Every week, the Wallace All Faiths Chapel hosts students of diverse religions and cultures. Religious symbols and materials can be brought in for worship, but are not permanent fixtures. It’s a space that reflects the religious diversity on campus.
Even though Chapman is not a Christian college, 44 percent of its undergraduate students identify as Christian, which includes Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and other Christian denominations, according to Chapman’s admissions office.
Of 7,020 undergraduate students, there are 10 Sikhs, 65 Hindus, 77 Buddhists and 82 Muslims. These students make up 3 percent of the undergraduate population, but each represent diverse religious communities.
“Chapman really cares about diversity and helping other students to learn about Sikhism,” said Nikki Purewal, a sophomore news and documentary major. “I feel really welcome because, even though there aren’t many Sikh students, Chapman still cares.”
Growing up as a Sikh, Purewal was taught to share with others. She visited the “gurdwara,” or Sikh temple, with her family often. But it took a trip to India for Purewal to see how her faith continues to shape her life.
Purewal traveled with other Chapman students for the “Religions of India: Diversity and Dialogue” course in January. In a documentary the students made about their trip to India, they portrayed a Sikh concept called “seva,” which Purewal defines as the belief in sharing with the community and volunteering selflessly.
“The students were really appreciative of ‘seva,’ and I never really thought anything of it because I’m so used to the concept,” Purewal said. “But hearing what the other students said about ‘seva’ made me realize that I need to incorporate it in my daily life.”
College has helped Purewal explore her faith and the Chapman Sikh community, she said. Purewal volunteers at the Sikhlens Film Festival, hosted at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts annually, she said. This festival includes entries from Project “S” scholarship recipients, who travel abroad to learn about the Sikh religion through documentary filmmaking. Purewal appreciates that Chapman hosts this event annually, and continues to educate students about Sikhism with the Sikhlens Foundation, she said.
The Leatherby Libraries are home to a study room that contains a Sikh exhibit, which includes the major tenets of the religion and a traditional turban, which Purewal said makes Sikhs stand out, and sometimes makes them targets of discrimination. Purewal’s father and brother wear turbans and are always stopped for extra screenings at airport security, she said.
“Sikhs look very different and have a hard time fitting in the U.S.,” Purewal said. “But we should use that difference as an advantage to educate people about our beliefs.”
During a family trip to Mexico when Christian Ledezma was a toddler, his family was forced to spend a night by the border when their car broke down. Their hotel room gave them not only a place to sleep, but also their first glimpse into Buddhism.
After reading a book on Buddhism from the hotel room drawer, Ledezma’s parents — who were raised Catholic — began to explore this new religion. Since then, the freshman graphic design major was raised as a Nichiren Buddhist in Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a worldwide Japanese Buddhist network. Ledezma’s religion has taught him the importance of taking control of his life and finding happiness, he said.
“It’s about empowering yourself and giving (yourself) the tools to polish the mirror of your own life so that you’re able to be happy and spread that happiness to other people,” Ledezma said. “It’s not magic or anything.”
This religion often mystifies Ledezma’s peers, and many people think that all Buddhists are Asians and bald monks, or that they all pray to a “fat guy,” Ledezma said. However, he said that Buddhism is a much bigger concept.
“People should understand that it’s more of a practical philosophy than a religion where you’re praying to a god or deity,” Ledezma said. “It’s all about you in your own life, and how you apply it daily.”
A friend ostracized Ledezma during his senior year of high school when he found out that Ledezma is gay, he said. He was hurt by his reaction, but used his faith to process the pain into understanding, Ledezma said.
“If I wasn’t Buddhist, I don’t know how I would’ve been able to get through that. I would’ve blamed them and been more angry than I was,” Ledezma said. “My religion helped me to have compassion for them and try to understand their perspective.”
Ashna Shah identifies as a “laid-back” Hindu. The junior biological sciences major understands the basics of Hinduism from her childhood Sunday school classes. But for her, the Hindu Diwali celebration in October is synonymous with “lights, good food, sweets, family getting together and gifts” more than its real meaning — to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, she said.
Shah does not practice Hinduism at Chapman, but her faith allows her to be open to other religions since Hinduism is “pretty out there” by comparison, she said. When Shah went on the same travel course as Purewal, the group visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India — the most holy “gurdwara” in the world.
“Even though I’m not Sikh, I felt like I was connected with some sort of entity. Most of the class felt it was the most commonly spiritual experience of the entire trip,” Shah said.
The group also visited the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Shah was shocked to see the river’s pollution, but could still appreciate its sacred nature, she said.
“People throw ashes into the river, they do laundry and they bathe in the river. It’s really polluted,” Shah said. “Still, if my grandparents die, they would want their ashes put into the Ganges.”
While Shah does not know many Hindu students at Chapman, she sees several Americanized misrepresentations of Hinduism, like bindis worn by non-Hindus at Coachella and “color runs” mimicking the celebration Holi, she said. Shah wants people to understand the sacredness of Hindu gods instead of appropriating them, she said.
“You see Ganesh, the elephant god, on tapestries or T-shirts. Gods aren’t meant to be worn on T-shirts,” Shah said. “You don’t see people wearing T-shirts with Jesus on them. It takes away from the significance of it.”
Shah appreciates that each god can be worshipped for different reasons, and that Hindu groups may worship varying gods, she said.
“Each god has a different purpose. There’s a god of wealth, a god of education, or a god of defeating obstacles. It’s very specific to what you’re going through,” she said.
While Muhammad Karkoutli had no choice in the hair or eye color he received from his parents, he had one optional inheritance: his devotion to Islam.
“My parents never forced anything on me. They just told me that their religion is Islam, and that I could follow it if I want,” Karkoutli said. “They gave me a lot of freedom to decide for myself, which I appreciated a lot. It was from my understanding that I accepted it.”
The sophomore political science major is an observant Muslim and the president of the Muslim Student Association at Chapman. Karkoutli prays five times a day and uses the Fish Interfaith Center’s prayer room.
Despite his responsibilities as a college student, Karkoutli makes time to practice religion because it provides a “semblance of meaning, structure and community” in his life, he said.
“If I have a crazy day with two midterms, I can go into the Fish Interfaith Center prayer room and pray,” Karkoutli said. “It’s a great way to be in the present and reflect on the greater picture about why I am here on earth. It’s a way to stay grounded.”
Through the Muslim Student Association and the global Muslim community, Karkoutli found a sense of religious community, comfort and belonging, he said. Last summer, while at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, he asked an employee where he could pray. The man was surprised by Karkoutli’s question, but politely pointed him to a quiet place, he said. Later, the employee selected Karkoutli to be moved to first class on his flight.
“All he asked in return was that I pray for him and his family, because he was Muslim too,” Karkoutli said. “Wherever I’ve been around the world, there’s always Muslims there, and they always look out for you.”