A non-Baptist in the ‘Baylor Bubble’ Bible Belt

By Maegan Rocio

Staff Writer

Baylor University, which is known for its openly Christian beliefs and mission, is also home to many non-Christians.

However, according to the Student Activities website, students that wish to create a prospective religious group must share the ideals of the university – so where do the others go to practice their faith?

Some members of the Baylor community have found common ground with like-minded residents in the wider Waco community.

One such person is Dr. David Jortner, an assistant professor of theater arts at Baylor who is Jewish. Jortner said the large Jewish community in Waco has helped him and his family locate people with whom they can relate. There are two synagogues in Waco – one that follows the reform school of thought and one conservative.

“We’re members of both synagogues and we have a very active religious life through both,” he said.

Jortner said he nearly didn’t apply because of Baylor’s religious affiliation; however, being in a majority-Christian community at work has not affected him much.

“It was a concern and I almost didn’t,” he said. “When I did apply and I came to the theater program, it was really a non-issue in that I felt so comfortable with the people in the theater program, my colleagues here, that it isn’t something that worried me at the time.”

Jortner also said his experience at Baylor hasn’t been affected by the university’s Christian atmosphere. He said the university’s atmosphere reminds him of America in general.

“I really feel that a lot of world is like this, a lot of America is like this, is Christian and conservative and that’s fine,” he said.

Sugar Land senior Nevin Shah, who is a Jain, said he still finds outlets to practice his beliefs and that attending Baylor hasn’t hindered him from practicing his religion.

“If we have a religious holiday, which is a lot more centered about festivals, I think we’re fine with going to someone’s apartment and going there,” he said. “If need a larger place and need to reserve a room, I don’t think we’d have any problems.”

Jainism is a religion from India that teaches its followers how to live their lives through harmlessness and renunciation of worldly attachment. The goal of living a Jain life is to attain the soul’s liberation.

Shah said despite Baylor and Waco’s predominantly Christian environment, his faith has not been affected.

“I haven’t felt hindered spiritually. I’ve really enjoyed the experience at Baylor,” Shah said.

Shah said being at Baylor has even helped him find common ground with his fellow students that have a different religious faith.

“The majority of the time, engaging with other students of any faith is about finding a set of core vales that we all agree on,” he said. “We all can come together and sit and have a discussion and we’re understood by everyone else that is around us.”

Overall, Shah said his experience at Baylor has been fair because the university does support religious diversity and the students of other religious faiths.

“I would say so, at least from a more generalized standpoint,” he said. “I haven’t heard any other non-Christian students say they felt hindered about practicing their faith on campus. I’ve never really felt that way.”

Austin junior Praveen Merugumala is an atheist who lives on campus in Allen Hall. Merugumala said the views of his floormates are different from his own.

“Everyone on my wing is incredibly conservative Christian,” he said. “Literally, everyone disagrees with me on every political issue.”

Despite this, Merugumala said he does not seek like-minded individuals.

“Generally, I don’t go outside of campus to eat with my friends,” he said. “I feel safe in the Baylor bubble because Waco is really crime ridden. There really isn’t a place in Waco to go to.”

Merugumala said he doesn’t feel isolated at Baylor because he uses social networking to connect to his friends, who are of the same mindset as him, back home in Austin. He said he also talks to other Baylor students who are more analytical.

“I hang around people who are pretty into school and are really studious, those who want to be doctors and lawyers,” he said.

Merugumala said he thinks Baylor walks a careful line concerning its predominant Christian outlook and the non-Christian students it houses.

“I don’t think they chastise any type of belief system, but they don’t promote them,” he said. “They do a good job of not excluding non-Christians.”

Still, Jortner said he thinks the university should encourage interfaith dialogue to include members of the community who aren’t Christian.

“I think interfaith dialogue is always a good thing,” he said. “One of my personal experiences has been, because of my area of specialization, I study Buddhism quite a lot and being Jewish and studying Buddhism has enabled me to see things in different ways and has enriched my Jewish life as the more I’ve studied Buddhism. I would encourage people at Baylor to continue to have interfaith dialogues. I think they’re quite rewarding.”