The Case for Sacred Space: 50 Years of Debate
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Written by Grace Holleman

Edited by  Gavrielle Jacobovitz, Skylar Fetter

Art by  Mohar Kalra 

It reads like the set-up to some tired joke. In May of 1971—three years after protests roiled Columbia—a Catholic priest, a professor of chemical engineering, and a cultural anthropologist walked into a room.

What followed wasn’t a punchline but a 28-page report.

James Rea, Edward Leonard, and Margaret Mead joined seven other Columbia faculty, staff, and students on a committee convened after the retirement of University Chaplain John D. Cannon in 1969. Their mission: to evaluate religious life at Columbia and to address future use of the campus’ sacred space.

The work of an earlier council headed by Cannon himself had been cut short after students occupied buildings, held administrators captive, and participated in community protests in April 1968. The involvement of several members of the Office of the University Chaplain’s staff in the student strike—particularly counselor to Protestant students Bill Starr and counselor to Jewish students Bruce Goldman—added pressure to the University’s desire to bring religious life under control.

Professor Leonard led the committee. His team hoped to create permanent guidelines that would provide stability for religious life at Columbia, while being flexible enough to accomodate the needs of future students. They produced “A Study of Earl Hall and St. Paul’s Chapel and Recommendations Concerning their Governance,” which proposed a new, decentralized authority to replace the position of University Chaplain.

Instead of keeping all authority to provide resources and establish regulations for religious life with an Episcopalian chaplain, an Earl Hall director would oversee the building, advised by staff and faculty committees. A Student Governing Board would allocate funds and space to student groups.

But the most riveting part of the report was written by Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist, who had graduated from Barnard in 1923 before going on to earn two graduate degrees from Columbia. She was an ardent defender of St. Paul’s Chapel as a designated sacred space.

Columbia's St. Paul's Chapel

In the third chapter, Mead presented a wide-ranging and remarkably compelling argument for sacred space as “space specifically designed to provide intensity and significance to gatherings there and acts performed there.”

Mead knew that nonreligious students need refuges and places set apart from the rest of the University, too. She cited, as examples, hypothetical mothers with nursing children and a real 17-year-old GI, who had claimed sanctuary within St. Paul’s in 1969 after going AWOL from his posting at Fort Dix.

***

Sacred spaces offer opportunities for students to gather and find meaning outside of the clubs and classrooms that govern the rest of their lives. The groups that use these spaces provide communities that are neither pre-professional nor academically competitive—a rarity on this campus. Framed as places for salvation or self-care, depending on the student, these spaces are essential—but their maintenance is difficult. How do you keep a space sacred?

Earl Hall and St. Paul’s Chapel perch at gateways to campus, welcoming incomers from Amsterdam and Broadway. Each was created to provide sacred spaces, to inspire community and reflection, to serve as refuges.

But the narrow mandate of Columbia’s original sacred spaces has proven almost impossible to fulfill. Current resource allocation and spatial administration for religious groups is divided principally between the Student Governing Board, the Office of the University Chaplain, and University Events Management, with some funds and regulations dictated by other offices, like Undergraduate Student Life. Just reading through the names of those agencies requires patience—held back by red tape, administrative offices are unable to keep up with the ever-changing needs of students.

Earl Hall and St. Paul’s Chapel are set in stone. Navigating what students’ religious requirements are, and how to provide for them, has been an administrative puzzle since the Chapel was dedicated in 1906.

***

In over 250 years of existence, Columbia has spent all but 50 of those affiliated with the Episcopal church (the American counterpart to the Church of England). When King George II granted land to King’s College, the institution that would become Columbia, he did so on the condition that the school maintain its “communion with the Church of England.” The first University Chaplain was hired in 1857; that position was held by an Episcopal priest until the Rev. John D. Cannon, the last Episcopal University Chaplain, resigned in 1969.

But between 1754 and 1969, Columbia’s relationship with the Church of England atrophied significantly. By the mid-20th century, even Cannon was ready to sever that denominational tie. Cannon led the President’s Committee on Religious Life, an ad hoc body created in 1966 at the request of Columbia President Grayson Kirk to reevaluate the spiritual needs of a modern university and address the accumulated sense of a need for change.

That committee’s work, originally intended for completion in 1968, was disrupted by the spring semester protests; the group scrambled, seeking to address student demands for a voice in University governance and to remedy the political and social wounds that had both caused and resulted from the protests. A student board, the forerunner of SGB, was formed to advise the committee.

