Religious organizations increasingly prioritize community over worship

Groups such as Penn Secular, PRISM and Penn Cru carve out a niche in Penn's religious community

· January 23, 2013, 9:40 pm

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Students who visited Sunday’s activities fair were likely bombarded with flyers for Penn’s abundance of religious groups.

At the fall 2011 activities fair, however, College and Wharton sophomore and atheist Seth Koren felt that there wasn’t a religious community where he could fit in.

“There were about 50 religious groups but nowhere I found that I could join in and participate,” he said.

In response, Koren founded, and is currently president of, the Penn Secular Society.

The group boasts a listserv of approximately 120 people.

The creation of Penn Secular reflects a growing trend — regardless of affiliation, students are gravitating towards religious groups on campus in search of a sense of community.

A religious evolution

According to Penn Chaplain Chaz Howard, religious life on campus is growing faster than ever.

“Faith seems to be more relevant, and [there] seems to be an increased appreciation for it,” Howard said.

Howard estimates that the number of Penn students who have weekly or monthly brushes with religious groups is greater than the Greek community. There are no official statistics available on Penn’s religious make up, since only about 20-30 percent of students complete the Chaplain’s survey on religious beliefs, he said.

One element of this growth is many groups’ evolution from being largely worship-centered into more community-oriented social hubs.

“There’s a lot of groups out there that want to learn about their faith and the best way to do that is community service — not necessarily a worship-based discussion,” said Programs in Religion, Interfaith and Spirituality Matters co-chair and College junior Mia Garuccio. “People’s mindset on religion is really evolving … it doesn’t have to be a group that only does a Bible study.”

PRISM advocates for creating a community between many religious groups, especially through community service.

In a study for her Introduction to Sociological Research class, College sophomore Rachel Eisenberg’s findings showed that religious life on campus centers on more than worship alone. Eisenberg sent out a survey to examine how elements of Jewish students’ upbringing influenced their religious involvement at Penn.

Her findings showed a significant increase or decrease in involvement with the Jewish community for most students once they came to Penn.

“I think it’s mainly Penn itself that determined whether students became more religious,” Eisenberg said. “There are certain opportunities at Penn that make it easier to be more religious here, but there are also plenty of other opportunities at Penn that can fulfill the role religion played in students’ lives growing up.”

‘At the end of the day’

Religious groups on campus prioritize their role in the lives of students now more than ever.

Penn Cru Campus Connection Leader and Nursing sophomore Elise Taylor commented that the group’s close-knit sense of community attracts many of its members.

“A lot of people are really lonely on campus,” Taylor said, adding that she feels it’s easy for people to connect within the Penn Cru community. “We’re like family to each other.”

One of Penn Hillel’s goals for the year, according to president and College junior Josh Cooper, is to find different outlets for expressing the Jewish faith. They have groups that relate to social justice, Israel and a LGBT group.

Someone even has the title of “Jewish sports commissioner,” he added.

“[We] definitely work very hard to make the Hillel experience not a monolithic one,” Cooper said.

Penn’s Muslim Students Association also stresses the importance of creating a community through events that educate the public about Islam and community service.

For example, Penn MSA holds an annual Family Fair, which is free for West Philadelphia residents and attracts approximately 400 people. The group also has weekly tea parties and had a cultural tea lounge during Islam Awareness Week that drew over 100.

“It is community at the end of the day, a safe space and an engaging environment,” former MSA president and College senior Mak Hussain said.

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