Surrounded Yet Alone

Despite Wheaton’s Christian values, many students in our community feel isolated in their faith.

By Weslie Wilkin | Guest Contributor
March 21, 2021
The calmness of Gold Star Chapel, where many students come to pray and request prayer, reflecting the difficulties in believer's lives, even in Christian communities. Photo by Sanya Holm.

At a college that proclaims “For Christ and His Kingdom,” where professors often pray before classes, where chapels are mandatory, and where the curriculum promotes the value of integrating faith and learning, one might be surprised to find that many students feel spiritually isolated. Ironically, the diversity of faith backgrounds and expressions represented on campus can lead to faith comparisons and even leave students feeling as if they are alone.

 

In the fall of 2021, I conducted a survey titled “How has your experience with faith been at Wheaton so far?” Students could fill out the survey online after scanning QR codes posted around campus. The five-question survey, which focused specifically on student’s experiences with faith on campus, garnered almost 100 responses. From freshmen to seniors, students in each class participated. 

 

One question, in particular, asked students if they had experienced isolation in faith-related matters on campus. Sixty-two percent of survey respondents reported feeling isolated in some way. In the survey, students could provide commentary on their answer. The reasons for spiritual isolation varied. 

 

For some, race plays a role. “Being a student of color at Wheaton is pretty lonely,” said senior English major Javian Walter. “The ways that sexual identity, race and political differences all complicate our faith are not questions I think we’re really good at asking here.”

 

One anonymous survey respondent said they are no longer involved with the Chaplain’s Office Discipleship Ministries small groups because they “felt ostracized due to [their] sexuality and ethnicity.” Other students shared that their deeper questions about race in relation to faith are often ignored because some professors do not know how to answer these questions.

 

Freshman international relations major Miriam O’Bert said she has also felt frustration that some of her spiritual questions are unaddressed at Wheaton in class and in chapel. 

 

“Sometimes it feels like [professors and chapel speakers are] saying, ‘Oh, we as Christians believe this,’ and they’ll be really firm and close the conversation,” said O’Bert. “I’ve felt isolated when I’ve wanted to talk to friends more but I know they don’t fully share my views.” 

 

Several survey respondents echoed this sentiment of intellectual isolation, mentioning experiences where their thoughts about faith have been met with apathy or judgment from peers or experiences where they have been too afraid to defend their beliefs because of an anticipated negative response from professors or other students. 

 

Not all students have felt alone. 

 

In the same survey, several students shared that they have found a community at Wheaton that they have not been able to find elsewhere. One anonymous respondent shared, “I grew up in a secular area, but I was religious privately. Being at Wheaton has allowed me to grow confident and love others better since I can openly speak about my religion and speak to others if I am doubtful.” 

 

Some students expressed that being at Wheaton has pushed them to be better Christians, and others said that they have found great community and acceptance on a campus that The Princeton Review ranks No. 18 in the U.S. for “quality of life” and “inclusive community.” 

 

Other students said they have experienced growth in their faith due to Wheaton’s courses and environment. “I came from a Christian high school, but I was never really challenged enough by my school,” said freshman international relations and English major Jackson Connor in an interview. “Then when I came here, I suddenly was being challenged by professors, by friends, and by my church. I have room to grow and figure things out for myself.”

 

Reflecting on Mandatory Chapel

 

For other students, Wheaton’s mandatory three-times-a-week chapels illustrate the paradox of Christian isolation in an intensely evangelical environment. “Force-feeding Christians chapel makes us full. I want to be hungry,” said sophomore communication major Beau Hill.

 

Some students offered more qualified views of mandatory chapel. Freshman international relations and urban studies major Zachary Welch suggests that students should better appreciate the communal aspects of chapel worship.

 

“There are certainly times when worship in chapel feels forced,” said Welch. “However, it is important not to lose sight of the aim and purpose of worshiping together. Treating chapel as a purely individual expression of worship is a folly of a larger cultural attitude of individualism, where I am the only thing that matters in each institution I am a part of.”

 

O’Bert also expressed her desire for a more personal chapel experience with greater “community-based or discussion-type components.” 

 

However, last year’s voluntary, small group chapel alternative — Life Together Groups, or LTGs — saw low attendance after a few weeks. The Chaplain’s Office intended the LTGs to meet weekly in socially-distanced locations around campus as part of the college’s COVID-19 measures, but many groups soon stopped meeting altogether.

 

“The LTG’s worked out for some, though surely not for all,” interim chaplain Greg Waybright ‘75 said in an email. Regarding some students’ aversion to mandatory chapel, he said, “I’ve walked with the Lord for over six decades, and there are times when I think I don’t grow in some [Christian] settings. Many factors lead to that. With all that in mind, we’ll seek to be faithful to do what Scripture calls us to do as a worshiping community.”

 

Ray Chang ‘06, Wheaton’s ministry associate for discipleship, also reflected on chapel’s benefits to the college’s Christian community. 

