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Monday, December 5, 2016

For an object lesson in how social media can create a tempest in a teapot, look no further than Wichita State University in Kansas.

Six months ago, the university renovated a nondenominational chapel on campus so that it could more easily accommodate prayer by Muslim students. Essentially, pews were removed (replaced by stackable chairs) so that prayer carpets could be spread on the floor.

The alteration was uncontroversial … until an alumna of the university caught wind of it and bewailed the indignity on Facebook. “The Muslims are ecstatic,” she posted, according to the Wichita Eagle. “Sumpin’ NOT right here.”

Other alumni escalated the issue, and in short order the university’s president agreed (in a Facebook post) to revisit the decision to remove the pews.

It took six months for the now furious alumni to learn of the changes, raising questions about just how invested they are in the chapel and the religious life of the student body.

The alumna who started the furor is now declining interviews, but for a while she continued to post comments such as, “God will always trump allah” (sic).

She’s likely unaware that the “Allah” is Arabic for God. And, given other posts, it’s doubtful she’s waded into the deep theological discussions. Rather, what we have here is a Christian who demands that every public space be accommodating to Christians, first and foremost, and that everyone else needs to stand back. It’s all about feelings — her own.

“Again, it was NEVER just about the pews,” she wrote in another post. “It was WHO/WHAT caused them to be removed and the affect it will have on non-muslims.”

It should also be underscored that Christian students who used the chapel also favored taking out the pews to make the space more inviting to Bible study groups and interfaith events. The request came through the student government association.

As news of the imbroglio spread, Fox News got in on the act. A columnist on its website called the chapel renovation “Christian cleansing.”

“This is what the Islamic transformation of a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values looks like, folks,” wrote Todd Starnes. “The Christian faith is marginalized while the Islamic faith is given accommodation.”

Why not accommodate Muslims at Wichita State? They number about 1,000 out of the nearly 15,000 student body. As the Wichita Eagle also explained, most of the foreign Muslim students pay three times the tuition rates of in-state students.

For some, every accommodation of other faiths (or of those of no faith) is an affront to their own. Christians are not the only offenders in this regard.

Patterns of belief and worship change, and that can be hard to accept, but that change has been going on for a long time. In cities across America, there are predominantly African-American Christian churches that have stained glass windows and other remnants from the time when those spaces were Jewish synagogues. The congregations changed as Jewish populations moved further away from urban neighborhoods.

God is no less present because of the shift in believers.

Wichita State’s Harvey D. Grace Memorial Chapel was never intended to be only for Christian students, although revisionist arguments are being made now. The chapel was a gift to the university by the namesake’s widow, dating back to 1964. A “nondenominational” worship space back then more than likely had a Christian context. These days, on virtually any state university campus you will meet many Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims.

But Muslims are the focus here. Given what’s happening in the world, some regard any Muslim as a potential threat, whether they are a foreign student, a U.S. citizen by birth or a refugee in crisis. And it’s not only in Kansas that people think this way.

The week the Wichita State story broke, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was chastising Eastern European governments for letting Islamophobia undercut humanitarian outreach efforts to Syrians escaping turmoil and now streaming across Europe.

Obviously, alumni of any university or college have an important role to play. They have a vested interest in the stability of their alma mater. But alumni who are good stewards understand that they shouldn’t meddle by imposing their prejudices.

As Wichita State President John Bardo wrote, “Our goal should be exactly what Mrs. Grace set out to do in her gift, to have an all faiths chapel that is welcoming to all religious groups on campus.”

Now there is an example of a generous gift that had some foresight toward the future.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at [email protected])

Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVP via Flickr

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