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Weaving Worship Into House Life

GUEST COMMENTARY

By David J. Andorsky

It's that time of year again. Around the world, people are decorating Christmas trees, lighting Hanukkah menorahs, and preparing for Kwaanza. And here at Harvard, we go to House Committee meetings to decide how high the Christmas tree should be, whether it belongs in the dining hall or the JCR and whether there should be a holiday party and a Hanukkah party, or just a holiday party.

The fact that such discussions have become commonplace is a sign of increased sensitivity toward religious diversity at Harvard. Twenty years ago, these conversations were almost unimaginable; religion was something that students were expected to keep to themselves. Even as recently as three years ago, house masters and HoCo officers made unilateral decisions about religious observances in the Houses without thinking to consult the rest of the residents.

Nevertheless, these discussions still miss the point. We need to begin looking at the holidays not merely as an excuse to decorate our dining halls, but as an opportunity for students to learn about the various faiths held and practiced by their classmates.

The current climate of conversation is reactive in nature. Non Christian students were troubled by the presence of large Christmas trees in house common spaces, such as dining halls. These students felt excluded by these religious symbols and argued that their presence was contradictory to the atmosphere of tolerance and diversity that Harvard claimed to promote. Genuinely concerned about the happiness of some house residents, house masters began to listen closely to complaints and to involve students in the decision-making process.

The result is that each year we try to glide through the holiday season without upsetting anyone. This is an important first step, because people tend to have strong feelings when it comes to religious issues, and we must ensure that students of all backgrounds feel comfortable voicing their concerns in a constructive manner. But such discussions have tended to sidestep the issue of religious diversity instead of really addressing it.

Currently, we have two models for dealing with religious conflict during the holidays. Operating on the premise that students will feel more comfortable in their houses if their religious symbols are present, houses have begun to place menorahs and, less frequently, Kwaanza lamps, alongside Christmas trees. Unfortunately, this does not serve to foster any sort of interfaith exchange or greater House community.

The second type of solution seeks to plan holiday events that incorporate all religious traditions at once. Most often this event is a holiday party or study break, where house residents come to talk and eat delicious food--about the same things that they talk about at other study breaks. The holidays become yet another opportunity for a social gathering, and all religious content is removed.

This approach is especially problematic when one tries to incorporate rituals from specific religions into these universalist events. An excellent example is the ill-received Harvest Moon Festival that took place in Dunster House this October. The event involved rituals of harvest-time holidays of three religions. To be sure, these holidays share a great deal in common. But students of all three faiths were offended because the event mushed everything together and blurred important boundaries. This sort of format works for a content-less holiday party but is inappropriate when it serves as the basis for a substantive interfaith discussion.

These two approaches--"tokenism" and "universalism"--are polar opposites. "Tokenism" prescribes that we must permit the free and unfettered expression of religion in common spaces and that each faith must be free to operate on its own terms with no need to explain itself to the rest of the community. This may make individual religious groups feel comfortable, but it will lead to a fragmented house community. In addition, it is not fair to the many students who hold no strong allegiance to any religion. On the other hand, "universalism" places house community first, at the expense of real inter-religious dialogue. This solution may enable us to make it through the holiday season without incident, but it does not show how adherents of different faiths can live together and learn from one another.

Atrue solution must steer between these two extremes. There are many possibilities, but at least three elements must be present: First, houses should mandate that no religious symbol can be placed in a common space without a word of explanation as to its meaning. What is the symbolism of the Christmas tree? Why does a Kwaanza lamp have seven branches? Why does a Hanukkah menorah have nine? I doubt if anyone (myself included) can answer all three of these questions, despite the fact that all three of these symbols will be seen around campus in the coming weeks. Part of the burden of living in a multireligious community is the responsibility of educating others about one's religion. The religious diversity of the College is only valuable if we share with one another. Furthermore, an educational element will serve to make religious symbols less threatening. Students will come to understand why these things are so important to their classmates.

Second, we must learn to respect the differences between religions. This should not be an impediment to interfaith events. For example, last year the Interfaith Forum and Hillel sponsored a model Passover seder. The event walked through many of the rituals of the meal, allowing time for discussion. Many connections between Easter and Passover were drawn, and students of both faiths learned a great deal about each other and themselves.

The event also could have included a run-through of the rituals and liturgy of Easter. The key is that the integrity of different rituals must be maintained. The experience of the Dunster House Harvest Moon Festival should not discourage future interfaith events; of all the attempts to deal with religion in the houses, it is the only one that has tried to tackle the issue in an honest and substantive way. It would have worked had it allowed time for each religion to present itself on its own.

Finally, there must be a more structured process for planning religious events to ensure that all groups have the opportunity to be represented. Each house might set aside a certain amount of money each year for religious events and would have an application process. House residents would draft proposals for religious events and submit them to the masters for approval and funding. This would allow the house administration to look at the entire year at once, and would also enable the house to work with students to turn their religious celebrations into opportunities for the entire House community to learn and to share.

One final question: Why bother? Is religious diversity really worth all of this trouble? A resolution proposed at a meeting of the Committee on House Life (COHL) last spring recommended that House Masters spend no money on religious events. The idea is that everyone will be better off if students just practice their respective religions in private. This solution treats the house common spaces as public property, analogous to a town square. Religious symbols are prohibited in municipal public spaces because of separation of church and state, and the COHL proposal urged a parallel separation between church and house.

But a house is not just a public space; it is also a home. And the home, more than the church, is where religion is practiced. Students do not want to put Christmas trees or menorahs in the Junior Common Room in order to turn it into a place of worship; rather, they want to turn it into a home. If we do not find some way of allowing students to practice their religions and to share them with others, the houses run the risk of simply being dormitories, rather than communities. Particularly in an age of randomization, when students have less reason than ever to feel a particular loyalty to their houses, we must expand the definition of house life to include more of student life. Instead of pushing religion out of the houses and giving campus religious organizations full responsibility for its maintenance, the houses must embrace religion in order to make them true microcosms of the College.

Because of the way in which the house administration is structured, all changes will have to come from within each house, rather than be imposed by the COHL or some other College-wide body. This article, then, is really an open letter to House Masters and HoCo officers--a call to do their part in addressing the issue of religion's role in campus life.

It is also a call to concerned house residents to get involved in these discussions. Because it is not just about the height or location of a Christmas tree. It is about the challenge of building a community while recognizing differences. It is about making diversity an educational experience, not just a catchy phrase. In short, it is about everything that life on this campus is supposed to be about. It is my hope for this holiday season that we can build on the current level of sensitivity and awareness about religious diversity to address these difficult but important questions.

David Andorsky '97 is chair of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel.

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