By August of 1968, the University proposed to replace the Office of the University Chaplain and Cannon’s role. The site overseeing religious life on campus became the “Earl Hall Center for Religion and Life.” Eschewing a University Chaplain and opening itself to more pluralistic, student-driven organizations, the center knew how it wanted to differentiate itself from predecessors—but lacked a distinctive mission.

In February 1970, a second council was convened under Columbia chemical engineering professor Edward Leonard. This was the committee that produced “A Study,” and that published Mead’s treatise on sacred space.

Even with a director, the Earl Hall Center was significantly less centralized than it had been under a chaplain. The Leonard committee proposed, as a central part of Earl Hall administration, the creation of a Student Governing Board so that the responsibility for assigning office space to, advocating on behalf of, determining membership for, and distributing funds among student groups would lie with a body comprising representatives of the same groups.

Twenty-five student groups made up the original SGB; their diverse ranks included the Lutheran Church at Columbia, the Radical Jewish Union, the Muslim Students Association, Postcrypt Coffeehouse, Gay People at Columbia, the Folk Dance Circle, and the Militant Atheists.

SGB was part of an experiment in University life that Monsignor James Rea, a member of the Leonard committee and the interim director of Earl Hall from Cannon’s resignation until 1972, outlined as “an ongoing experiment in democratic processes, social structures, decision-making and meaning; dealing essentially with the question ‘education for what?’ and attempting to clarify and interpret changing values systems, social structures, and issues.”

In "A Study of Earl Hall and St. Paul's Chapel and Recommendations Concerning their Governance," Margaret Meade Defends Sacred Space.

The existence of a governing board with specific oversight of religious and activist groups is an administrative idiosyncrasy. It results from the convergence of historical currents of protest, governmental change, and student advocacy that is unique to Columbia.

At the beginning of the fall semester in 2006, administrators (namely Dean of Student Affairs Chris Colombo and then-University Provost Alan Brinkley) announced that SGB would move to Lerner Hall.

This was “a callous lack of respect for any notion of self-governance,” E. Alex Jung, a former chair of SGB, wrote in a Spectator column, noting that the decision was made without student input. Jung emphasized SGB’s mission and their relationship with Jewelnel Davis, the director of Earl Hall, who had reestablished the Office of the University Chaplain in 1996. His column quotes Davis’ closing remarks made at a town hall about the move: “To say ‘I am,’ to say ‘I believe,’ to say ‘I stand here,’ to say ‘I know this, I value this, I cherish this, I love this,’ is a radical act of confidence. It is this confidence that the SGB strives to protect.”

Like his contemporaries, Jung stressed a culture at Earl Hall distinct from those that surrounded other student government bodies. Representatives of SGB were especially eager to distance themselves from the Activities Board at Columbia. Since its inception in 1998, ABC has been SGB’s counterpart for groups that don’t fall into the “values explorative” category—everything from the Pre-Law Society to Varsity Show.

Unlike other governing boards, Jonathan Siegel claims, SGB wasn’t composed of a bunch of “junior bureaucratic lackeys.” With his election in 2007, Siegel became SGB’s first chair to lead in the new space in Lerner. By that time, the move was no longer an existential threat.

Siegel’s vision of the Board positioned it as representative of the students against the administration—ABC and student councils, in his mind, were students imitating administrators instead of offering alternative leadership structures. Instead of regulating student activities, SGB is responsible for ensuring that the University guaranteed an atmosphere that allowed political, religious, and activist groups to function.

The move away from Earl Hall symbolically broke the tie between student leadership and religious life created by the Leonard committee. The real impact of SGB’s changing role in protecting free expression came with its diminished role as a prominent, occasionally provocative guardian of student rights.

Most student groups don’t spend much time thinking about the Board as a guardian of their civil liberties. “SGB is just the organization that tells us how much funding we have,” Columbia College senior Celine Laruelle tells me. Laruelle is the former co-president of HeForShe, a chapter of a larger effort by UN Women to increase feminist engagement. As the leader of a new club, Laruelle interacted with SGB mostly when she was seeking recognition. SGB’s ongoing role in student life is determining financial allocation, which in turn determines what each group will be able to do.

Binita Shah, a Barnard senior, serves as co-president of both the Hindu Students Organization and Ahimsa. Her dual leadership experience offers an object lesson in the restrictions created by allocation: “Allocation is very, very small for Ahimsa, while allocation for HSO is very large because it’s an established group.”

HSO can book the rotunda in Low Library and Roone Arledge Auditorium in Lerner; Ahimsa can’t. Space for smaller groups gets difficult simply because space is expensive.