 

“Chapel is one of the things that people who graduate seem to most reflect on with nostalgia and gratitude,” said Chang in an email. “In what other season of life are you able to worship with your peers in this way and hear people from all over the world doing gospel work like this?”

 

Although some students mentioned feeling isolated in chapel, others expressed their appreciation for the chapel experience. 

 

“Chapel is one of the ways that I’ve seen there are multiple ways to believe different things and still be a very serious and ardent follower of Jesus,” said Walter.

 

Freshman economics and communication major Grant Dutro agreed on chapel’s spiritual benefits, saying, “After chapel, I always feel like I’m set in my faith a little more than I was an hour before.”

 

Yet some students have shared feelings of being silenced or ignored in chapel, especially when there were chapels held on sensitive topics around which students may have past trauma. Particularly controversial was the 2021 Staley Series, held on Nov. 10-12 with speaker Juli Slattery, founder of the teaching ministry Authentic Intimacy. The series discussed a biblical view of sexuality, and addressed sensitive subject matter related to negative sexual experiences and trauma. Some students requested excused absences due to past trauma, particularly for the Nov. 12 chapel when Slattery discussed sexual assault. The Chaplain’s Office did not respond to the students’ requests.

 

Freshman secondary education and English writing major Ari Rodriguez was one of these students. Rodriguez expressed disappointment that the Chaplain’s Office failed to respond to her request for an excused absence, saying that “healing is an individual process and to say that this chapel was beneficial to all is irresponsible and incorrect.” 

 

Another student who chose to remain anonymous said that after emailing the Chaplain’s Office, visiting the Chaplain’s Office in person, emailing Student Care Services and visiting the Student Care Services office in person, the best solution they were offered was to skip chapel that day and use one of their 11 free chapel skips.

 

@Forumwallwheaton, an Instagram account where students can submit their thoughts and opinions, posted an anonymous student’s opinion on the situation. “Trauma is not a joke,” the Nov. 14 opinion read. “While Friday’s Chapel… may have proved beneficial to some, for others, it posed a significant psychological threat.” 

 

The post received 274 likes. Some comments agreed with the student’s opinion and called out Wheaton’s administration for not supporting and protecting students. One student commented, “It’s absolutely irresponsible not to offer an excused absence for this. It’s crazy how we can talk about supporting survivors and walking alongside them as a church and then pull stunts like this.” 

 

Other students disagreed, with one person commenting: “If we offer students an excused absence from a potentially painful chapel, what’s the point of talking about painful subjects at all?” 

 

The Chaplain’s Office responded to the incident through a statement read by Associate Chaplain of Worship Arts Donté Ford during chapel, on Nov. 19. The statement was later sent by email to all Wheaton undergraduates. “It grieves us that our failure or inability to communicate promptly hurt the students who courageously took the initiative to reach out,” the statement read. 

 

The statement also explained that the Chaplain’s Office does not grant excused absences, but that students can undergo a process with Student Care Services to receive an exemption for chapels that may be triggering to them.

 

“One of the many reasons the College allows for 11 skips a semester is to enable students simply to opt out of a particular chapel topic without having to take part in any kind of process,” the statement added.

 

The Pressure Behind Spiritual Growth

 

Even outside of chapel, for some students the fervor of Wheaton’s faith environment breeds isolation as students are tempted to compare their faith to others. 

 

“I have never been in a community so richly rooted in their faith,” said Dutro. “But sometimes I feel like the students here are so rooted in God that they feel content with themselves to an extreme. I struggle with myself and doubt God as a result, but the students here are so well-grounded that I feel ostracized.”

 

Other students expressed that Wheaton’s Christian culture inhibits authenticity and openness because students feel pressure to measure up to the perfect Christian mold. One survey respondent complained, “Everyone puts on the face of a perfect Christian who doesn’t ever have issues or feel off towards their faith. And I know I do, so it makes me feel bad.” Another respondent wrote, “My faith has wavered since being here. Everyone acts like there are levels of Christianity and if you do this bad thing, then they are better than you as a person.”

 

Chang also acknowledged the unique spiritual growth pressures that students might feel in Wheaton’s Christian environment. 

 

“A lot of people at Wheaton want to look like they have everything together, even when they don’t,” Chang said. “This leads them to hold everything in as the burden of loneliness gets heavier and heavier. We are called to carry each other’s burdens, which means that we have to allow others into our lives to know which burdens we are carrying.”

 

Waybright mentioned that he and other Chaplain’s Office members have found anonymous notes in Gold Star Chapel in Lower Beamer expressing students’ feelings of isolation. 

 

“We usually try to write a brief response to those who leave anonymous notes there, but we can only step into situations in which people disclose their identities to us,” Waybright said in the email.

 

Chang also recommended that students dealing with spiritual isolation reach out to college resources.

 

“Speak to your RA, talk to a DM leader, come to our office, connect with a club,” Chang advised. “And if it doesn’t work the first time, don’t give up, but try again. Sometimes, the people you share something difficult with don’t always get it right. As tempted as you might be to give up, I encourage you not to.” 

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