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Schools adapt for non-Christian prayer

The spider-webbed highways of New Jersey lie far from the Hindu temples of India. Growing up in the Garden State, Anjuli Dhindhwal kept connected with the country of her parents mainly through its religion. Her mother and father often talked about the ancient Hindu scriptures.

When she entered Harvard Divinity School last year, she found herself immersed in a Christian atmosphere she hadn't encountered before. Yet she has been perfectly comfortable praying in Andover Chapel, the school's main worship hall, despite its array of Christian iconography, from the majestic stained-glass windows over the altar to the prominent organ, choir pews, and altar. Dhindhwal says Hinduism encourages her to encounter God in all forms.

But the school has also used subtle strategies to make the chapel comfortable for nonChristians. Stained-glass windows on the sides were replaced with plain glass; the chaplain works with student groups to change seating arrangements, decorations, and lighting to accommodate multiple religions' worship. Dhindhwal generally keeps an eye out for the ubiquitous cross in Christian worship spaces, but perhaps because Andover's is so modern in design, looking more like a bird's silhouette or a boomerang, she hasn't noticed it.

Religious leaders have struggled to make their voices heard in the recent maelstrom over illegal immigration. Less noticed, perhaps, are the ways that legal immigrants have changed the faces and spaces of American religion in the past 40 years. A seismic overhaul of immigration law in 1965 scrapped discrimination against Asian immigrants and gave preference to reuniting families and skilled immigrants. As families poured in and sent their children through the ivied halls of US universities, the new Americans created a contrasting mosaic to traditionally dominant Christianity on campus.

Schools such as Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology responded by hiring chaplains to serve various denominations. But the architecture of worship space is the fingerprint of many religions, a unique physical giveaway to the believer's faith.

In a new report, Laine Walters , a research associate with Harvard's Pluralism Project, which studies religious diversity, documents the strategies schools use for providing a panoply of religions with structural cocoons comfortable to their spirituality.

That's plural ``strategies," because different schools faced different obstacles. In pursuit of the planet's most talented techies, MIT has long assembled its student body from diverse places, Walters says, and its chapel, built in 1955, was an Eisenhower-era example of interfaith sensibility, a minimalist center devoid of denominational flourishes. In case someone missed the point, the chapel's dedication piled as many references to freedom of worship as is humanly possible in a few lines, with its pledge to ``maintain an atmosphere of religious freedom wherein students may deepen their understanding of their own spiritual heritage, freely pursue their own interests, and worship God in their own way."

The situation was very different at Harvard Divinity School, which though it was the first nonsectarian divinity school in the country, had Christianity in its institutional DNA. The school declared its founding mission in 1816 to be the encouragement of ``the serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation of Christian truth" by a trained elite of Christian ministers. Many campus chapels, Walters reports, strip away as many denominational symbols as possible to make all student worshipers feel welcome. Harvard Divinity, with its tradition and the undeniable beauty of Andover Chapel's design, decided to tweak the chapel's look rather than remake it altogether.

The strategy paid off, according to Walters's report, which says that most non-Christian students share Dhindhwal's nonchalance about the decor. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and some Jewish groups use the chapel. An exception arises for some Jewish groups who receive off-campus visitors; in deference to the outsiders, those groups schedule activities elsewhere.

At other schools, Walters found, interfaith aspirations have coupled with unexpected opportunity to rethink worship space. When fire destroyed Northeastern University's chapel in 1996, the school built a new Sacred Space for the interfaith 21st century. It is bare of religious symbols, with chairs, altars, yoga mats, meditation cushions, and other items stored away when they're not being used. There is an antechamber that includes ablution faucets for Muslims, who wash before daily prayers.

For all the laudable stabs at inclusiveness, Walters says her research gave her an important insight: Being open to different groups is not the same as encouraging communication between different groups. ``There wasn't a lot of interfaith engagement in the [worship] spaces," she says. ``I think it's interesting that the groups pretty much live and let live. . . . Given the space and diversity of these campuses, I think that's a missed opportunity."

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