Although we all use different vocabularies, students are aware that setting is transformative. It’s why a class in Diana feels different from a class in Hamilton feels different from a class in Knox. It’s why I prefer studying on the first floor of Avery to studying in the building’s basement, though The Aeneid isn’t any more interesting in either room.

It’s why religious groups without access to adequate space make attaining it a central concern.

Access to space determines who can gather, who can speak, who can pray—it is the lynchpin in allowing and enabling free expression.

***

It’s a familiar scene now, a trope in the Columbian imagination; Columbia University College Republicans invites a speaker, and protests erupt in response.

In 2006, Jim Gilchrist, a representative of anti-immigration vigilante group the Minutemen Project, was stage-rushed by student activists who had been in the audience, and the University faced national scrutiny. Michael Bloomberg criticized Bollinger. Bill O’Reilly ranted about the danger brewing at the “ultra-left institution.” New York Magazine surveyed the campus activist scene, painting a picture of a campus seeking to reclaim its legacy of protest in the face of new wars and continued intrusion by Columbia into its surrounding community.

Earlier that year, in March, DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein had come to campus. Sakib Khan was a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior and SGB chair in 2006. Prior to his position on the Board, he had served as president of the Muslim Students Association, where perhaps his most notable act had been organizing the Finkelstein event.

Despite efforts on the part of the MSA to keep word of the event on the down low to prevent controversy, a steady opposition grew. Public Safety upped the number of required security officers for the event, making it considerably more expensive, part of a larger policy shift that led students to wonder whether administrators were intentionally trying to make controversial speakers unfeasible. Khan persisted in holding the event, and there was no outbreak of violence at Finkelstein’s speech. In its aftermath, Khan ran, unopposed, for SGB chair.

Khan remembered this experience when the administration announced that they were moving SGB to Lerner. He was worried that SGB’s ability to stand up to administrators on behalf of students groups would be lost when the Board was forced into closer physical proximity to University representatives.

Earl Hall had provided a space especially conducive to the questions of religious and social free expression with which SGB was concerned. The Finkelstein controversy exemplified the overlap between religious and political questions in governing space; when free expression is threatened for one SGB group, whether it has a political mission or not, the potential freedoms and resources of all groups are at risk.

The amorphous body of the repressive administration unites disparate student viewpoints. General Studies student Dalia Zahger echoes the concerns of other students when she enumerates a few of her own group’s past problems holding events.

Zahger is the president of Students Supporting Israel, a group under SGB. Unexpected security requirements at SSI events, she says, made organizing the group more difficult. Zahger is frustrated that such restrictions place the onus for preventing disruptions during events on the host groups, instead of on disruptive students themselves. She carefully explains that she doesn’t blame SGB student reps or her group’s adviser, but feels that the problem is somewhere above them in the University.

To Laurelle, the question of student-invited speakers is more than theoretical. “That really sparks a debate over, like, what is the role of free speech? Why are you trying to protect people who are spreading such harmful ideas?” She’s talking about CUCR, whose controversial speakers (including Ann Coulter, Tommy Robinson, and Mike Cernovich) have been the impetus for recent student protests.

If Columbia is the stadium in which a perpetual struggle for power is enacted between students and administrators (a framing that lacks nuance, sure, but also one that has fairly broad buy-in), the administrator’s team has a significant advantage—it doesn’t change every four years. This is why Siegel was invested in keeping Columbia’s activist narrative alive.

***

Columbia’s layers of bureaucracy and red tape continue to complicate the process for obtaining consistent and dependable sacred spaces. The reorganization of religious life that began in the ’60s is ongoing; oversight of space in Earl Hall, for instance, has migrated from SGB, to the Office of the University Chaplain, to UEM.

The Columbia MSA has a strong relationship with the MSA at New York University. But when the NYU group wants to poke fun of their uptown neighbors, they bring up the “Columbia Closet”—implying that the prayer room in the basement of Earl Hall is too small and poorly organized to effectively serve the needs of Muslim students at Columbia.

The construction of Earl Hall was made possible by a $100,000 joint gift to Columbia and the YMCA in 1900. The building’s benefactor, William Earl Dodge, prescribed that his donation go to the creation of a building that provides for the “development of the spiritual life in its best sense so that young men should have an opportunity for a symmetrical growth of their higher nature with that of body and mind.”

Though Dodge’s gift tied Earl Hall to the YMCA, making it an implicitly Protestant building, he also insisted that the the Hall’s charter “be so broadly interpreted as to permit organizations of Roman Catholic students or of Hebrew students whose objects are to promote the spiritual and religious life of such students, to hold their meetings in this building, as freely as others.”

