Muslims at Wichita State University wanted a better place to pray. In May, workers renovated the campus chapel and removed the tiny altar and pews.
WSU administrators thought the change had resolved the problem by giving Muslim students a place to kneel on the floor and pray. Christian students could use portable chairs.
Everyone on campus seemed satisfied.
The family that made the Harvey D. Grace Memorial chapel possible in 1964 had specified that the doors be open to all creeds and all races at the public university.
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But dozens of Wichitans off campus this weekend learned about the renovation.
“And that set off the firestorm,” said Wichita State alum Jean Ann Cusick, who started it with a Facebook post Friday.
Donors to the university, alumni and others began posting Facebook comments on her page, and contacting WSU administrators.
Students reposted Cusick’s post and resulting comments on their own Facebook pages. Other students posted in answer.
“And the hate answered the hate,” Cusick said.
“Why did they have to take out all the pews?” Cusick said.
The decision, she said, marginalized Christians.
“This is Islamophobia,” said Wichita State’s student body president Joseph Shepard, a church-going Christian. “It’s coming from off-campus, not from the students here. “They say we’ve taken a place of Christian worship and turned it into what they call a mosque.”
On Tuesday, Wichita State president John Bardo posted a message on Facebook, saying the university would look at changing the chapel’s furnishings yet again.
“I don’t think that change (the renovation done in May) was undertaken with enough consideration of the feelings of all elements of the campus and broader community,” Bardo wrote. He appointed Eric Sexton, WSU’s vice president for student affairs, to study whether to renovate Grace Chapel again.
Sexton vowed on Tuesday to spend “whatever time it takes” to talk to students, donors, alums and the Wichita community.
Muslims say they feel taken aback. They’d asked for the accommodation in the spring, in part, because they had difficulty finding a prayer space on campus. Some had been praying inside the book stack aisles at Ablah Library on campus.
Muslims make up 1,000 of WSU’s 14,450-student body. The majority of them, said WSU student Taben Azad, pay the higher state tuition and fees required of international students. They buy cars, homes, furniture, clothes and meals, boosting the local economy, said Fayez Al-ruwaili, a 20-year-old biomedical engineering junior.
“How would you feel if I said that because you are a Christian that you are bad?” said Al-ruwaili, one of about 600 international students from Saudi Arabia.
He had just prayed the Salat in Grace Chapel, kneeling with Azad on a rug on the floor.
“Defending your religion is dangerous.”
Social media exchanges
Two people on opposite sides of this dispute are Azad and Cusick, who now say they regard each other with both disappointment and wary politeness.
Cusick posted about the chapel renovation as soon as she learned of it, on Friday, six months after it was settled. She included a photo from inside the chapel, showing the absence of pews. “The Muslims are ecstatic” about the renovation, she wrote in the post. “Sumpin’ NOT right here.”
Commenters chimed in.
“Who do you think the Muslim’s in this Country would back if Isis ever invades, or starts their terroristic acts against the United States of America?” one commenter wrote. “Sad to say it won’t be us. ! ! !”
Not all Cusick’s commenters dissented.
“It’s a more flexible space now,” one commenter wrote. “Easier to move chairs in and out. To me, there is nothing wrong with being accommodating, and it hurts no one.”
Azad, an engineering student and vice president of the WSU’s Muslim student association, was startled by some of the comments. He contacted Cusick by private Facebook message and asked if she’d friend him on Facebook and let him reply to her and her commenters.
She told him no.
“I told him that when this blows over, you and I will sit down and have a talk,” she said. “But for now, you are insulted and I am insulted, and it’s because of our faith and not because of you as a human being.”
Azad said he appreciated her politeness, too. But he was so concerned about some of the accusations about Muslims that he scooped up Cusick’s Facebook post, complete with comments. He deleted the names and posted it all on his own Facebook page.
“I think the fact that you are NOW just learning about the Interfaith Prayer Space initiative (6 months after the Sunflower published it’s article), then that is indicative enough of how important the Chapel has been to you,” Azad wrote on his posting of Cusick’s messages. “Instead of criticizing and targeting ‘the Muslims,’ why can’t we seek common ground and find an option that works for us all? As a Muslim, I am more than willing to collaborate on Interfaith Dialogue, but can we stop with the #Hatespeech?”
“So they are coming back at us now with all the hate,” Cusick said. “Hate answers hate. They don’t get it. And we don’t get it.”
‘That’s going too far’
By Monday, donors, alums and others were contacting WSU administrators, including Sexton, who serves a dual role as both student affairs vice president and executive athletic director.
Cusick said some people have contacted state legislators, Fox News and the Breitbart News Network.
Vicki Smith is a longtime donor to WSU’s athletics and to student-athlete scholarships. She said she and her husband buy season tickets every year to every sport played at WSU.
She said she’s going to send a note to Sexton and point out that she and her husband have given money to WSU for 10 years.
“I hate to do that, to say that we’re donors, but sometimes that’s the only thing that will get some people’s attention.”
It wasn’t just the chapel renovation that disappointed her, she said. There was a more recent story in the campus paper reporting that hundreds of Muslim students had signed a petition asking WSU to install bidet shower heads in WSU restroom and showers. A hand-held bidet is used among Muslims as part of cleansing habits.
“Why are they even considering a request to alter the plumbing at WSU?” Smith said.
She dislikes the angry social media comments she’s seen from all sides. If Muslims want a space to pray, WSU should find a way to give it to them, she said. But taking out all the pews and then studying a plumbing renovation – “that’s going too far.”
‘Everybody will be heard’
Removing pews may seem a small thing to some, but it’s fraught with meaning for others, said WSU professor of history Jay Price.
One of his areas of interest is church architecture and the meaning people attach not only to how their worship spaces are shaped but also to how they are furnished.
Protestant churches, especially evangelical, have been removing pews for years, making a more flexible space for everything from dinners to liturgical dances, he said.
Some people say we shouldn’t even have a chapel or an interfaith worship space on a public university campus, he said.
“But change anything like that, and humans sometimes go to the human default setting – they fight,” he said.
Historically, he said, the removal of pews or some other seemingly small change is not really the issue.
There’s usually a much larger issue – the real reason there is anger and disagreement.
“In 1950s and 1960s religion was mostly all private,” he said. “But we live in a world today where religion is much more a form of identity – you express your identity through your religious practice.
“We’re not trying to turn a church into a mosque at Grace,” he said. “But maybe the larger issue here is Islam’s role in the world.”
“Maybe, instead, there’s a teachable moment here. To come together and work things out.”
Sexton on Tuesday said that’s what Bardo has asked of him – to bring people together.
The discussion will include future uses and furnishings for the chapel.
“Everybody will be heard,” Sexton said. “We’ll do this in a professional way, in a respectful way, in an interfaith way. And we’ll define what that interfaith space should look like, as Mrs. Grace would have wanted us to.”