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Exploring A Diversity of Faiths

When students arrive at Stetson University, they may experience “spiritual autonomy” for the first time, free from the spiritual or religious beliefs that they were taught while growing up.

Stetson’s three Chaplains are, left to right, Rev. Willie Barnes, Jr., an African Methodist Episcopal pastor; Rev. Christy Correll-Hughes, an ordained Baptist minister; and Sensei Morris Sekiyo Sullivan, spiritual head of Volusia Buddhist Fellowship.

“For many students, but not all, they have the liberty to either explore their faith deeper or to explore the faith of others in a more critical and more intentional way,” said Rev. Willie Barnes, Jr., one of Stetson’s three chaplains.

The three chaplains, each with different faiths of their own, want to share an interfaith message during Sacred Space, a weekly gathering on Mondays at 7 p.m. that will begin Aug. 28 in Lee Chapel.

“For us, sacred is a term that the majority of individuals can relate to, where it does not exclude individuals. It includes everyone,” said Rev. Barnes, also the pastor at Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Daytona Beach.

The three chaplains — an African Methodist Episcopal pastor, a Buddhist sensei and an ordained Baptist minister — are reaching out to student religious and spiritual organizations on campus.

They are contacting members of the Muslim Student Association, Hillel Jewish Student Organization, Asian Pacific American Coalition, and Christian groups, such as Baptist Collegiate Fellowship, and hope they will lead many of the Sacred Space gatherings. They also are recruiting in the School of Music for students and professors to perform sacred music.

Stetson senior Fatima Asad, president of the Muslim Student Association, said the group has made a commitment to participate in the gatherings and a student member will read a scripture from the Koran this Monday night.

Asad said she was pleasantly surprised this week during Stetson’s FOCUS orientation for incoming students when 30 new members signed up for the Muslim Student Association, more than last year. And 27 of the students are not of the Muslim faith, she said.

“We have received such positive response from the Stetson students and staff, but I think it’s very important to reach out to the DeLand community because the Muslim population is almost nonexistent,” said Asad, a molecular biology major who plans to attend medical school in interventional radiology. “One of the goals of the MSA is to be involved and give back to Stetson and the DeLand community, as well.”

Sacred Space may feature a scripture reading from the Koran or the New Testament one week, for example, or a mediation or a Jewish student teaching about traditions observed during a particular Jewish holiday.

“Sacred Space happens when students, faculty, and staff are engaged with one another in meaningful community and learn from different faith or spiritual perspectives,” said Stetson Chaplain and Rev. Christy Correll-Hughes, an ordained Baptist minister.

“We want this kind of engagement to happen at our weekly Sacred Space services, but also to happen organically — over lunch at the Commons, in the classroom with professors, in residence halls and community spaces,” she said.

The three chaplains also will start a weekly column for Stetson Today, called Sacred Space, that will preview the weekly gatherings and include a call to action for students, who can share their participation on social media at #HatterSacredSpace.

“New Beginnings” is the theme for this Monday’s Sacred Space. After the Labor Day holiday, Sacred Space will resume Monday, Sept. 11, with a theme of Muslim-Christian unity in observance of the terrorist attacks.

“All three of us are here to help all students regardless of their tradition or lack thereof,” said Stetson Chaplain and Sensei Morris Sekiyo Sullivan, the spiritual head of Volusia Buddhist Fellowship in DeLand.

“We’re all living a spiritual life whether we’re religious or not, whether we consider ourselves spiritual or not,” he said. “So we might as well live a spiritual life that is going to help us be wiser, more compassionate, kinder, more spiritually healthy people.”

The Sacred Space gatherings began last spring semester and were based on an afternoon chapel service and coffee hour that Rev. Barnes attended each afternoon while studying for a Master of Divinity Degree from Yale Divinity School. At Yale, the Divinity School “intentionally” set aside time each day for reflection.

“Having that moment in the middle of the day, for me, it was just a time to connect with God. Although I knew Sacred Space would be more interfaith here at Stetson, for me, I think it’s important that the community has a time to pause, to take a moment, to breathe and reflect and connect with what they consider sacred,” he said, “because, if not, we can become inundated by the cares and the burdens and the stresses and the pressures of the community.”

Rev. Barnes emphasized that Sacred Space will celebrate and educate about the diversity of faiths. In that vein, he is recruiting students, faculty and staff to form a Stetson Gospel and Cultural Choir, led by a community leader. Anyone in the Stetson Community who would like more information can email him at wbarnes@stetson.edu.

“We live in a day now where diversity is key,” he explained. “This will be a great resource for the community and I think also it’s a great tool to attract students to the university when they see that kind of diversity here on campus.”

-Cory Lancaster