Why I Am Looking Forward to the 2017 NASPA Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Convergence

Kevin Singer, Doctoral Student,Higher Education Leadership and Studies, Baylor University

April 19, 2017

I was raised at the intersection of my mother’s Evangelical Christianity and my father’s Jewish roots. My mother’s relatives included notable missionaries like Nate Saint, who was martyred alongside Jim Elliot in Ecuador in 1956. My father’s great-grandparents were Hungarian Jews who fled to the United States to escape the threat of the Third Reich. My parents rarely made mention of these narratives, however. Like so many suburban American families in the 1990’s, religion was not perceived to be the basis of our family bond, nor was it credited for our successes or struggles. Sure, my mother took my brothers and me to church on Sundays, and it was a good church. But our identities were wrapped up in suburban life and its subtle expectations. In 6th grade, I was asked to create a collage of the things that mattered most to me. I’ve held onto it throughout the years. What does it feature? Pictures of former St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire (I’m still not sure why), JNCO jeans (I never did own a pair), and Yomega yo-yo’s (okay, I owned a few). 

Fast forward to my sophomore year in college at Northern Illinois University. Coming out of a difficult breakup from a long-term relationship, the Christian faith that I grew up learning so much about instantaneously became relevant again. I grasped onto what little I knew and started finding healing and new possibilities there. I started attending CRU, a Christian student organization on campus, where I realized that my primary identity was not in the long-term relationship that had recently fallen apart, but in Jesus Christ. Within a matter of months, I was leading worship at the Thursday night gatherings and sharing the Gospel on campus with Derek, a CRU staff member who began mentoring me. From then on, my experiences in CRU and in a local Southern Baptist church would come to shape my college experience in profound ways. Whereas I came into college solely focused on my relationship with my girlfriend, by the end of my sophomore year I was solely focused on growing in my Christian faith. Nearing graduation, I was convinced that God’s calling was for me to work in vocational ministry for the rest of my life. When I told my parents that I would soon be starting a new church on NIU’s campus making $1,000 a month, they were a bit shocked. Their son, a pastor? How would I pay the bills on that salary?

My graduate education background is primarily in theology. In theology, is it essentially taken for granted that human beings cannot help but organize their lives according to their most basic assumptions about the universe and the meaning of life. So it came as a bit of a surprise when, coming into the study of higher education, I found out that students’ religious, spiritual, and secular identities are rarely given the attention and credit they deserve. I’m certain that if someone had tried to frame my college experience without giving heed to my growing commitment to Christianity, their conclusions would have been off-base. My faith became everything to me; it informed the classes I took, the relationships I pursued (or didn’t pursue), what I did during school breaks, and how I defined success. Fidelity to Christ was the central virtue that I aspired to cultivate. Compared to my faith identity, my other identities seemed relatively unimportant. They were no longer the primary lenses through which I saw and understood the world. I was also taught that if growing in Christ was my sole aim, I would become a better student, a better friend, and a better man than the one I’d been in that long-term relationship that fell apart. I would become a good future husband and father. I would grow in wisdom and walk in step with God’s will for my life.

I’m not saying that my college experience was normative by any means. However, I do hypothesize that there are more students out there than we currently realize whose college experiences are oriented around their religious, spiritual, or secular identities. In other words, they are asking foundational questions and are actively seeking answers to those questions; or, they have found the answers and are trying their best to live faithfully according to what they’ve discovered. They are experiencing an awakening, conversion, doubt, existential crises, and deconversion. They are up until 2:00 am in dorm rooms, coffee shops, and restaurants deliberating about these matters. They’re building things up and tearing them down on the basis of their revelations. All the while, their identities hang in the balance like fragments, seeking acquiescence on the basis of some deeper and greater whole. If my hypothesis holds weight, then these realities should have a formative impact on the frameworks that student affairs professionals are currently using to understand college students and their experiences. This also means that frameworks that either inadvertently or intentionally ignore students’ religious, spiritual, and secular identities should be revised. At the very least, more discussion and collaboration are needed around this question: how might student affairs professionals legitimize and encourage conversations on spirituality to the same degree as they have done with race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality?

This is why I am personally looking forward to the 2017 NASPA Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Convergence. I anticipate that it will be the perfect forum to engage in these kinds of conversations and to network with others who aspire to create campus environments that are hospitable to these conversations as well. As the increasing religious diversity in our nation grows more apparent, it will be more and more difficult to operate like my family did in the 1990’s, when religion was a private affair best left under wraps. The risk is that if we do not address how religious and non-religious diversity might be leveraged for the good of our institutions, it is inevitable that others will use it to incite division and polarization along faith lines. To counteract this from happening, it is critical that both student affairs professionals and students are in tune with the heroes that came before them who stood for peace and reconciliation. For me, this is Nate Saint, my Jewish ancestors, my mother and my father, who after nearly 40 years of harboring suspicion toward religion began attending church and didn’t stop before he passed away. It wasn’t until some years after college that I began to appreciate the legacy I walk in, and I often wonder what difference it might have made had I been encouraged to reflect on it more.

The very fact that this Convergence is happening prompts an important question: why couldn’t these heroes be student affairs professionals? Why couldn’t their example be the inauguration of new legacies for others to walk in? I am reminded of Swami Vivekananda’s opening and closing remarks at the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893. Little did he know that his words would still be reverberating over a century later. In one of his final statements, he expressed gratitude that the Parliament “proved to the world that holiness, purity, and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character” (Vivekananda, 1893). This Convergence could drive a similar stake in the ground for student affairs; a declaration that giving credence to religious, spiritual, and secular identities can serve to enhance our profession, not threaten it.

Though religion might have been privatized in my family for a time, it didn’t have to be, and the same goes for student affairs. To make progress, however, we need to encourage, support, and inspire one another. We need to remind one another that religious, spiritual, and secular diversity need not be a liability, but can actually be an asset on our campuses. This will require great vision, imagination, and courage. This will require convergence.

About the Author
Kevin Singer is a Ph.D. student in Higher Education Leadership and Studies at Baylor University and an adjunct professor of religious studies at two Chicagoland area community colleges. His research interests center around religious diversity, and specifically how religious conservatives can make a positive contribution in interreligious environments. In 2015, Kevin co-founded Neighborly Faith, an initiative that aims to draw more Evangelical Christians to the interfaith table. Beginning in summer 2017, Kevin will join the IDEALS team at North Carolina State University.

Twitter: @kevinsinger0
Website: www.neighborlyfaith.org
Link to my blog with NASPA, in which I document my transition from a Southern Baptist church planter to a world religion professor: https://www.naspa.org/constituent-groups/posts/southern-baptist-church-planter-turned-world-religion-professor-finding-fai

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