Occidental College, which was founded by Presbyterians, has distanced itself from its Christian heritage by formally rededicating its chapel as a nondenominational interfaith center.
Occidental, founded in 1887, ended its religious affiliation in 1910 but has kept informal ties with the church.
Sunday’s chapel rededication was seen by observers as an attempt to broaden Occidental’s appeal among non-Christian students and was partly a response to concerns raised by members of other faiths.
By removing crosses and other Christian symbols from the chapel, campus officials hope to ease tensions among the campus’s religious groups and make them more comfortable about meeting there.
Whether the attempt will succeed, some students and clergy members say, is debatable.
“I think the whole process . . . has launched us into an era of much better cooperation and sensitivity and excitement about the nature and the way religious life can be honored and supported on campus,” said the Rev. Doug Gregg, a Presbyterian minister and Occidental’s chaplain for the past 16 years.
Cindy Yoshitomi, who worked at the campus from 1983 until June as a Catholic counselor, disagreed.
“I think they really honestly believe that if they take down the crosses, something magical will happen and all the people in the chapel will get along,” said Yoshitomi, who left the campus partly because of an ongoing controversy over some groups’ evangelism.
“In one sense, they’re trying to celebrate this as an opening up, but in another sense, I don’t see a lot of real changes going on.”
Herrick Memorial Chapel, prominently located near the college’s main entrance, was built in 1964, with two 35-foot metal crosses on its north and south exterior walls.
In August, the crosses were taken down and donated to the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. And on Sunday, the facility officially became Herrick Memorial Chapel and Interfaith Center.
A two-hour ceremony attended by about 80 visitors included Jewish, Hindu and Sioux Indian prayers, a Buddhist chant, a Mormon reading and Christian music. Gregg and other campus ministers unveiled the replacement for the crosses: a marble plaque emblazoned with a small cross and words commemorating Occidental’s Presbyterian roots.
Some Christian symbolism, however, remains: There is a cross on the chapel’s stained glass windows, and the building is shaped like a cross.
The chapel “is not exclusive any more, hopefully,” said Magdalena Arias, president of the college’s Student Interfaith Council. “They can hold Buddhist meditation, they can hold Jewish Shabbat, they can hold Mass. The important thing is for people to feel it’s for everybody.”
The chapel, Gregg said, always has been open to all faiths. The Catholic, Jewish and evangelical Christian communities have offices inside the building, and the campus long has had Episcopalian, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian Science and Mormon clergy as advisers.
The evangelical group, Protestant Christian Fellowship, holds Sunday services in the chapel and Catholics use it on Thursdays, Gregg said. Other groups have meetings and services on a lower floor of the chapel or elsewhere on campus throughout the week.
“Since I’ve been here, and that’s been 16 years, this building has had a multipurpose use,” Gregg said.
But some students said they never have felt comfortable using the chapel. Despite Occidental’s secular stance, they said, the college has an evangelical Christian climate.
“When I walk into the chapel, it really feels to me like an evangelist Christian preacher is going to come out,” said Jennifer Greenberg, a former assistant director of Hillel, a Jewish organization, who left Occidental in July.
“It’s always been for people of all faiths, but it has always been a . . . domain” of the Protestant Christian Fellowship, said Jenifer Winter, a 21-year-old religious studies major. “That’s been one of the major complaints by students of other faiths.”
Protestant groups account for about 35% of Occidental’s 1,600 students. But the largest single group of students--about 20%--identifies itself as Roman Catholic, followed by Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Jews and Baptists. Muslims and Buddhists are present in smaller numbers and about 40% of the students claim no religion, according to recent surveys.
Protestant Christian Fellowship is the most active religious group on campus. The organization’s predecessors--campus evangelical groups with different names--stirred controversy when they began an aggressive outreach campaign.
In 1985, the campus chaplain’s office and student evangelical groups paid evangelist Cliff Knectle to present a three-day series of daytime, open-air lectures at Occidental. In his speeches, which angered many non-Christians on campus, Knectle, a fundamentalist, espoused the supremacy of Christianity.
Students and members of the campus clergy disagree on whether that event directly led to a vote in 1987 by faculty members to have the crosses taken down and the word chapel removed from the building’s name.
That vote eventually prompted the Board of Trustees to remove the crosses and change the chapel’s name to include “interfaith center,” which angered some trustees and alumni.
“The concern was that an institution that is independent of any specific religious affiliation shouldn’t have a public affirmation of one religion as compared to another,” said David Axeen, dean of the faculty. “We’ve been trying for a long time to be open to people of all religious faiths or beliefs and to people without religious faiths or beliefs.”
An in-depth study of religious life at Occidental by a committee of administrators, teachers and students was completed several weeks ago and now is being reviewed by President John Slaughter, Axeen said. Recommendations for improving relations between student groups and encouraging religious diversity are included, he said.
Gregg said intensified efforts to bring religious groups together already have begun. A Thanksgiving event to be held Monday is being planned by the Jewish, Protestant and evangelical Christian communities, he said, and a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in January also will be planned jointly.
Several students who attended Sunday’s ceremony praised those efforts and the chapel’s new name. But other students said they were somewhat skeptical.
“I’m still concerned that it’s just a symbolic action,” Winter said. “By itself it is not enough. But it is a good start.”