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Occidental College to Remove Large Crosses : Education: The former Presbyterian school will replace two exterior chapel crosses with a sculpture in hopes of attracting a more diverse student body.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Occidental College, which used to be a Presbyterian school, has decided to remove the two large crosses from the campus chapel’s exterior and replace them with a sculpture aimed at welcoming students of all religions.

The much-debated change reflects efforts to attract a more diverse student body to the liberal arts college in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles. Occidental was founded by Presbyterians in 1887 but ended that formal religious affiliation in 1912, although the school has kept some informal ties with the church.

“We have no desire to reject the values and the traditions that undergird religious faith, but we simply don’t want to be a college that is seen as restrictive in terms of its students,” Occidental President John B. Slaughter said. His hiring last year as the school’s first black president was also seen as a move for diversity.

Built in 1964, the modernistic Herrick Memorial Chapel and its 35-foot-high metal crosses are prominently located near the main entrance to the campus. As a result, some teachers and faculty complained, visitors may get the impression that Occidental is a Christian school. Two years ago, the faculty called for the crosses to come down quickly.

However, the idea of removing the crosses offended some trustees and alumni. Officials say it took many delicate discussions to reach a compromise: an ecumenical artwork will replace the crosses and a plaque explaining Occidental’s Presbyterian heritage will be placed near the building.

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Christian symbolism inside the chapel, including the cross on its stained glass windows, will remain. And the change will not affect the structure of the building itself, which, like many churches, is in the shape of a cross.

Pasadena architect John Andre Gougeon, who has done many church designs, said his assignment to produce Occidental’s interfaith sculpture was one of the most difficult and emotional in his 27-year career.

At first, he attempted to present symbols of different religions, such as a Christian cross, a Jewish menorah, an Islamic crescent, a Buddhist wheel, along with a dove of peace, all within one circle. But a committee of Occidental students, teachers, alumni and trustees feared some religion would be left out or insulted by relative prominence of one icon over another.

More than a year and 10 designs later, Gougeon and the panel came up with the idea of the sculpture now being called “Seeking Together.” To be cast in aluminum, it will depict the outlines of 29 young men and women seeming to march in a V-shaped line. Some of the figures have their arms upraised joyfully and others are holding hands with each other.

“It represents students from all over the world coming together to seek knowledge and spiritual growth on this campus,” Gougeon said while showing a visitor the final drawings tacked up on his office studio walls.

The 27-foot-wide, 20-foot-high artwork, the cost of which is still undetermined, is expected to be ready by spring or summer. The crosses will remain until then and the college hopes to give them to a church or another school, said Occidental chaplain Douglas Gregg, a Presbyterian minister.

Gregg said it will be painful for some to see the change. But “it’s a good and right thing to do. It’s a Christian thing to do,” he stressed, because Christianity is not seeking exclusive claim to all students’ spiritual lives.

About 60% of Occidental’s 1,600 students described themselves as Protestants in recent surveys, 15% as Catholics, 8% Jewish, smaller amounts as Muslims or Buddhists and the rest list no religion, Gregg said. Among Protestants, Presbyterians are still the largest group on campus, he said.

When the sculpture is installed, Occidental expects to hold a rededication ceremony for the chapel, whose name has been expanded to the Herrick Memorial Chapel and Interfaith Center.


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