Yajat Patel was familiar with Abilene, Texas, a small city home to a little over 125,000 people. He grew up in the city, graduated from a local high school, and enrolled at Abilene Christian University (ACU) for a double major in Accounting and Finance.
But nothing had prepared him for how out of place he felt once he arrived on campus. He registered for mandatory Bible classes at school. He held his breath while attending chapel to earn his required spiritual formation credits. At times, being surrounded by believers of another faith as they engaged in worship made ACU feel more like a prison than a school for Yajat, as he had nowhere to express his own faith on campus. For the most part, he kept his thoughts to himself and looked forward to going home each day.
In the spring of 2021, Yajat found a job and stayed longer on campus. He waited in the library before work and ordered coffee at Starbucks. He met more students and formed friendships, many of which were with members of Christian fraternities. Yajat says he was reluctant to join any fraternities because their traditions made him uncomfortable, and he yearned for a place where he could talk more openly about his Hindu faith.
Yajat emailed the Student Life department on campus, inquiring if he could possibly start an organization for Hindu or Indian students on campus. To his surprise, various faculty and students responded positively to the idea.
ACU offers many weekly, supplementary, small group chapels for students to find the best fit for their spiritual formation journey. In response to Yajat’s inquiries, Student Life staff suggested that ACU could host a weekly interfaith chapel. Here, students could earn spiritual formation credits and pursue belonging together. Thus, with the support of ACU Chapel staff, a group known as All Walks of Life (or AWOL Chapel) was formed.
At AWOL meetings, students explore spiritual practices from various faith traditions and discuss aspects of faith and personal identity. Last semester, Yajat used this time to share with other students what it was like to be Hindu at a predominately Christian university. His perspective opened his peers’ eyes to the intolerance, and various microaggressions he experienced during his time at ACU.
During one AWOL meeting, Yajat told his fellow students about an overnight trip he took as part of a class. As students talked with each other on the trip, the conversation turned to Yajat’s Hindu faith.
“At that moment,” Yajat noted, “several students wanted to pray over me, and they asked me to convert to Christianity right then and there. I had nowhere to go. It was awful.”
The students in Yajat’s class did not know how to be in a relationship with someone whose religious beliefs differed.
Yajat’s story led the AWOL group to a more extensive discussion about the challenges of sharing one’s faith.
“Outside of AWOL, there’s no other place that I can share these experiences,” Yajat said, “I hope that talking about them can help other students become more aware of their actions.”
With the support of Interfaith America through the Building Bridges, Deepening Faith campus grants, AWOL sponsored fifteen students for an overnight trip to a Hindu temple in Dallas over spring break.
Students wrote reflective essays on their experiences, and Yajat remarked, “It was good to attend another temple with friends.” Doing so made him “want to know even more about my Hindu faith.”
Rikki Gonzales, a Christian student who also traveled to Dallas, wanted to go on the trip to understand her Hindu friends better. “Seeing others express their faith was a good experience,” she shared.
The AWOL students have become friends and formed a close community. They often meet at local restaurants after chapel to promote friendship and connection in a program called “after hours.” This initiative has given a broad range of ACU students who usually feel isolated a place to belong. By the end of the Spring semester, a core group of students were coming early to AWOL and staying late into the night.
Interfaith conversations like those at AWOL are in their infancy at ACU. Still, they create hospitable spaces where students like Yajat can thrive and find a sense of community.
“The AWOL chapel is a welcome addition to our spiritual formation offerings,” notes Dr. Ryan Richardson, VP of Student Life. “Because it allows students to grow in their listening capacity and create lasting relationships. Christian higher education needs more bridgebuilding programming that cultivates these skills.”
Dr. Jason Fikes
Dr. Jason Fikes is the associate dean for library publishing services and the director of Abilene Christian University Press. He joined ACU Press after almost twenty years of full-time ministry with churches in Texas and California. Dr. Fikes holds a Ph.D. in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses for ACU.
“Building Bridges, Deepening Faith” campus grants were made possible by generous support from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and The Pew Charitable Trusts.