People of the book: Christian students discuss how growing up, college life has impacted their religious beliefs

The Heineman Ecumenical Center is the ideal setting for the Christian Fellowship, a group on campus that welcomes everyone and worships nondenominationally.

The sounds of laughter, song and worship rise to the arched ceiling of the building every Wednesday night when the group members meet to play games, ask questions and support one another.

President of Christian Fellowship Jenna Anan was re-elected in the club’s election on Wednesday, April 8. When she first came to FSU, she searched for a Christian group at a club fair, because it was important to her to find a community at school where she could find religious support.

Anan’s father is a pastor at a nondenominational Christian church in New Hampshire, where her family lives, so nondenominational Christian worship is very familiar to her.

She said Christian Fellowship is focused on “creating a community within our community, but also to take that out into the campus. We really just want to reach out to the campus and show them that we’re here.”

Besides weekly meetings on Wednesdays and Bible studies on Mondays, Christian Fellowship hosts events such as the Praise Nights that are meant to raise awareness about modern slavery – a project of the nonprofit God is Bigger at which Chris Allen, the volunteer who leads Christian Fellowship in worship, works.

Anan said when they promote Praise Nights, some students tend to ignore group members once they find out the table is being hosted by Christian Fellowship – “but that’s a minority.”

“I think that people definitely have their stereotypes, if you will, and kind of set in their ways on certain things, but I think the thing is to show people love and show them that we’re real” of students who react that way.

She said that religion to her is about love rather than rules and regulations, and that she finds freedom through her relationship with God and Jesus’ love.

One of the students who attends the Christian Fellowship meetings every Wednesday is sophomore Kaylee Brazell, who said she started to get interested in Christianity after coming to college.

Growing up, there were a few years during which her neighbors would bring her to church, but her family was not particularly religious. When she was in middle school, her neighbors moved away and after that, she didn’t go to church very much until she came to college.

She said she met her best friend when she came to FSU, who is an avid member of Christian Fellowship. Her friend helped her “learn about God.” Brazell started to go to meetings and sought out other aspects of the faith to find something “new” that could help her with life stresses.

Now, she attends Christian Fellowship meetings, Bible studies led by the club and church services with members of the group at the First Baptist Church of Sudbury.

She said people have seen a change in her since she’s found religion, telling her, “‘You seem very happy – just happy to be alive.’”

She added that she has also gotten some negative feedback from peers, including from her friends at home. She said she’s been asked questions such as, “‘When did you become so obsessed with Jesus?’”

“It’s positive and negative, I guess,” she said, referring to the reactions she’s received from peers.

Brazell doesn’t think it’s necessarily the case that all students in college need to be looking for God. “I think that, honestly, it’s the person,” she said. “I think that God is running the show, so He’ll give you the time. It’s not whether you’re finding Him. It’s if He finds you.”

She added, however, that if people are curious about either God or Christianity, they should definitely look for answers.

“Growing up, I didn’t have, I guess, a dad that was really around,” she said, looking down at her Starbucks tea. She added, as her eyes glanced upwards, “I think that having like a heavenly father has helped me in many ways.

“It’s given me faith in people in general – that I can trust that they will be around,” she said, adding that the communities she has found through the Christian Fellowship and her church are very meaningful to her.

Senior Leanne Cyr said she used to be part of FSU’s Catholic Newman Association, and when it merged with Christian Fellowship, she tried out one of their meetings, but felt that it wasn’t the right fit for her.

“I wasn’t feeling that closeness that I felt with the people in the Catholic Newman Club,” she said, adding that it was “mainly how they were speaking about the Bible. I felt as if they may have overgeneralized the faith.”

It is important to talk about the differences among denominations in order to understand and to “fix the divisions” among the Christian faiths.

She said she doesn’t often go to the Campus Ministry, and that if she had a question about Catholicism or her faith, she would ask her parish priest. She is, however, an altar server at the mass services both on campus and at her parish at home.

Cyr is one of three students who serve at the masses on campus, at which the priests rotate based on who has time to volunteer. The job includes setting up for service, which includes setting out the chalice and host for communion, holding the Bible as the priest reads from it and ringing the bells during consecration.

Cyr loves to be a part of the masses because they make her feel closer to God. Before mass, she often thinks, “Yay! I get to go to mass!”

She said, however, that only about four students come to the weekly services, along with a few alumni.

There are some off-campus groups where Cyr feels she belongs, such as the young adult worship group Pure in Heart, which she found through people she had met in the Catholic Newman Association.

“They’re all really dedicated to their faith and following Christ, and I love that kind of fellowship,” she said. The group meets for many activities, such as hiking, bowling and going out to eat.

Cyr said because she tends to hang out with friends who are likeminded, she doesn’t often have friends who make decisions that she doesn’t believe to be morally right because of her religion. She said “crazy parties” are “not really my thing.”

She said she didn’t really question or reconsider her faith when she came to college. “I just kind of slipped into it.”

She said it is sometimes difficult to be publicly religious on campus. “It’s hard to do it [praying] in public,” she said, “because of course people make fun of you.”

She said it’s still important to talk about her religion, though, even to those who don’t necessarily agree with her.

“Mostly, it’s to speak what I know to be the truth of my faith compared to what other people are saying about the church. Like, they may say things that they think are true, but aren’t,” she said, adding that it is sometimes difficult to bring up disparities between her beliefs and her friends’ beliefs because she doesn’t want to alienate those people.

