Religions of the Herd: Orthodox Christianity

Being a practicing Orthodox Christian at Amherst can be difficult. Managing Features Editor Humphrey Chen ’26 delves into the limited resources and events available for religious minorities on campus.

Religions of the Herd: Orthodox Christianity
One of the few opportunities for Orthodox Christian students at Amherst to practice together is through the University of Massachusetts, Amherst Orthodox Christian Fellowship. Photo courtesy of University of Massachusetts, Amherst Orthodox Christian Fellowship’s Instagram.

The student identity is vast. How else could one student present on Chinese labor ethics in their Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought seminar, head over to unicycle with the Juggling Club, then clock in for a shift at the Science Center cafe? It might be fair to say that our engagement with Amherst reflects our identities and core beliefs. However, certain identities are much more difficult to discuss in class environments or casually with peers — namely, religious identities.

In the often-secular atmosphere at Amherst, religious affiliations can feel difficult to navigate and uncomfortable to talk about. Grace Escoe ’26, a leader in the Amherst Christian Fellowship, notes that discussing religion is difficult, if not precarious and unpredictable.

“I don’t personally start discussions about faith. If someone asks me a question … I’m more than happy to talk about it. Depending on who you’re talking to, there’s a lot of [assumptions] … a lot of negative connotations associated with [being Christian],” Escoe said. “For example, people assume I’m judgemental … I have had multiple conversations where I’ve defended my faith and I’ve been talked to as if I’m just not intelligent enough to understand the complexity of what we’re [discussing].”

For some religious students, the issue may be that there is not a space on campus to engage with this salient aspect of their identity.

To better acknowledge the religious and spiritual dimension of the student experience, I hope to highlight the experiences of one religious minority on campus: Orthodox Christians. Given the small population of Orthodox Christians at Amherst, engaging in religious practice — which is deeply rooted in community — is rather difficult. But beneath structural and circumstantial obstacles, there lies a story of resilience, passion, and self-discovery.

Religious, Spiritual, and Secular Resources at Amherst

By probing the limits of Amherst’s religious resources, we can better understand the concerns and efforts of religious minorities.

Amherst does offer structural support for religious students and communities. The Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) aspires to “help students live their faith, explore spiritual practices, and make meaning within themselves and the world.” Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Harrison Blum finds that “students want to feel not just safe and accepted but celebrated and affirmed in their religious paradigms and their spiritual practices in their non-perfection and non-intellectual parts of themselves.”

Students can engage in one-on-one spiritual counseling for “religious questions, spiritual practices, relationship struggles, occupational discernment, purpose and values, grief and anxiety, and much more.” Amherst’s RSL also maintains a staff of chaplains from various religious traditions, available from mid-August to the end of May each year.

The RSL’s annual Interfaith Banquet, which is taking place on Wednesday, May 1, from 7 to 8 p.m., provides a space for conversation across cultural and religious identities in a casual setting over dinner. For each table, Blum describes how “people will be invited to bring and put a small, special, or sacred object at the table. And that’ll be a conversation starter: what do you bring? And what does it mean to you?” The tables also will feature “a cute little menu card … but instead of food, it holds questions for discussion. Like, did you grow up with a religious or spiritual worldview? If so, [do you] speak about it? Or if not, what was that like?”

The Interfaith Banquet is an example of Amherst’s institutional support for students to explore and learn about their identities in the rich context of other lives, experiences, and beliefs. Exploring the core values and worldviews that are part of one’s identity can be scary, but RSL provides pointed support for all students, whether religious or secular.

Nevertheless, it is impossible for RSL to effectively recognize every religious holiday and celebration. That space is where student affinity groups step in. However, if religious resources don’t exist at the institutional or campus level, what then?

Finding Community as a Religious Minority: Orthodox Christianity

For many, being religious requires community. While the RSL provides accommodations for students engaging in fasting or prayer services, communal practices are largely student-run. Organizations such as the Amherst Buddhist Group, Amherst Christian Fellowship, and Hillel, a Jewish student group, hold frequent social events and religious gatherings. However, issues arise for smaller religious populations at Amherst, for whom establishing a religious network proves more difficult. Julianne Woodward ’26, a practicing Orthodox Christian, acknowledges that “we’re a small school. We’re not a very religious school. Orthodoxy is one percent of the population. So it’s gonna be uncommon for Amherst [to hold Orthodox-specific events].” However, Woodward was happy to inform me that Amherst will hold an Orthodox Easter event on Monday, May 6. While opportunities for connection on campus are celebrated, and counseling resources with RSL are widely available, navigating religious identities without peers at similar life stages can be difficult and isolating.

In an interview with Woodward, we spoke about the dynamics of being religious at Amherst, the shifting religious experiences that accompany moving to college, and the resources available to Orthodox students on campus.

Humphrey Chen: Thanks for chatting with me! My first question is about what your practice looks like for you, on a college campus, but also specifically at Amherst.

Julianne Woodward: I’m [at a] very interesting point in my faith where I ultimately still … feel very connected to it. I still pray and I fast … and I go to church, and I [try] to connect with people who are Orthodox. Being at Amherst, and being around like, almost exclusively people who aren't religious, I [tend] to look at my [faith] very academically. I’m like, okay, it makes sense for the human condition that we would be inclined to come up with answers for things we can’t explain. I always have that … kind of a back and forth. That’s very stressful.

HC: In that vein, what’s it like being on this more secular campus? Is it easy to be and feel religious?

JW: I think it [depends] on your circles. Just being around people who aren’t religious and, generally, professors who aren’t religious. It does feel very isolating. It feels like I’m behind, like I’m just waiting to have that realization that these people have already [had].

HC: I guess, in that respect, do you feel structurally supported by Amherst?

