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Colorado CollegeBulletin | March 2006
by Jana Bennett '98

Religious Life at Colorado College

Some liberal arts colleges are religiously affiliated — the ethos of those colleges revolve around their religious identities.

Some liberal arts colleges are nominally affiliated — they have partially broken with their founding traditions, but their chapels and chaplains may still be affiliated with the founding denomination.

Colorado College is neither of these. It has religious foundations: the Congregational Church helped established CC in 1874. But religious life at CC is eclectic, and chaplains have more often not been Congregationalists. Some observers might even claim that the college is entirely secular.

Yet many CC alumni have pursued religious vocations, and some attribute their passion for religion partly to their CC experience. Indeed, perhaps it is the college’s lack of a specific religious program that leads its people toward deeper participation in faith.

Religious Life on the Block Plan

The Block Plan is a catalyst for many alumni who are involved in religious vocations. Under the intensity of the Block Plan, students learn about religion much differently than at other schools.

Rick Ufford-Chase ’86 recalls Powerlessness in the Inner City, a class for which he lived for a week with homeless people in Denver. Before CC, he says, his faith was two-dimensional, and lived mostly through his high school Christian youth group. But in that CC class, Professor Sam Williams’ courses on the Bible, and Professor Joe Pickle’s course on liberation theology, Ufford-Chase says, “I got politicized. I became someone interested in working for justice.” This year, he finishes a two-year term as moderator of the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the highest ranking official in the national church. “CC provided the fundamental tools that have helped me to make my faith real in the world,” he says.

The Block Plan also affected Joy Whitcomb ’97 — but in another direction. She grew up in small-town America where, she states, “You were either Protestant or Catholic.” One of her first CC courses was on monotheism; the professor began the first class by asking, “What’s wrong with monotheism?” That question shook Whitcomb’s world. A class on mysticism, taught by Carmelite monks from south-central Colorado, further impressed her. “For the first time, I saw people who lived what they believed. I realized that I needed to live what I believed too, and in order to do that, I needed to be Earth-centric.” Whitcomb began to identify herself as pagan, and practice Wicca. Since graduating, Whitcomb has pursued other Earth-centric paths and is now involved in shamanism.

Erich Anderson-Krengel ’83 is a part-time Episcopalian priest for a deaf congregation in Connecticut. He grew up in a church-going family, but his CC Biblical studies courses confronted him with the Dead Sea Scrolls and theological developments based on Hebrew and Greek scriptures. He began to study Hebrew with a Lutheran pastor in Colorado Springs, and at Pickle’s urging, went to New York for a seminar at Union Theological Seminary. Anderson-Krengel says: “I questioned the backbone of my faith … How does a person know which interpretation of the Scripture is accurate? How do I reconcile with discrepancies within the Scriptures? Do scientific discoveries change my faith or even destroy it?”

At CC, Anderson-Krengel says, he also “accepted (his) identity as a deaf man.” He learned sign language at the nearby Colorado School of the Deaf and Blind. Years later, he continued his religious studies at Yale Divinity School, discovering the deaf community he now pastors.

Religious Life and Religious Life Groups

Religious life groups may be the most obvious example of the way in which Colorado College influences students religiously. Options at CC include off-campus groups connected to area churches, on-campus chapel-sponsored groups, and interfaith groups.

Dan Fellman ’96 says that leading CC’s Jewish student group made him realize he wanted to be a rabbi. He began his undergraduate studies in a double-degree program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, but attracted by the liberal arts and “the possibility of becoming a ski bum,” he transferred to CC. In his first two weeks on campus, Fellman became the co-leader of Chaverim, a campus Jewish group.

In addition to planning weekly Shabbat dinners and observances for Jewish holy days, Fellman organized a campus memorial service for the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. With the help of co-leader Josh Lipman ’98 and Professor Ofer Ben-Amots, Fellman developed a CC Hillel, a Jewish student group connected to a national organization. “That experience convinced me to be a leader in the Jewish community, because I had so much fun!”

Fellman cites his friendship with Chaplain Bruce Coriell as another factor in his decision to become a rabbi. “Bruce taught me much about the caring side of the clergy, and was always available for advice or a laugh,” he says. Fellman was ordained as a rabbi in May 2005.

Brother Ambrose (Gregory) Criste ’98 describes his participation in the CC Catholic Community (CCCC) as an important station on his path from a Roman Catholic upbringing to his current studies in Italy for the priesthood. “The weekly Mass, daily evening prayer, and frequent retreats nourished my spiritual life, as did the very friendly and familiar atmosphere that the members of that group brought to campus,” Criste says. “My experience of authentic Christian community life with CC’s Catholic student group was the instrument that God used to awaken in me my religious and priestly vocation.” Criste learned about Catholicism’s monastic and contemplative traditions from Professor Carol Neel’s classes. Neel specializes in the 900-year history of the Praemonstratensians (the Order of Canons Regular of Premontre, more commonly known as the Norbertine Order); she first introduced him to the order he later joined.

