not just the gifts themselves.” she said. “So I turned to God and more religious aspects. Instead of becoming a deist, I looked for a more personal god.”
Finding God through knowledge
Leif Erickson smiles and explains how the American Revolution changed his life.
“Junior year, we read about how Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were both Deists, and I started looking into that doctrine,” he said. “It’s the one thing that makes the most sense to me and fits best into my thoughts and beliefs.”
With an ex-Catholic mother and an atheist father, Leif explains that religion wasn’t a large part of his life growing up.
“I grew up in a home where religion wasn’t taught, but it wasn’t discouraged,” he said. “Mom would take us to church if we asked, but it wasn’t forced.”
In high school, getting involved with youth group helped expand his knowledge of religion. It was at school that he stumbled across Deism and started practicing.
Deism involves gaining religious understanding through the pursuit of knowledge, Leif explains. “God has set out certain formulas,” he said, “the way you become closer to God is to gain understanding of the way things work.”
He adds that most Deists reject the Bible because of its rigidity.
“If you have a set way of doing things it closes your mind to new ideas,” Leif said. “They don’t believe in living in fear, because you don’t experience anything different,” he continued.
Instead of following strict rules he simply continues learning and looking for spirituality.
“You look for harmony, observe, understand, and just kind of go along,” he said.
Though Deism isn’t widely practiced, Leif’s idea of God is not altogether different from other religions.
“It’s the same Christian God, but with the idea that he created the earth and left it alone,” he says. “Why would a spiritual God meddle, or choose to affect the lives of ordinary people? I’m not saying he can’t, but why would he want to?”
Without the belief of an ever-present, involved higher power, Leif accepts personal accountability for his spirituality.
“It puts it on us to find knowledge,” he says. “God’s an all-knowledgeable guy and he wants us to be all-knowledgeable. Just sitting around and reading the Bible would defeat the purpose.”
When searching for knowledge, Leif feels that he learns the most from studying other people.
“I make an effort to study different social sciences,” he says. “I try to read different journals of people and see the world through other people’s eyes. It makes my opinion less biased.”
Leif feels that he’s changed since being exposed to Deism.
“When I started, I broke my life off from the traditional way I was going. Now I try to take more in,” he says, and smiles. “It gives me more of an understanding of myself.”
Solace in friends
After Denise L. Brewster graduated from Portland’s Jefferson High School, she accepted an opportunity to attend college out of town. After a year at the traditionally all-woman Mills College in California, however, she returned home. Now Brewster is a junior, double-majoring in child and family studies and sociology at Portland State.
As a Jehova’s Witness, Brewster has encountered the occasional moment of discomfort when a “misinformed” classmate mentions her religion in an inaccurate or derogatory context. “It hasn’t really happened that much to me, but to some of my friends. Just people being misinformed,” she said.
At times like those, it’s nice to have some friends around.
Brewster doesn’t respond immediately when she hears things said about Witnesses that don’t jibe with her own experience, because she believes the ensuing dialogue would be more contentious than educational. “It’s not really loving” to approach a detractor in the heat of the moment, she said.
Instead, she finds some solace in getting together with folks she has met at assemblies. These on-campus gatherings aren’t “formal meetings or anything, we just sort of know each other.”
She described the assemblies in simple terms as “a lot of different congregations getting together,” and explained that one member might recognize another from school, or notice a member of the church on campus.
The social aspect of these gatherings has come in handy for Brewster, who laughed and noted, “PSU is a big school. In high school, I knew every Witness.”
On the other hand, she has found some spiritual allies among this university’s student population simply by being herself. She laughed at the suggestion that Witnesses had some sort of ethereal identification system, pointing out more down-to-earth reasons that Witnesses might find each other on campus.
“It kind of stands out. People notice it when you aren’t swearing at people or cussing,” she said.
Brewster also noted that her proselytizing was not of the aggressive fire-and-brimstone variety. “I mean, we aren’t running around yelling at people in the park. We look at religion as the center of our lives, so it comes up in different ways.”
The change from the tiny private-school atmosphere of Mills to PSU has been generally positive for Brewster. “Mills had gates,” she recalled. “There weren’t many times the community was allowed to get in there. Here we have a citywide homecoming and campus tours.”
She observed the different attitudes while attending classes and discovered more about PSU while working on campus, “reading all the stuff in marketing and communications.”
Brewster expects to receive her degree in the next couple of years and was picking up scholarship information in Neuberger Hall when we talked. She had plenty of work to do but still found time to sit around and talk. Just hanging out may be a worthwhile way to spend time, regaining one’s footing after an insensitive comment or a tough day of test-taking.
When people ask Dawn Nesja something about “Native American Religion,” her first response is often, “Which one?” The local Native American community is made up of a great diversity of different tribes and nations, each with its own distinct culture and personality.
Nesja’s job as Portland State’s coordinator of UISHE (United Indian Students in Higher Education) involves finding the common points among those tribes.
Her coordinating role puts her in a unique position to seek out the common threads among these different traditions, and also to negotiate ways to weave those threads into her campus life.
Occasionally, those negotiations take the most simple and banal of forms. Recently, she and her colleagues wanted to perform a cleansing ritual for the UISHE office in its Smith Memorial Student Center sub-basement location.
“We had some sage, and we had to get permission from security so that they wouldn’t think we were smoking out down here,” Nesja said.
On a grander scale, a good chunk of her time has lately been consumed by planning for this year’s Native American Cultural Awareness Week, scheduled for May 5-11. The most overtly spiritual element of the week’s festivities should be the pow wow, but the entire program is traditionally introduced with what she describes as “an invocation.”
“An elder says a blessing, a general prayer, to the Great Spirit,” Nesja said, “asking the Creator to be with us through our meetings and all our lives.”
The spiritual element of her cultural identity might go unseen to others, because, as she describes it, her spirituality is so intertwined with her daily life. At the pow wow, however, “it’ll be very visible” in an overt way.
Pow wows and other trans-tribal gatherings have been the sites for different Native peoples to express their differences, as well as their unity, according to Nesja.
“There have been some issues. The grass dancing, for instance, drew some objections last year,” she said.
Because grass dancing is common in her particular background, Nesja had to make sure to keep an open mind when hearing those objections. This sort of difficulty is rare, however, and she stresses that such differences are a part of what she likes about her job.
“If I’ve learned anything from having Indian blood in me and being around other people who do, especially my grandfather, it is the idea that everyone is related.
“The medicine wheel, which represents the different colors of humankind,” exists in one form or another in the different tribal traditions she has encountered, Nesja said. These ideas connect with each other in their suggestion that diversity and humanity and intertwined concepts.
For Nesja, school, work and spiritual life are also intertwined parts of life. “Being the UISHE coordinator allows me to bring in my Native spirituality, which is totally connected to my work here,” she said.
She also finds the time and environment to exercise her spiritual muscles on campus in her yoga class. Laughing, she said, “And I still get to get credit for it.”
There are some elements of her spiritual life, however, that she isn’t able to bring on campus. “I do a lot of my spirituality off campus, like sweat lodges,” Nesja said. “But I don’t think that a sweat lodge would be a feasible idea for the sub-basement of Smith Center.”