Interfaith Chapel Reflects ACU’s Diversity


Going AWOL at Abilene Christian University is not only a good thing, it’s encouraged.

Unlike the military version of AWOL (Away Without Leave) that carries punishment with it, the ACU version is inviting and rewarding. It stands for All Walks Of Life and is the name of the university’s interfaith chapel. Currently, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims attend, but it is open to all faith traditions on the ACU campus, which continues to diversify with students from all over the United States and numerous other countries. 

The students meet in a classroom in the Biblical Studies Building, with the overhead projector and whiteboard put to good use. Most meetings are on campus, with occasional ventures to various houses of worship in Abilene and a trip to a Hindu temple in the Dallas area set for April 21-22.

Yajat Patel, left, and Arnold Charles, are student leaders of the interfaith chapel at ACU. Photo by Loretta Fulton

“If you like Indian food, it’s a good idea to come to this,” said Arnold Charles, one of two student leaders, along with Yajat Patel. 

Jason Fikes, director of ACU Press, campus chaplain Cyrus Eaton, and Omar Palafox, assistant professor in the Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry, are the faculty sponsors. 

Fifteen to 20 students normally attend the chapel service, which is held on Tuesday evenings. The typical format starts with snacks, followed by introductions, icebreaker exercise, going over the community agreement or ground rules for discussion, and a theme for conversation. 

The introduction consists of stating your name, major, and classification. The icebreaker for the evening was stating a personal theme music. On a recent Tuesday, Charles also had the students write down what was burdening them such as grudges, negative emotions, etc., as calming music played in the background.

“Now stand up and tear up the paper,” he said at the end of the exercise. 

Students in ACU’s interfaith chapel rip up pieces of paper that they had written their anxieties on as an exercise at a recent service. Photo by Loretta Fulton

For the discussion part of the chapel, various statements were flashed overhead and the words “Agree” “Middle” and “Disagree” were printed in three spaces across the whiteboard. Students were asked to stand in front of the word that fit their position regarding the statement. One statement said, “Some actions are inherently wrong regardless of the outcome.” Another said, “Humanity in its natural state is sinful and prone to evil.” 

Other questions were similar, and each sparked conversation. After one question, a student was standing between the Middle and Disagree sections. Charles asked which one he meant.

“I don’t know what I am,” the student answered.

When another statement was presented, a young man began to answer and then paused. When he spoke again, his comment carried wisdom and reflected an attitude stressed in the chapel.  

“I need to think a little bit more,” he said. 

The idea for the interfaith chapel began to take shape in spring 2022. In fall 2022, Fikes, Eaton, and Palafox applied for a grant from Interfaith America, whose mission is ““to inspire, equip, and connect leaders and institutions to unlock the potential of America’s religious diversity.”

The $10,000 grant is used to create co-curricular and curricular interfaith programming at ACU, conduct the chapel services, pay for the out-of-town trip, and to provide a stipend to Charles, who works in the chapel office. Charles was born in India and grew up in Dubai, where his family became Anglicans. He came to the United States in 2016 to attend ACU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He is working on a master’s degree in theology and hopes to someday get a doctorate and become a university professor. 

Patel, the student co-leader, is Hindu. He was born in Chicago and grew up in Abilene. He is a junior at ACU, majoring in finance. 

Once the interfaith chapel was proposed last spring, the three sponsors had no difficulty getting it approved by the administration, Fikes said. 

“The university is supportive of what we are doing,” he said. “It is seen as one effort among many to support diversity, student retention, and belonging.”

Loretta Fulton is editor of Spirit of Abilene

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