Mark Douglas ’89, author of “Confessing Christ in the 21st Century” and currently associate professor of Christian ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, participated in Seekers, a college-aged group sponsored by First Presbyterian Church in downtown Colorado Springs. During spring break of his junior year, Douglas went with the Seekers to rural Mississippi, where he and his peers came face-to-face with both racism and community-based ministries. Douglas returned that summer to work in the community medical center and research a senior biology project, and found himself invited to sing in the Missionary Baptist Church choir. “Not many white Presbyterian Coloradoans have been the only white face in a Missionary Baptist choir,” Douglas says. His experiences caused Douglas to examine his commitments, and Seekers ultimately became a model for Douglas’ work as a professor because “it was the type of place in which many types of Christians from a variety of denominational backgrounds engaged each other critically and charitably.”   

Shove Council, sponsored by the chaplain’s office at Shove Memorial Chapel, is a unique religious life opportunity — an interfaith group that sponsors speakers and block-break retreats. Group members discuss the difficult religious questions that arise in any interfaith group (Is Christianity anti-Semitic? Are prayer and Buddhist meditation the same activity?). The group’s weekly meetings provide a safe, friendly place for asking questions and voicing doubts.

Anabel FitzMedrud ’98 found the combination of participating in Shove Council, being a religion major, and being part of the college’s Catholic community to be formative. She grew up agnostic, joined the Czech-based Moravian church at 17, and at CC, became Catholic — in part because she experienced “a fabulous combination of intelligence, community, faith, and celebration” in CC’s Catholic community.  In Shove Council and her major studies, she encountered other faiths; she now uses the knowledge she gained there as a youth group director for several parishes. “My teenagers love being able to ask comparison questions about Catholicism and other faiths, and I have to thank CC for all the knowledge I share with them.”

Religious Life, Baca, and Relaxation, CC Style

CC’s Baca Campus deserves special mention, because students visiting this mountain campus in the San Luis Valley’s vast wilderness often find it a place for reflection on religious life.

Laura Sideman ’99, a dedicated practitioner of Buddhism, recalls Dan Tynan’s American renaissance class at Baca. “He challenged us to take Thoreau’s words to heart and seek ‘an unmediated experience of nature’ … I believe the Buddhist spiritual path is guided by the same idea.”

Sideman also remembers block breaks as spiritual experiences. “Block breaks were as enriching as the courses; the opportunity to commune with the natural world was invaluable. I liked pushing the limits of what could be done in four and a half days.” Following graduation, Sideman traveled to India; she now practices Vipassana meditation in intensive, silent retreats.

FitzMedrud recalls the Baca campus as a wonderful place for block-break religious retreats because the area around it hosts many religious communities: Zen Buddhists, Carmelite monks, an ashram. “All the religious communities gather together there, and even the regular folks in town have something to say about faith. I loved it!”

Religious Life and “A Critical Environment”

Part of CC’s culture is an atmosphere of questioning and critical reflection, combined with great diversity of religious faiths represented on campus.

The questioning environment was influential on Kim Skilling ’79’s religious perspectives. Skilling came to CC having read the existentialists and already asking lots of tough questions. “A part of me thought that if that were true, or if I were to call myself a Christian, then I should be able to put all doubts aside. Because CC encourages questions and individual opinion, I became more comfortable with the places in faith where I struggle.” Today, Skilling is a pastor of a Presbyterian church in Colorado. She continues to question and search, to probe her doubts — even while holding foundational faith convictions in her life.

Marcus Haggard ’06 says, “CC has challenged me spiritually, compelling me to grow and pursue my faith. I’ve seen some CC students abandon their personal faith traditions, but that wasn’t my experience. I love the dialogues and questioning of a critical environment.” Haggard’s father is pastor of a prominent conservative church in Colorado Springs; Haggard has been involved in religious activities for most of his life. At CC, he says, his Christian faith has deepened, in part because the college is home to people of many faiths.

Last year, the younger Haggard started Boulder Street Church in downtown Colorado Springs; it now numbers about 200 people. He says, “It is nondenominational, and our focus is being a community church that searches out the things of God.”

From a less religious upbringing, Kyle Fedler ’83 says his pre-CC lack of religious focus combined with CC’s questioning environment drew him toward a religious vocation. He grew up nominally Roman Catholic, but hadn’t been to church for years. Classes outside the religion department led him to ask religious questions. He recalls a political science class on the morality of war in which professor and students asked “perennial questions” about human experience and human nature — questions he continues to pursue as professor of religion at Ashland University.

The CC Experience in Entirety

The diverse religious paths of these alumni were made possible partly by CC’s reluctance to elevate any specific religious tradition. Instead, religious life is fostered by the entire CC experience: the Block Plan, block breaks, the Baca campus, religion classes that explore faith traditions, religious life groups, and CC’s intense atmosphere. The college acts as a crucible where students may question deeply, encounter alternatives, and leave with far deeper commitments than they might have dreamed.