December, 2017

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Many Minnesota Private Colleges have Christian affiliations that run deep, stretching back to when they were founded. At the same time, these institutions seek to welcome students with other religious beliefs and ensure they feel at home as well. That’s clear at Gustavus Adolphus College, which has strong ties to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).

Chaplain Siri Erickson sees Gustavus’ Lutheran values driving the institution’s work around serving the needs of people from diverse religious backgrounds. While this takes many forms, one example was the recent opening of a multifaith, non-denominational space for students.

“Bonnier Multifaith Center, which opened this year, grew out of students’ need for a space to engage in a variety of religious practices,” Erickson said. “The center is used for Buddhist and mindfulness meditation, Muslim prayer, yoga and interfaith dialogue. It truly is a place where people from many different backgrounds feel welcome.”

Along with Christ Chapel, Bonnier Multifaith Center will be a meeting point on campus for everything from interreligious text studies to personal prayer and reflection. The center was designed to be a comfortable and welcoming space where everyone can practice their religion and where people can learn about the traditions and practices of other religions.

Meeting the spiritual needs of students also occurs outside of this space. One way is through access to a variety of religious communities’ places of worship.

“For example, we help our Muslim students get to mosque during Muslim holidays such as Eid,” Erickson said. “A mosque opened in St. Peter this year, and they have been very welcoming to our students.”

Speaking up about students’ needs is another key component to serving students of diverse faiths.

“Before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we communicate to faculty and administration that Jewish students, faculty and staff may ask for time off or need to miss class for their religious observances,” Erickson said. “We also help support students who have dietary practices related to their religious identity. To support Muslim students, our dining services has some regular halal options available, and we make special plans to accommodate food-related religious practices, such as fasting during Ramadan.”

Gustavus, like many private colleges, has an academic religious requirement that is designed to work with students’ varied interests and backgrounds. “There are a variety of courses that students can choose from to fulfill this requirement — our religion department focuses on the academic study of religion,” Erickson said. “The department is diverse. We have professors with expertise in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, and we’re in the process of hiring a full time endowed Jewish Studies professor.”

Gustavus is focused on diversity, including religious diversity, Erickson said. “To do this well, we need to keep learning about one another’s traditions and practices and pay attention to specific things that are important to people of each tradition. We want to make sure our students have everything they need to practice their religious tradition during their time at Gustavus.”

By Tom Lancaster