Wichita State University recently adapted its on-campus, all-faiths chapel to make it more flexible in accommodating different uses, including Muslim prayer.
Specifically, pews were replaced with moveable chairs. Some people — misinformed about the chapel’s origins and the process that led to the change, according to Wichita State — were outraged, and anti-Muslim comments propelled the story into national news.
At Kansas University, there are two separate on-campus spaces designated for prayer or meditation. Both are open to all, although the spaces look and feel drastically different.
One is Danforth Chapel — a traditional chapel with Christian roots, now labeled nondenominational and with iconography removed.
The other is the newly opened Reflection Room — a small, stark meeting alcove in the Kansas Union, which some say was needed because Danforth still doesn’t feel religion-neutral.
“Although it is nondenominational, and I don’t believe there are any crosses or iconography in the space ... it is a chapel, and that is very much associated with the Christian faith,” said Lisa Kring, director of building services for KU Memorial Unions. “It really is not a place that I think students of all faiths feel comfortable going to.”
Just steps off campus proper there are multiple places for KU students and employees of differing belief systems to reflect. Those include the Ecumenical Campus Ministries building on Oread Avenue, the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center on Crescent Road, the Islamic Center of Lawrence on Naismith Drive and Chabad at KU (Jewish center) on 19th Street.
KU’s on-campus meditative spaces — which are public property — seem to have evolved without public controversy, though disputes over religious spaces have sprung up at other public schools nationwide, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.
"It’s such a misreading of the First Amendment to say that a public university can’t accommodate religion," Charles Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute and founder of its Religious Freedom Center, said in the Chronicle article. Public institutions can accommodate students’ religious needs, he says, "in a way that doesn’t take the university to the level of promoting one or more religions over other religions."
Danforth Chapel, dedicated in 1946, was originally constructed “to be of some solution in the development of a Christian atmosphere on the campus,” according to a KU History article on the building. That was the wish of lead donor William Danforth, whose foundation helped construct numerous campus chapels nationally.
Then-KU Chancellor Deane Malott told The University Daily Kansan in 1944 that he welcomed construction of the chapel as “a center of emphasis for Christian living for which this University has stood throughout its history” and envisioned it as a quiet, secure place for students to pray and meditate, according to KU History.
Danforth stipulated that a copy of Heinrich Hofmann’s painting “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane” be hung in the chapel, according to KU History. The chapel originally was equipped with an altar set, stained glass windows and an organ.
Two inscriptions carved into walls in the chapel’s entryway — each including a Celtic cross — credit the people who enabled its construction and communicate the following purpose, as requested by Danforth: “The Danforth Chapel, dedicated to the worship of God with the prayer that here in communion with the highest those who enter may achieve the spiritual power to aspire nobly, adventure daringly, serve humbly.”
It’s not clear exactly when Danforth officially became labeled nondenominational, although it’s been decades. A Journal-World article from 1964 describes it as nondenominational.
Danforth is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays when school is in session unless otherwise reserved, said Marsha Carrasco Cooper of KU’s Student Involvement and Leadership Center, who handles Danforth reservations.
Several campus organizations routinely reserve the chapel for meetings such as weeknight prayer groups, she said. It’s also often reserved on Fridays for wedding rehearsals, although weddings and other events such as christenings or memorial services are mainly on weekends.
All religious iconography that reasonably could be removed from Danforth is now gone.
There’s no altar set, or an altar to put it on; the nooks on either side of the apse are empty; and the painting of Christ is no longer there.
“It really didn’t have very many adornments, even to start with,” recalled Thad Holcombe, longtime Ecumenical Campus Ministries minister who retired in 2013. “When the chapel was redone, that’s when it really cleaned up, as far as anything at all.”
During a major renovation completed in 2007, the wall where the painting — which measures 52-by-70 inches — once hung was removed to create a hallway, leaving no “suitable” place to display it in the renovated chapel, KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said. She said the painting now hangs in a KU Libraries office.
The inscriptions and their Celtic crosses do remain, as does a stone Celtic cross atop the roof outside, and the organ.
The only imagery in Danforth’s colorful stained glass windows is that of the KU seal. The seal, which also is carved into the building’s exterior, features Moses kneeling before the burning bush.
However, there are traditional wooden church pews and the building’s architecture itself — Gothic Revival, according to KU — hearkens from European Christian churches of old.
“I think if people adhere to a faith tradition other than Christianity they may be a little hesitant to go in there,” Holcombe said.
KU Student Senate, the Office of Diversity and Equity and the Union spearheaded the effort that led to Alcove A, a small room near the cafeteria on the third floor of the Union, becoming the Reflection Room this semester.
“We must continue to work together and create inclusive spaces so everyone feels valued at KU,” Nate Thomas, KU vice provost for diversity and equity, said in a news release publicizing the room.
There are blank marker boards on the walls and a handful of movable chairs inside the room, and not much else.
A typed memo on the door calls the room a place where students, faculty and staff “of all faiths and beliefs can access peaceful space for reflection, meditation or prayer.” The room is available anytime the Union is open unless reserved for Office of Diversity and Equity use.
There are also rules listed for using the room. Candles, incense or other fumes are not allowed. Noise including conversation, singing or chanting is prohibited. No sleeping, food, or use of electronic devices.
Kring said Alcove A is a temporary home for the Reflection Room, “a stop-gap for a more intentional solution later on.”
Student Senate, which is funding reconstruction of the Burge Union, has stipulated that the new building include a Reflection Room. Kring said it’s yet to be decided whether the Reflection Room would move to the Burge or whether campus would just have two.
Kring said she did not know how many people have actually been using the Reflection Room. She said the Union recently put a counter system at the door to track usage, although “for us it’s less about how many people are using it rather than having that resource available on campus.”
Controversy in Wichita
At Wichita State a committee is now studying “best practices” for on-campus interfaith spaces and will recommend any further changes it believes should happen, President John Bardo wrote in a statement last month.
Bardo reiterated that Wichita State’s Harvey D. Grace Memorial Chapel, a modern-style building constructed in the 1960s, has been all-faith from the beginning.
Early records show the intent was for no symbols from any religion — a cross, crucifix, Star of David, prayer rug, icon screen or anything else — to be installed in the chapel, he said, although such symbols may be brought into the chapel for use in religious services and then removed.
A campus committee with input from a Christian minister, Christian students and Muslim students approved removing the pews, which makes the small chapel more flexible for uses including Muslim prayer and also Bible study groups, according to Wichita State.
“This isn’t just about Christians and Muslims or ‘Christians versus Muslims,’ as we’ve seen it described on social media,” Bardo said. “Grace Chapel cannot be a one- or two-religion space ... Grace Chapel can serve the needs of all faiths.”