With nearly 30 ASA-recognized religious student groups on campus, the MIT community is teeming with religious diversity. But, most of these groups have less than 30 members who regularly attend their events, and some groups are no longer active on campus or are not ASA-recognized. According to Robert M. Randolph, Chaplain to the Institute, their presence on campus has been generally consistent. With so many groups, however, it is difficult to talk to everyone, and a number of groups did not respond to requests from The Tech.
Nevertheless, The Tech spoke with a number of leaders in these groups to see what it’s like to be involved in religious life at MIT, and one thing’s for sure: MIT’s reputation as a leading science and engineering institution has caused skepticism towards its faith.
Chinua Shaw ’13, Vice President of the Baptist Student Fellowship and co-coordinator of the United Christian Organization (UCO), explained that “There is kind of a view that a lot of people have that tech schools aren’t going to have much religion, and so I initially was unsure of what to expect, as were my parents, but actually during CPW, I ended up finding some of the community, I was really able to find that there was really a strong presence of the Christian community on campus.”
Abubakar Abid ’14, the events organizer for the Muslim Students Association (MSA), agrees. “Coming to MIT, I was concerned about maintaining my faith, not so much because I feared aggressive irreligion, but because I expected the religious communities to be somewhat silent. My biggest surprise has been to find that that’s far from the case. Rather, I frequently see powerful displays of MIT students’ faith in the way they dress, speak, and the events they organize,” he said.
Aubrey J. Colter ’13, President of the Latter-day Saint Students Association (LDSSA), has also been impressed, “I have been pleasantly surprised to find that MIT is somewhere I can grow intellectually and spiritually,” she said.
“While MIT is a science place, religion is very, very alive here. The number and diversity of religious student groups is quite striking. The main challenge is that people get so busy with their work, that maybe there is not enough time for discussion of spiritual issues among members of the different groups,” said Brian F. Aull PhD ’85, the Baha’i representative on the Board of Chaplains.
Mark Jen-Hao Ku G, a member of the Graduate Christian Fellowship (GCF) leadership team and co-coordinator of the UCO with Shaw, who became Christian two years before coming to MIT, told The Tech that “As soon as I came here, one of my priorities was finding a Christian community on campus as well as a church I can call home.”
At MIT, Ku noticed that people are not quick to judge based on religion, but instead are willing to ask questions like what are Christians like? What is Church like?
Finding a balance
Aull said he knows what it’s like to balance religion with the academic load of MIT. As a graduate student, he says he had little concern about maintaining his faith. “I always felt that I could investigate reality for myself and not be swayed by peer pressure or other social or cultural influences.”
In an email to The Tech, Mary A. Breton ’14 , President of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), said, “It has certainly been difficult at MIT to maintain an active OCF group. Because we are a relatively small school and Orthodoxy is a relatively small religious group in the US and Canada (approximately 5 million people), yearly fluctuations dramatically affect membership.”
Abid notices the effect that time constraints at MIT have on his role with the MSA. “Although my faith has not been challenged at MIT, sometimes it has been difficult to balance administrative aspects of the MSA with study and research - often times, it’s hard to know how many events to organize before MSA members and volunteers are stretched too thin.”
Ku observes that graduate students tend to have a relatively consistent schedule, which is beneficial when it comes to organizing religious activities.
Shaw says undergraduates have more inconsistent schedules. “With such variance, it becomes tricky at times to set things up,” he said.
The UCO is a consortium of the Christian fellowships on campus, but is not an ASA-recognized student group. “We in UCO want to make sure that people are plugged in with an existing fellowship, and that UCO continues to function as the link among the fellowships, rather than becoming an entity on its own,” Ku explained.
“Part of the reason it was founded was because it was recognized that students have limited amounts of time, so if all the different groups are really kind of fighting over the time of the students then it’s not ideal,” Shaw said, “We should work together, and recognize that we are different but working towards similar goals of making sure there is fellowship for each student.”
“We encourage a fellowship to take initiative, and then we will support accordingly,” Ku added. In recent years, the UCO has focused on communication between the leadership of each of the fellowships, but Shaw and Ku say they are looking for ways to get individual members of the fellowships working together, too.
This sense of congregation is important for a number of religious groups on campus. Members of the MSA gather for prayer in their Musalla, Islamic for “prayer room,” which is partitioned for males and females in W11, the Religious Activities Center. This prayer space is where Muslims are encouraged to perform their five daily prayers. The number of Muslims attending compulsory Friday noon prayer in W11 each week exceeds 200, although that often includes local Muslims in the Boston area, according to Abid.
“The MSA also has a dedicated chaplain who gives the Friday Sermons, conducts classes for intellectual exploration of Islam, and helps to organizes outreach efforts to promote understanding of Islam at MIT,” Abid said.
Throughout the year, the MSA hosts speakers and services on both religious and secular themes, open to Muslims and non-Muslims, Abid said. “Perhaps the largest events the MSA organizes are our spring and fall dinners. These dinners attracted more than 250 people this year, and the fall dinner, was one of a series of MSA events in Islamic Awareness Month, with others including an Evening of Islamic Art and open Friday prayers.”
“Every week, we meet together for Family Home Evenings, a time set aside for families to draw closer to God and each other. But we’re in college, away from our families, so we have our own little group,” Colter said of the LDSSA. Sunday services and religious classes take place off campus at their church in Harvard Square. The group also hosts forums, barbecues, caroling, a babysitting night as a service to the married members of the group, and card-making days for Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day, where about 50 cards are made each semester by the MIT community.
“In my experience, there have been a few of us who regularly attend services at one of the Orthodox churches in Central Square and interact there,” Breton said, “I am sure there are more Orthodox people at MIT, and next year I hope to encourage more involvement through Boston-wide OCF events, as most of our neighboring college campuses have OCFs as well.”
Shaw says he appreciates getting together as a community with his BSF peers for bible studies. “The Bible is really a strong source for where we look for making a lot of types of decisions in our lives,” he explained, “It allows for us to take a step back and look at the context of things going on in our lives.”