In the early 20th century, imagining Columbia as encompassing Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic life was about as pluralistic as it was going to get. But the needs of students at Columbia have changed in the past hundred years, with about two dozen religiously affiliated groups represented by SGB. The breadth of student life that exists now is difficult for Earl Hall to accomodate appropriately simply because the original builders didn’t anticipate future demands.

Today, there are four prayer rooms available on campus, located in Milbank, Milstein, Nussbaum, and Earl Hall. The first is mostly inaccessible and poorly maintained, the second isn’t very private, and the third is inconvenient to get to between classes for a student who needs to pray five times a day. The last one is a) the aforementioned “closet,” and b) only open when Earl Hall is, weekdays from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“What we’re asking for is not a luxury,” Mikyle Hassanali, vice president of the MSA, says of prayer space on campus. “If the University wants to be accommodating to all people, from all backgrounds and all walks of life, this is a must-have.”

Hassanali has been leading the #LetUsPray campaign, an initiative by the MSA to access a 24-hour, adequate space for Muslim students to pray their requisite five times a day.

Recent change within the Office of the University Chaplain has offered possible channels for future change. “Our Muslim Life Coordinator is a part of that office [the OUC],” she tells me, “Associate Chaplain Ian has been doing a wonderful job of trying to create that interfaith space in Earl, and he's been very accessible and just amazing. The different religious fellows and student workers are just amazing as well.”

Both the Coordinator of Muslim Life Armina Darwish and Associate University Chaplain Ian Rottenberg are new hires in the past year. Diallou says that, at least for the MSA, that period has seen meaningful changes. Muslim student life is “more vibrant. It's amazing—the amount of change that [Darwish] has done.”

There’s a tension in how Diallou talks about her experience as a member of the OUC.

“Our budget's pretty good, so we just book spaces through UEM,” she tells me, a nod to the centrality of fund allocations in determining access to space. But the budget is only a piece of the puzzle; the #LetUsPray campaign demonstrates the logistical complexities of acquiring necessary space to facilitate religious life. In the early ’70s, they could have worked through SGB—now, that authority is more diffuse.

Barnard has been in conversation with some members of the MSA board, Hassanali tells me. There are also University senators interested in working to solve the issue. Darwish has been an obvious staff ally. But there aren’t clear avenues to address space as a broad problem. Hassanali suggests that Butler is a natural location for a 24-hour prayer space—so should the library staff become another piece in the governance of campus religious life?

Jeffrey Bush, who served on the Leonard committee when he was a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary, emphasizes the group’s adamancy in protecting ecumenical space accessible to any faith tradition. Then he pauses—“Granted, the administration of that might be a nightmare.”

Other students face similar challenges when it comes to navigating the moving target of spatial management at Columbia.

It’s not a revelation for Columbia College sophomore Quinn Simpson to remark, dryly, that Columbia can be “a little bit bureaucratic,” but his delivery is good. He laughs when he tells me that ease of navigation in reserving and using St. Paul’s Chapel and Earl Hall is “not at the forefront of [Columbia’s] considerations when it comes to student groups, particularly religious life groups interacting with the University.”

The current president of the Columbia University Latter-day Saint Student Association, Simpson first interacted with administrators last year, when the LDSSA hosted the first annual conference for LDS students across New York. Simpson, then a first-year, wanted to book St. Paul’s chapel.

He describes the “onerous process” of obtaining that space, and I can see Margaret Mead’s eyes rolling: “We’re a religious group on campus who wants to use the Chapel—why did that take all of four months and extensive calendaring, planning, stress, only to have many of our expectations not met in the end?”

The HSO meets regularly in the basement of St. Paul’s and also found the Chapel’s transition to UEM bumpy. The HSO holds huge annual events, including Diwali, Holi, and Navratri celebrations, as well as a showcase of classical Indian arts that are attended by hundreds of people. They have a long, established relationship with UEM for those larger gatherings. But when their weekly bhajans in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel migrated from the jurisdiction of the Chaplain’s office to UEM, the HSO faced a new system for booking and paying for space.

The Chaplain’s office subsidized prayer space, and UEM doesn’t, sticking the HSO with a significant bill at the end of last year. Prateek Sahni, the HSO’s other co-president and a Columbia College junior, characterizes the Office of the University Chaplain as a dependable source of support, and under their administration he felt that the HSO was “more cared for.”

***

In April of 1968, Bush was studying physics as a junior in Columbia College and spending his evenings in student-occupied Fayerweather Hall. Bush is currently the director of finance at a glassblowing studio in Brooklyn.

