Student leaders: administration never supported an interfaith prayer space


Brian Hayes

Danial Imran uses his jacket as a prayer mat while doing the Asr prayer in the Interfaith Prayer space on Wednesday. (Feb. 8, 2017)

Student Body President Joseph Shepard said he doesn’t think some members of University President John Bardo’s executive board have ever supported the interfaith prayer space initiative.

“They do not wish to see this carried out just because of the political climate,” Shepard said.

Taben Azad, SGA vice president, said everything was going smoothly regarding the interfaith initiative until a one-on-one meeting with Lou Heldman, Vice President of Strategic Communications, in January.

He said Heldman told him anything mentioned on the university website about the interfaith prayer space would not be allowed.

In December, Azad said Heldman told him in an email everything regarding their interfaith initiative webpage was approved and encouraged him to speak with Tim Hart, director of web and news media for Strategic Communications, to begin working on the webpage idea.

Azad quickly contacted Hart and they agreed to meet after the holiday break.

Azad met with Hart and received approval to go forward with creating an interfaith initiative webpage to post on the university website.

Then, between Jan. 10th and 24th, something changed. Azad said Heldman contacted him to take back everything he said earlier about posting the initiative on the university website.

Heldman also said it is time for the university to move on from what happened in 2015, Azad said.

On January 26th, Azad said he emailed Heldman in order to see if he would come before the senate in order to answer some questions about the initiative not being allowed on the website.

Regarding his statements, Heldman directed The Sunflower to talk to Teri Hall, vice president of student affairs.

After the pews were removed from the chapel in 2015, community members and others surrounding the university  criticized the removal in October 2015, several months after the pews were removed. Much of the controversy was directed at Muslim students.

One of the proposals of the interfaith prayer space initiative is to purchase a washing station so that Muslim students are able to go through the proper rituals before praying. Shepard said Islamic ablution requires the washing of the feet and other parts of the body.

“Students have to wash their feet in a sink — I just can’t understand why the university would even think that’s appropriate,” Shepard said. “We have administrators recommending that.”

The interfaith prayer space proposal, which can be found on the university website, estimated the cost of installing a washing station in the RSC to be about $6,000.

In January, Taben said he and Shepard learned the university would not fund the washing station and SGA would have to find external sources to pay for it. They were also informed Marché Fleming-Randle, senior assistant dean of Fairmount college, would no longer be the Chair of the Chapel Committee and Hall would be the new chair by Bardo’s appointment.

Hall said the administration has sent clear signs about not supporting the interfaith prayer space through recent events.

“This is a pretty conservative state—a heavily Christian state,” Hall said. “I think sometimes that it can make these kind of initiatives more difficult.”

Before coming to WSU this semester, Hall said she worked at Towson University near Baltimore and a washing station was installed there.

“The big prayers were on Friday and we would have 75 to 100 students praying at one time and a single-use ablution station didn’t fulfill its purpose,” Hall said.

Hall said because the single-use station wasn’t effective at Towson, she wasn’t sure installing one would be right for WSU.

She said she spoke with the Muslim Student Association about helping them become a stronger, more sustainable group, which didn’t involve purchasing an ablution station.

“I’m used to the SGA and administration working hand-in-hand to make a difference out in campus,” Hall said. “This kind of division hurts my heart and I hope through time here I can help the SGA… work closely with the president’s executive team.”

Shepard said all SGA senators would like to see the initiative supported by the university and historically looked for support from the administration.

Azad said they met with all of the key groups on campus about the initiative and did all of the necessary research, yet the proposal did not get the backing from the administration.

“It’s honestly a delay game to keep pushing (the interfaith prayer initiative) to the next session,” Azad said. “We’re hoping we can stop this mentality of pushing [the initiative] even further and further under the rug.”

Hall, a member of Bardo’s executive team, said this issue takes up a lot of Shepard and Azad’s time.

“It feels that they’ve dug into this so much that they’ve forgotten that there are other issues to deal with,” she said.

Shepard said he thinks the station is an obvious student need and SGA and WSU staff members have an obligation to fulfill students’ needs.

Shepard said he has told multiple people asking a Muslim to wash their feet in a sink is like asking a Catholic to do confessional in a shack.