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A few weeks ago, I joined a sizable group in a Freedom Liturgy organized by Restoring Justice, a nonprofit I’ve been a part of for over four years. Starting at their office in downtown Houston, we walked about ten minutes to the Harris County Jail, a stout brick building perched on the edge of the White Oak Bayou, with narrow, dark windows staring out from its facade. Outside the steps of the jail, a chorus of prayer, song, and spoken word demanded the release of those incarcerated not twenty feet away, all in the name of God.
It may feel strange to use Biblical language and prayer to advocate for the abolition of prisons, especially given media narratives surrounding Christianity and politics. But listening to the prayers of people moved by tenants of faith to fight for restorative justice reformed my own understanding of religion. Religious belief does not forecast one specific action; rather, religious tenets create a framework for understanding the world, a moral worldview which varies person to person, generating a range of diverse reactions.
Throughout my own life, my faith has oscillated between a dependable lifeline and something as thin and imperceptible as a strand of hair. When meeting people for the first time, I often joke that there are only three things you need to know about my childhood: My dad was a pastor, my mom a therapist, and I lived in Texas.
Religion, belief, and action have been intertwined all my youth. Living in Texas, the philosophical inquiries — and arguments — I brought to the dinner table were actively unfolding everywhere I looked. Religion — something conceptually concrete to some, yet elusive to others — has always been tied to motivations, whether my own or others. I could talk about it for ages.
Harvard was the last place I expected to discover the plurality of religion and genuine faith. I assumed Harvard’s campus would push me away from faith and religion, since a portion of my hometown community classified it as a machine of liberal secularization. The cliché “I can’t wait to grow in college” felt like the inevitable transition from a faith-guided mentality to an alternative path.
What I was missing, and what I now know, is what I realized on the county jail steps in Houston, what I see on this campus, and what I hope to show you in this column: Prediction, categorization, and quantification are overused methodologies in the study of religion, faith, and their actors.
This column, “A Leap Into Faith,” is meant to capture the diversity of Harvard’s rich and complex discourse on the sacred, using real observation rather than rote assumption. The only mentality required is an open one.
The definition of religion that I’d like to explore is one articulated by Humanist Chaplain Greg M. Epstein, who explained to me that “religion, in a more nuanced view, complex view, is the tradition and the community and the deeply held moral and ethical worldview that we build to give human life meaning and purpose.” Religion is everywhere, and, as Epstein continued, “it can, in many cases, be experienced as divinely inspired and guided — it need not be.”
Speaking with Epstein was refreshing. He spoke on how, ever since Harvard College’s establishment, learning how to live a moral life was integral to its founding mission — a mission that continues today.
At Harvard, Epstein said, “there is a sense that there are multiple possible paths to a good and ethical and meaningful and moral life.”
This is the reality for many students on campus. Harvard is a place of immense diversity, and religion is a significant aspect of that. Daryush D. Mehta, a representative of the Zoroastrian Association, spoke to this plurality in relation to the various chaplaincies at Harvard.
“We have over 35 individuals who represent the spectrum,” he said. “We don’t have every little part of the spectrum but we have a lot, which is amazing, to have a seat at the table as a Zoroastrian, and Greg [M. Epstein] being the A and me being the Z, we say from A to Z, we have atheists, agnostics, humanists, to Zoroastrians.”
What is the best way to understand and appreciate that diversity? What is the best way to understand — truly understand — religion on Harvard’s campus?
I believe the answer is simple: by listening to individuals and understanding how they articulate their experiences of the sacred. When religion is regarded in a narrative form, in the words and style of someone guided by lived experience, it becomes alive and accessible.
From listening, this is what I’ve learned.
For Leah R. Baron ’25, an Orthodox Jew, faith is — and always has been — a steady foundation, one that involves both internal and external dedication.
“There’s kind of two ways of dividing that line, of things that I do that are obvious to the people around me and things that directly affect either the way that I dress or I eat or the way that I spend my time,” she said. “And then things that more present an overarching principle of how I would wish to live my life.”
For Baron, a Crimson Editorial editor, Shabbat — the Jewish day of rest — holds a special significance.
“In my mind, there is no Saturday, like Saturday is just Shabbat, like Saturday is not a day of the week,” she added. “It exists in an entirely different dimension of existence, just because for my entire life, every single Saturday, the exact same thing happens. The entire world stops, all technology stops, no writing, anything, you just spend time with the people around you and that’s kind of it.”