“People have various different reactions – some really angry, some listen. So, it’s hard.”

For some students, Cyr said, college is a time in which they can grow through their religion and learn, but for others, religion is more of a culture than a belief system, meaning the students might not think very deeply about the religion, but be more focused on the social aspects of the community.

Cyr had a friend in high school with whom she used to talk about Scripture, but their differing views on Christianity sometimes made it difficult to connect.

“Sometimes she would just laugh, because she doesn’t really understand what I believe. So in her ears, it sounds like what I said was silly,” Cyr explained.

“One of its greatest strengths,” she said, is the unity of Catholicism, and how each teaching works together to create a whole.

“You couldn’t just say one [teaching] was more important than the other – so you believe this, and you toss that one out. Because how they’re all connected, they all support each other, and they’re all connected to the big picture. So if you start taking things away, eventually the faith will collapse on itself.”

She said that’s why it’s important that people don’t just choose some teachings to follow and ignore others.

Catholic Chaplain Hai Ok Hwang volunteers a few hours a week for office hours in the Campus Ministry office on the fifth floor of the McCarthy Center.

She said it’s important to attend mass and regular meetings because they are “the best opportunity to grow and deepen spirituality.” Being religious and worshipping can be about building a friendship and a relationship with God, rather than being something that young people do out of duty to their families or out of habit.

Students should be looking for a relationship with God that helps them find “their definition of identity in God,” but unfortunately, she has seen a decrease in the activity of religious students on campus.

FSU’s Protestant Chaplain Leslie Scanlon also offers weekly office hours on a volunteer basis. She is new to campus this semester, and like Hwang, Scanlon said few students have come to visit her during her office hours.

Scanlon does, however, suspect that there are a lot of religious students on campus who aren’t very visible in their worship.

She said students “just don’t practice in traditional ways that we are looking for or expecting to see. I think it’s totally valid. It’s as valid as the way I practice. In the church, we can tend to think that our way is the right way – it’s the institutional mindset – but not everyone needs to go to worship every week.

“People are going to connect with God and God’s people in different ways,” Scanlon added.

Senior Meredith Nelson was brought up in a very religious household, and has struggled with her relationship with Christianity as she has grown up. She now identifies as Christian, but doesn’t go to a church regularly.

Nelson’s mother became Baptist at 22, so Nelson and her siblings were raised in the Baptist tradition. This was particularly challenging for Nelson when she began to struggle with the disparity between her religion and her sexuality.

She went to a youth group with her family’s church, at which the group would have discussions about how being gay was wrong. “I felt sort of tainted by that because I knew I was not straight at the time,” she said. “I sort of remained true to what Christianity had taught me, and I continued to go to church,” she said, even though she started to ignore the teachings that told her being gay was “despicable.”

She said she dated guys for a while in order to hide her sexuality, but began a relationship with another girl in her youth group. Nelson played bass in the church band, and her girlfriend played the drums, though they kept their relationship secret.

Throughout high school, Nelson continued to struggle with the idea that the God she had been taught to believe in may not accept who she was.

She suddenly fell sick for about eight months. The doctors did not know what her diagnosis was, and she began to worry the sickness was terminal.

Nelson began to feel hopeless and hostile because of her sickness, and lashed out at her mom, who kept praying over her bed, and requesting that Nelson read the Bible with her while she was sick. “I wouldn’t participate,” she said.

“My mom, to this day, I think she believes that has something to do with an inner demon, or something, or the devil stripping my faith away from me, with sickness as a supplement, because I was becoming so hopeless and depressed that I wasn’t going to get better.”

Nelson later discovered that she had contracted a parasite from swimming in a lake, and was able to be treated homeopathically.

But even after she became healthy again, she felt she had lost her “spiritual edge.”

After she returned to high school, and began to participate in the youth group again, one of the members of the group committed suicide in the church parking lot. She didn’t understand why her friend had done this, and felt betrayed and hurt.

Despite her mother’s efforts to encourage her to return to church, Nelson refused to go back.

When Nelson first came to college, she didn’t really consider turning to religion until she went through a difficult break-up with a now ex-girlfriend. She said she felt alone and empty, and she turned to her brother, who is a pastor, for support.

He helped her turn toward God and find the Christianity that she now looks to during difficult times.

People will often feel let down by those they love, Nelson realized, and it’s important to have a strong belief that they can always look to when other people “mess up.”

She said sometimes, there seems to be a stigma attached to identifying as Christian or religious at her age and in college, and that people tend to equate being religious with being conservative, which she said isn’t necessarily true.

At Framingham State, Nelson hopes people can start talking about religion more openly, like an intellectual discussion, rather than feeling “freaked out” by other people’s faiths.

Nelson said people tend to be surprised to find out she identifies as Christian. She has been told she doesn’t look like she would believe in God.

“I do believe in God because I believe in perseverance, and I believe that perseverance is a gift that God gives people,” Nelson said.

“I realized that through everything I was going through in high school and in earlier college, that people were praying for me and somehow, I would always just make it out and I always felt I was being protected. Whether that was a guardian angel, whether that was my mom’s prayer, it was undoubtedly something spiritual. And at the end of the day, that’s something that I can’t negate. I have to point upwards at that,” she said, gesturing and looking up while sitting in the McCarthy Center.

“That’s a God thing.”

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