I was sitting in Memorial Church a few Sundays ago, listening to the Reverend Dr. Dorothy A. Austin deliver her sermon, my mind drifting in and out, when she began telling an anecdote that grabbed my attention. She related a story told at by the Dean of Harvard College, Evelynn Hammonds. In September, the Dean hosted a discussion with a group of freshmen. There, she asked them, “What is the one thing that people might not know about you from their first encounters with you during freshman orientation? ...What one thing, perhaps, that’s not so readily discernable, seeable?”
The reason this story caught my interest was because I knew instantly where Dorothy was going with this story. I knew what the answer was to Dean Hammonds’ question because I would given the same answer: Dorothy shared that “more than half of the freshmen in her group told the Dean that the people they had encountered had no idea that their religion or spirituality was one of the most important aspects of their lives… there were Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists in this freshmen group who spoke absolutely eloquently about the power of religion and spirituality in guiding their lives and their choices and in shaping their identities.”
I’m no first week freshman. I’m a sophomore now and have been here for nearly three semesters. I’ve made close friends, joined many groups, and had numerous conversations on a variety of topics. Yet, outside of conversations at the Episcopal Chaplaincy and occasionally with members of Memorial Church’s University Choir, I could probably count on one hand the number of conversations I have had at Harvard regarding my faith.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint a reason for this lack of discussion. I suppose that my silence comes in part from an unease that people will equate my beliefs with ignorance or naiveté, but this is no reason to feel uncomfortable talking about religion. First, my peers are smart enough to realize that religious faith does not imply blind devotion. Second, even if I was afraid of the first impressions people might form without knowing me better, my friends know me well enough by now that they would not view me as a different person if I opened up about my religion.
Religion has always held an important place for me. I grew up in an Episcopal family, my dad the Rector at St. Francis Church in Holden, MA, and I’ve always gone to church every week. It’s just what I do. Regardless of where I have felt in terms of my personal faith and belief, service has always there for me on Sunday. At Harvard, singing in the University Choir at Memorial Church in the morning and going to the Episcopal Chaplaincy at night, church has been there for me twice most Sundays. In my encounters with others, I try to be a good Christian. As a student, I am fascinated with issues of development, economics, and social justice in large part because of what I have come to believe from attending church weekly and thinking about God’s path for me.
One of my favorite saints is Francis, the patron saint of my home parish. One of the most famous quotations attributed to him (though Google just informed me that he never actually said or wrote this) is, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” I’ve always been a fan of the saying. The lesson is that we can live the Gospel without necessarily talking about it. We can show people’s Christ’s love by our actions. This is liberating for one uncomfortable talking about religion. There is, however, another side to this wisdom: “If necessary, use words.” There are times when it is important to talk about God and share our stories of religion.
My challenge for myself is to not hesitate to voice these ideas. I imagine others may have similar experiences to me. Do not be afraid of bringing religious texts or ideas into conversation. If God plays an important role in your life, own that and share it. I hope to become better at doing this and I suspect that by talking more about religion, that will allow my faith to grow and develop.