The Harvard lifestyle is often frantic, so to have a sacred, untouched time is particularly admirable.
Sophia N. Downs ’23-’25, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and a Crimson Magazine editor, also speaks about the sanctity of time, framed around her experience serving a mission for her church in Tacoma, Washington.
“A major focus point, we’ll say, of serving my mission was one that you’re — to the best of your ability — a representative of Jesus Christ,” Downs said.
As she recounted her mission, Downs returned to Luke 8: the story of Jesus stopping to heal a sick woman even though there was a huge crowd around him, clamoring for his attention.
“I thought about that story a lot on my mission, where it was emphasis on, ‘Yes, we have meetings, we have appointments to get to, we have things to do, but you are never too busy to stop and serve someone,’” Downs said.
For Aiden J. Bowers ’26, a Protestant Christian, faith is a personal, intellectual endeavor.
“I’ve always had this relationship with my faith and my religion where I just ask questions,” he said.
For Bowers, a Crimson Arts editor, science and religion do not inherently clash; it’s actually the intersection of the two that he finds fascinating. He is exploring this junction in Freshman Seminar 63E: “Religion, Neuroscience, and the Human Mind.”
“Listening to this very real overlap between anatomy, psychology, physiology, that sort of thing, and this religious theological take on us as human beings and our purpose, and how we come to be, is something that is endlessly fascinating to me,” Bowers added.
I had an incredible conversation with Gred Braho ’24, a Muslim student who converted to Islam after identifying as a Greek Orthodox Christian for most of his life.
“After reading the Quran, after reading the first few pages, I just had this feeling inside of me, like this is something I’ve never read before,” Braho said. “You could say like, at least from my knowledge, it’s the only holy book that doesn’t give you direct commandments, but it’s written in the form of dialogue, and it pushes you to think and it pushes you to kind of undergo your own spiritual journey.”
As a convert, Braho was not certain that he would be welcomed in the Muslim community on campus, but he was quickly accepted.
“Everybody in the community welcomed me, and they started inviting me to their social events,” Braho said. “Ramadan also came on campus and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Imagine waking up at like 4 a.m. because we have to eat pre-dawn, so imagine waking up at like 4, 4:30 a.m. with all your friends, all of you cooking together.”
Braho laughed in his interview with me, remembering some of the stories of cooking and eating before the sun rose. For him, Ramadan was a time of community building and orientation.
“I didn’t know what my position was in the Muslim community, and Ramadan helped me figure out who I want to be and what kind of image I want to give out as a Muslim student,” Braho said.
Faith and religion do not look like one specific thing. They are worldviews, connecting a community and the individual.
It can be very easy to place religion in a box, to see it as a one dimensional relic from the past that has no role in the modern era — that’s what I did. But events like the Freedom Liturgy — where faith and religious tenants were used to advocate for prison abolition and against racial injustice — and stories from classmates and peers, with their diverse perspectives, have rewired my mind.
Religion is an orientation to life, but that does not stop it from being problematic. Religion can be a tool to fight injustice, and also a reason for the injustice itself. The jail in Houston and the carceral system that runs through the South as a fungal remnant of slavery are being brought down by an ideology that was also central in its construction.
For this reason, religion is frustrating — maddening, even — to think about. My column this semester is meant to acknowledge the overwhelming array of intentions and outcomes of religious peoples. But what I want, more than anything, is for this first piece to convince you not to solely study religion as a quantifiable rule: Muslim/Catholic/Hindu/Agnostic individuals believe in X and act in Y manner because of their religion. This incessant, compulsive hunger to categorize, to predict, to assume, flattens personal and communal experiences.
Faith and religious beliefs are real: They shape the world, our perceptions, and our coping mechanisms, and they help form the rhetoric we use to make sense of our positionality. Religious tenants can be used to advocate for freedom, like in the case of Restoring Justice, and they can be used to remind us of our duty in life.
So as you go forward thinking of religion’s role in your own life and others’, I leave you with one final experience: the Zoroastrian worldview according to Mehta: “It’s to be good every day. And to help people every day. That’s it. That’s the essence of Zoroastrianism. And to be good and do good, you have to know how to be good and do good and the onus is on the individual.”
Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Leap Into Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.
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