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Spiritual Growing Pains: How Students’ Religious Practices Change on College Hill

As they arrive on College Hill in the fall of their freshman year, many students find themselves away from home for the first time. For some, this means newfound independence from overbearing parents and late nights out. Others, however, while enjoying these new freedoms, find themselves in a spiritual crisis. Some students begin to reevaluate their spiritual upbringings and question if their religious attachments are genuine or simply reflections of their parents’ beliefs. This internal conflict, however, is only one piece of their new spiritual questions. At predominantly white, academic spaces like Brown, many students of color begin to see how their religious practices are disregarded as naive remnants of outdated tradition. In the midst of this, however, many Black students reject these white supremacist narratives of rationality and overcome their spiritual growing pains. 

Undergraduate student Toni Johnson ‘24 was raised in a very religious Nigerian Christian household. She remembers attending Sunday school and bible studies as weekly obligations in her home. Growing up as a member of two churches, undergrad student Brayson Freeman ‘24 has similar memories of home, such as attending church retreats and big hats every Sunday. Both Freeman and Johnson recounted the beginnings of their religious disillusionment and described how in the months prior to their freshman year, they began to question their faiths. Johnson explained that at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic her church began to conduct virtual services. Without regular in-person services, Johnson slowly stopped engaging in church events and ultimately stopped attending these virtual services. In the absence of these religious obligations, Johnson began to imagine a life for herself outside of the constraints of organized religion. Now in the second semester of their sophomore years, Johnson and Freeman no longer consider themselves Christians. Upon arriving at Brown, Freeman was not only confronted by his own inner religious conflict but also by the diversity of religious traditions practiced by Brown students. Even away from their religious homes, both Freeman and Johnson still feel an attachment to Christianity. Freeman admits that he cannot forget the emotional trauma he carries from the Christian church, however, abandoning it feels like a betrayal of his home and family. Remembering the group prayers before a cookout in the summertime, Johnson adds that as a Black Christian, her faith and cultural practice have always been closely intertwined. As a result, relinquishing her Christianity identity, in turn, can feel like relinquishing a piece of her cultural identity as well. Furthermore, it is these cultural identities that many Black students turn to when faced with erasure in predominantly white spaces. To Johnson and Freeman, then, rejecting their religious identities feels like a rejection of themselves. 

This internal struggle resonates deeply with Jemima Alabi ‘24, who is finding ways to engage with her faith in ways that are enriching and life-affirming. After experiencing an initial crisis of faith upon her arrival at Brown, Alabi says “I am the closest to God I have ever been.” 

Alabi believes she is now able to experience “life more fully” as she has begun to consider her life experience as a spiritual text worthy of consideration. Furthermore, as a Black woman, Alabi has always felt this tension between her undeniable lived experience and the biblical texts that are meant to take priority over it. Through her new perspective, however, Alabi can begin to filter her spirituality through her own experience as a Black woman rather than obscure religiosity. 

In Poetry is Not a Luxury, Audre Lorde writes “The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us-the poet whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free.” Here, Lorde captures the essence of the spiritual journey Alabi has embarked on, one that affirms her emotional experience of life and does not try to deny it in the name of rigid religion. 

As suggested by Alabi, the experiences of these students are not fruitless, in fact, they are generative. PhD Student in Religion and Critical Thought and graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Donnell Williamson, remembers one of his earliest religious conflicts as a dispute over Harry Potter. Given the material about witchcraft and sorcery, Williamson’s pastor told his family not to allow him to read the Harry Potter books. Obviously, Williamson was upset and felt it was unfair that he could not read the books. Looking back, Williamson says it was Harry Potter that inspired his love for reading and put him on the path he is on now. Even Williamson’s small resistance here was generative even as trivial as it may seem. The growing pains of Alabi, Johnson, Freeman, and Williamson remind us that these moments of spiritual crisis and questioning are part of a process of self-discovery and the building of distinct personhood. 

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