JW: I mean, I’m not expecting anything because we’re such a small population. I remember seeing on [the RSL] calendar that they marked off [Orthodox Easter and the Great Fast]. I remember being like, “Oh my gosh, they know what we are. That’s so cute.” I was so excited. I mean, they don’t do much but I don’t expect them [to]. I don’t think it’s a fault [of] the school.

HC: I don’t think you should have to expect to feel uncared for and alone, especially in college. To that effect, how has your faith been important for you in the transition to a more independent, student life?

JW: I have such a connection to my [faith], because of my family, my upbringing, my culture — it’s something very important to me. I think one of the things that keeps me in it … [is that] even if I struggle with my faith and … belief, I love the morals. I love the teachings and I know I want to live a Christian life, [an] Orthodox life. I think those values will always be important to me, even if I might find myself not really believing anymore. I think of it as such a big part of my identity.

Woodward spent her first year and a half at Amherst searching for a religious community that truly worked for her. Woodward reflects, “I’m generally [looking] for more cultural connection. Being raised Orthodox, I’ve noticed from a lot of the kids in my church … that when it’s tied to your culture, [religion] feels much more intense. So, I’m more hesitant to go to the Catholic group.  I’ve never done it. I’ve never gone to the [Amherst Christian Fellowship]. I’m guessing that it’s a very positive experience, nonetheless. More broadly, I would consider going because I think it’d be interesting to talk to more kids who are still religious.”

Without a substantial Orthodox Christian presence on campus, Woodward decided to outsource her practices to the UMass Orthodox Christian Fellowship. Students from the Five Colleges are welcome to attend their biweekly meetings and religious gatherings. Even so, finding this community was rather difficult. Woodward remarks that she was introduced to the Fellowship at home. “I think someone was like, oh, yeah, there’s the Orthodox fellowship at UMass. And then I found it on Facebook and I tried to DM them, and got no response. It wasn’t until I asked a girl from a church near home … that added me to the group chat … So I finally found out about it. It took me a while, like a year. I think I first tried in freshman year and I didn’t go until sophomore year.”

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an explicit, established space for Orthodox Christian students on campus. Without this community, there is no collective memory or knowledge of religious opportunities within or outside of Amherst. For Woodward, and likely other Orthodox, and religious, students, their needs are uniquely tethered and shaped by their respective practices. For cultivating a space to acknowledge salient and specific aspects of one’s identity, broad clubs or fellowships won’t cut it.

To this effect, there have been efforts from off-campus resources to improve the Orthodox experience at Amherst.

Words from the Wise

Father Michael Heningham, Amherst’s Affiliate Advisor for Orthodox Christian Ministry, came to Amherst around five years ago. In his time at Amherst, he has led religious instructions, worship services, and worked closely with RSL. Currently, he serves as a priest with the Dioceses of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in New England and operates from St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Ludlow, Massachusetts.

Following Covid, connections with the campus eroded.

While Amherst’s RSL endeavors to honor Orthodox traditions, such as their upcoming Easter dinner, a significant portion of rich Orthodox practice remains overlooked. During the Great Lent, for example, practitioners engage in a fasting discipline that runs from March 18 to May 4. Heningham notes that prior to the Easter celebration, “some people just take the whole week off because there [are] so many services [and] events [going on] with the church.”

However, these opportunities are not readily accessible to Amherst students. Father Heningham remarks that when Orthodox Easter rolls around, “it is so joyous … We usually have a big feast at the church and all kinds of wonderful things [are] happening … I would love to work with the college and put something together for that. There’s no reason why during Great Lent, for example, we couldn’t have vespers or complines or a service every week for the students on campus.”

For those interested, Father Heningham and the St. Stephens Ludlow church welcome Orthodox students with open arms. “Our churches love [when] students come in, introduce themselves [and] say that they’re from the Amherst campus. We have members of our parish who are graduates of Amherst, so students from Amherst are always welcomed and cherished.” Father Heningham hopes to establish lasting, and concerted relations with Amherst. In past discussions with RSL, Heningham remarks that, while he was given permission to perform liturgies, these events “have just not come to fruition yet.” However, Heningham holds that “if the Orthodox students would like to have something weekly or monthly at the campus, and if [RSL] are willing to support that, I’m more than happy to come out … We have a deacon at our church too [who] can also visit.”

When discussing the difficulties of being in a foreign religious atmosphere, Father Heningham had some wisdom to share: “As far as being an Orthodox Christian in a place that is more secular, I always tell students don’t, [in] the biblical term, put a basket over the lamp. Let your love of your Orthodox faith shine [through].”

For Heningham, the Orthodox experience is intrinsically entangled with ideological friction and conflict — however, there’s a resounding beauty in allowing those experiences to affirm and shape one’s faith: “So the truth, whatever the truth is, is applicable wherever you go. In any environment, your faith as an Orthodox Christian is always going to be tested even around other Orthodox Christians. This is a journey, quite frankly. I think it’s a wonderful experience for [students] to be around … new perspectives that are a little bit different, and then have a chance for them to bring their truth to that new circumstance, and see how those two things connect with each other.”

Identities are curious, powerful things. For Woodward, the absence of space for embodying that identity, especially within a school that can be hostile to their beliefs, is hard. That difficulty, however, reiterates the cultural resonance that Julianne hopes to rediscover, and the morals that Father Heningham aspires for Orthodox students to embody. These struggles are colored by faith, tenacity, and community, led by individuals who consider their religious identities important and worth fighting for. Given the experiences of religious students on a secular campus and the ways in which they nurture their communities, religion stands as a dimension of the student identity worth understanding, acknowledging, and believing in.

For students interested in joining Father Heningham’s Orthodox Christian mailing list, please contact him at [email protected].