Student Spotlights: Religious minorities reflect on campus life

Exploring and understanding different religions. Photo illustration by Olivia Havre | Photographer

By Emma Weidmann | Staff Writer

Baylor is the largest Baptist university on the planet. Last fall, more than 65% of freshmen identified as some denomination of the Christian religion, from Baptist to Methodist, Evangelical and more. While a significant portion of campus identifies as nonreligious, Baylor isn’t just a dichotomy between Christians and the nonreligious. Who are the 20% of students in the religious minority?

McAllen junior Hali Temkin is part of a small percentage of Jewish students here at Baylor, just 0.2% of freshmen in the fall of 2021. That’s only eight students out of the entire class of 2025, a population of 4,200 students.

Temkin said being part of a religious minority at Baylor can be challenging because of the required Christian courses and the difficulty of finding a community. Of all her friends at Baylor, only one is Jewish, and she has yet been unable to find a place to worship with others in Waco.

“My friends and I met this retired professor, Dr. Tom Hanks. He saw my necklace that had my Hebrew name and said there were a couple professors here that I should meet,” Temkin said.

Through Dr. Hanks, Temkin met Dr. Stephen Silverstein, a Spanish professor at Baylor, with whom she formed a connection based on their religion. Temkin shared a traditional Shabbat dinner with Dr. Silverstein, which she said made her feel the closest to having a religious community at Baylor.

Temkin was raised religiously, going to Temple, to Jewish summer camp and to Israel for her brother’s Bar Mitzvah. But, it came with challenges. Temkin said she would occasionally hear Antisemitic comments, which still happens, even now that she’s in college.

“In middle school, someone was like, ‘Hitler should have killed her,'” Temkin said. “There was this guy who had a meme account at Baylor, and he posted about how immigrants are rapists. I live on the border, and my family came from Mexico, so I got so mad and started messaging him like, ‘how could you say that?’ We somehow got onto religion and he said that people of other religions shouldn’t be able to practice publicly. He was like, ‘you shouldn’t be making it people’s business.’”

But, it’s not all difficulty and prejudice that Temkin said she has found on this campus. She described her experience last Christmas, when her roommates decorated the apartment and set up a Hanukkah corner for her. Temkin also said professors and students often express curiosity about her religion, and she is always glad to have discussions about what it’s like to be Jewish.

Katy senior Sanjana Natarajan similarly said practicing Hinduism at Baylor is difficult and impractical, but being a part of the Indian Subcontinent Student Association has helped her build a community.

Natarajan said while she has never faced outright prejudice for practicing Hinduism at Baylor, it’s disheartening to hear uneducated comments or preconceptions.

“The biggest one is mixing Hindi and Hindu,” Natarajan said. “Hindi is the language and Hindu is the religion. I get that they have similar names, but I feel like it takes two seconds to look it up.”

Porter freshman Alisa Donis is Catholic. Though there is debate whether Catholicism is under the Christian umbrella, it’s no matter of opinion that Catholic students are a minority at Baylor compared to Protestants. Around 16% of freshmen in the same fall 2021 survey said they identified as Catholic, a comparatively small slice of the population.

Donis said she feels there is a lot of ignorance that surrounds the Catholic faith.

“It’s its own separate branch and it does differ a lot from Protestants and nondenominational Christians, but it can’t be not Christian,” Donis said. “Everyone I’ve met has been curious and open to hearing what I’ve had to say about my religion, but hearing something like ‘Catholicism is close to a cult,’ is unsettling to hear. Most of the time when people say those things, they don’t look into the teachings or look into why we do things. Hearing those things does upset me because people don’t understand [Catholicism] and they don’t want to understand it.”

Following the Islamic faith, Fort Worth senior Nelley Sobh is part of the 1% — that is, of Baylor students. Sobh is a leader in the Middle Eastern Student Association, which she said faced challenges from administration when trying to be chartered.

According to Sobh, administration was at first skeptical about the association, assuming that the focus of it would be on the Muslim faith, even though several members are Christian. Sobh said she wants people to be aware of the diversity of the label “Middle Eastern” and to be curious about others, not ignorant.

“Even in Egypt, a lot of the private schools you send your kids to are Christian affiliated, Coptic or Orthodox,” Sobh said. “It wasn’t hard to comprehend what I was getting myself into when coming to Baylor. But it was a surface level of culture shock having to go to chapel and see people in their element.”

Sobh said the idea that non-Christian students shouldn’t come to Baylor has the same undertone as telling immigrants to go back to their countries.

“We have the option to be here,” Sobh said. “But we also want to be respected for our religion.”

Sobh encouraged students to get involved with interfaith organizations like Better Together, so that there can be more interaction and understanding between students of different faiths.

Sobh said her advice to students of minority faiths and to those who may be ignorant of the experience of these students, is to be open-minded.

“A lot of people come to Baylor thinking that everyone around them is Christian. People need to realize that there is a diverse population at Baylor,” Sobh said. “Don’t look at things at face value. It’s so easy to stick to stereotypes.”

Emma Weidmann is a junior English major from San Antonio, with minors in News-Editorial and French. She loves writing about new albums and listening to live music. After graduating, she hopes to work as an arts and culture reporter.