Do You Need Prayer Room at School?

During my year of service as a VISTA at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), I served in the Multicultural Initiatives department. We have offices on two of the thirteen Salt Lake Community College campuses. Recently we had an encounter in which we were confronted by the need for religious accommodations for our students.

A staff member from a department on the other side of the building brought a student to our office. The young man had a request. He wanted to know if there was a place where he could pray on campus. The coordinator in our office first did not quite understand the request. Was he allowed to pray on campus? Well, yes of course, you can pray here. Where can I pray? You can pray anywhere you’d like; no one will stop you or get in your way. Was there a room, on campus, where I can do my prayers? Oh, no, the coordinator shook their head. There was not a room for that. But, you could use my office! The staff member instinctively knew that something was wrong with the lack of facilities, and tried their best to make up for what they knew was a problem. The student was not offended. He had the look on his face that said, yeah, I didn’t really think there would be a space, but it never hurts to ask, right? He was looking for a designated prayer room.

I recounted this story to an administrator at SLCC. She, like the staff member, did not understand. Her questions came in rapid fire secession after my very short introduction to the story. What is a prayer room? Could the student have used another room on campus? How often do they need the space? What else did he need, just the room? I must confess, instead of answering the questions, I countered with:

“This is the perfect example of the lack of appreciative knowledge we have about the religious identities of our students.”

Our students have needs that are not being met, much less validated, by our institutions. We cannot begin to meet those needs until we take the time to understand the religious and philosophic demographics of our universities and colleges. This knowledge is especially relevant at community colleges, where the student body tends to be diverse and have a richer refugee community, and subsequently a more religiously diverse population. We should also be mindful of the staff and faculty that have similar requirements. I take responsibility for the fact that I knew the answers to her questions and did not answer them. I promised that I would send her an email soon remedying my mistake, but what I hope I accomplished was a subtle way to speak truth to power.

The student was looking for an institution that understands that students have physical needs, so they build cafeterias and gyms. They even create childcare and food pantry programs. Institutions know students have social needs so they build student clubs and leadership opportunities on student senates. Students have emotional needs, so campuses across the United States employee professional counselors and set up mentorship programs. Too often educational institutions forget that students have spiritual needs as well.

The requirements for students who follow the tenets of a faith in which one must pray throughout the school day, or a faith that requires a quite meditative place, or a philosophy that compels its adherents to intentionally learn and work with individuals of another belief system are ignored by our institutions of higher education. The community college I am serving in this year is still on the fence about whether it can prioritize interfaith understanding and cooperation. I have high hopes, and see a great potential in the organization. Did your school provide a prayer/meditation space? Did you utilize that space or would you have if it would have been available? Did your college or university have interfaith programming? Did you ever participate in the interfaith activities? How might these types of accommodations enhance your education?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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4 thoughts on “Do You Need Prayer Room at School?

  1. Ellie, this is a great piece. As a seminarian following a call to interfaith ministries and chaplaincy in higher education, I resonate with much of what you say. Prior to attending seminary I was also an AmeriCorps Member serving at a college. I served at Juniata College, a small Pennsylvania liberal arts school. A unique aspect of the campus is a building called the Unity House, in which both the Offices of Diversity & Inclusion and the Campus Ministry office are located. Inside this house you can find many offices but also a living room, kitchen, conference room, and a meditation room, which is available to all students, faculty, staff, and community members. Muslim students use it for daily prayer, Buddhist groups meet for meditation, and Christian students gather for Bible study. It is a small but important part of the religious ethos on campus. I also appreciate the parallel that you draw between campuses addressing students physical, social, and emotional needs and the necessity of extending that to meet spiritual needs as well. Thank you for your voice!

  2. I teach at a state university in Massachusetts. Similar to a community college, we have a diverse student population that includes many who are immigrant and first-generation Americans as well as first-generation in college. I am happy to write that we have an interfaith prayer room. I am not sure how many students are aware of it, or how much it is utilized. We put so much emphasis on separation of church and state in public education that prayer tends to be de-emphasized, but thankfully the interfaith concept is inclusive enough that we can have the prayer room. The next step, I think, should be an interfaith chaplaincy.

    1. Ladies, Thank you all for your comments. I do agree that an Interfaith Chapin would be a wonderful next step. Higher Education is so often about resource allotment, I have a difficult time just keeping interfaith considerations a part of conversations. If I can manage to get a room designated for interfaith prayer and meditation it would be no small victory. Where are the rooms located on your Universities? Are they in central locations, a student center, or are they on the peripheral of the campus? How are the rooms managed or overseen? Any information you would be willing to share would give me a great advantage in my argument.

  3. Ellie, I really enjoyed your piece. Of course space needs to be made available for students to use for prayer and meditation. At my divinity school there were several spaces available for prayer and meditation. But while I was there it became clear that these spaces did not meet Muslim student’s needs because of Christian iconography in the rooms. Much like the situation you recount where a staff member offered their office for the student, at my school an impromptu space was provided for the Muslim students. I’m sorry to say, I don’t know if a permanent solution was found. I agree with Susan that interfaith prayer rooms are a good solution in most cases, though not a perfect solution. I can imagine many possible conflicts arising around the kind of iconography present and what the space would look like. But I don’t think these are insurmountable. And Susan, as someone currently contemplating interfaith chaplaincy, I cannot agree more that interfaith chaplaincy is the next step.

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