Bush was an avid folk music fan and frequented Greenwich Village coffeehouses. But he was different from most of that scene—in the mid-’60s, when Bob Dylan was still a decade and a half away from his own conversion to evangelical Christianity, Bush was a frequent attendant of Lutheran services at Columbia’s St. Paul’s Chapel. He hung out in the Earl Hall offices of campus clergy, including Lutheran pastor Albert “Al” Alstrom and Bill Starr.

Bush’s ties to Earl Hall held even after he graduated college—in 1971, when Leonard’s committee formed, Bush was a master’s candidate at Union Theological Seminary, and he was asked to join.

When Bush stepped into Earl Hall, he wasn’t moving through a barrier between the secular world and some removed spiritual realm. The political and social questions that characterized student life in 1971 maintained their relevance within the hall’s walls. Partly because of the social and political involvement of their staff, St. Paul’s Chapel and Earl Hall faced what Bush described as an imminent threat to funding. Activities in Earl Hall, organized by progressive campus ministry, often ran counter to the interests of the administration. Starr, for example, joined in a 1977 student-led rally against the appointment of Henry Kissinger by William McGill, Columbia’s president at the time.

Within a few years of the Leonard report, Earl Hall had gone to the dogs. Wolfie, Starr’s half-wolf, was one of them; a stray rescued by Arthur Schwartz, who graduated from Columbia College in 1974, was another.

Schwartz would let his dog run around campus all day; when he called, the dog would answer. “If he was tired of running around, he would come to Earl and wait at the front door until somebody opened it or—there are these big ledges around the sides—he would climb up on the ledges and the secretaries would open the window and let him in,” Schwartz tells me. “And then I'd come to the office and he'd be lying in front of the door. He was like the mascot to the left. And I think Bill's dog was similar. It was a very pro-dog building.”

If Schwartz’s dog was the mascot of the student left, Schwartz was central to the movement’s voice. A member of the Columbia Anti-Imperialist League, Schwartz was also a representative on SGB. Like other activists, especially those who frequented Starr’s office, he describes Earl Hall as distinctively homey. Students could organize informal events or meetings and procure space without trouble; often, they could access the building 24 hours a day.

Frederic Lahey is currently the director of the School of Film and Media at Cleveland State University. Before holding that position, he founded the Colorado Film School, and before that, from 1974 to 1978, he led Columbia’s Taoist Anarchist Organization.

Lahey was introduced to Earl Hall when he needed a space to practice tai chi’s sword form. He stayed on as a member of SGB. He has experience both with creating and running undergraduate institutions, and he has experience with Earl Hall.

“Institutions that are smart create spaces both physical and psychological for things to happen between students,” Lahey asserts. He means that a University needs more than classrooms—students have to be able to gather and challenge each other in places with broader mandates.

Students aren’t always able to find these spaces within the confines of the University—although they don’t necessarily have to go too far away, either. For Aurora Celestin, that space is just across the street, at Broadway Presbyterian. The Columbia College junior attends the Monday night meetings of LaMP—Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians, a progressive campus ministry—as an act of self-care.

LaMP isn’t currently recognized by SGB; it’s only a few years old, and includes students from other neighborhood institutions. Celestin emphasizes LaMP’s intentional creation of an open environment. I ask what it means to be a progressive ministry, and she stresses the concept of “radical welcome.” LaMP is LGBT-affirming and service-oriented. At their gatherings, food, conversation, and social fellowship is offered in a “safe space” intended “for people of a variety of identities.” Over winter break, students with LaMP will head south to work with immigrant and border communities around a church in El Paso.

Religious communities stand at the intersection of religious and social practice. Their activities can be legibly religious (yes, Celestin tells me, LaMP has “religious aspects like hymn-singing and looking at Bible passages and communion,”) or seemingly secular.

These categories aren’t stable; they tilt, blending into each other, and Columbia student groups have a long history of blurring those lines.

“The presence of a walled structure specifically dedicated to the purposes of religion even emphasizes the extent to which the University can be seen as a special alien growth within the urban community, drawing life from the ground which should nourish others,” Mead wrote in 1971. “When space is crowded, any restricted space appears selfish and exclusive.”

Fifty years later, the same buildings stand on the cusp between university and city, between sacred and profane, between student-driven and bureaucratic, between inclusive and exclusive. Sacred space at Columbia is forever figuring itself out.


Correction December 4, 2018: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Edward Leonard is a chemistry professor (he is a chemical engineering professor) and that Jeff Bush was an undergraduate student in 1971 (he was a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary). The Eye regrets the errors.

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