On a Friday morning, the Neely Black and White Dining Room in packed with a standing room only crowd for a lecture hosted by the Office of Spiritual Development and the English Department.
The speaker, Mark Charles, opened his lecture by introducing himself – in Navajo.
For the next fifty minutes the Native American leader and activist spoke in English about how his heritage connects with his Christian faith and how the diversity of worship and faith from different Christian cultures should be celebrated.
This event probably wouldn’t have happened on campus ten years ago, said university minister Guy Chmieleski.
Between then and now, Belmont University was in the middle of a tension-filled fight with the Tennessee Baptist Convention it had affiliated with for more than 50 years. The relationship ended in November 2007 when both sides decided to part ways.
Now five years after Belmont and the Baptist organization cut ties, university officials believe the school has deepened its Christian faith in a way that wouldn’t have happened under a Baptist affiliation.
Leaving the 56-year-old relationship forced the university to find its own religious identity and not rely passively on a single denomination’s beliefs, said Dr. Todd Lake, vice president for spiritual development.
“When we had a formal, official, sectarian identity as a Baptist school, oddly enough, we paid little attention to what was going on,” Lake said. “That had a direct effect to us not attending to our Christian mission.”
After a dispute fueled by the makeup of the Board of Trustees that included a lawsuit nearly went to court, the university quickly had to figure out what its Christian identity was after becoming independent.
Now, Lake said, the school has become more active in its faith, whether through more departmental Christian organizations, an all-time high number of mission trips and the establishment of groups like Spiritual Life Assistants on campus. He also said incoming faculty and students, along with the university as a whole, are more openly enthusiastic about their faith than they were when the school was simply one affiliated with a denomination.
“We’ve never seen more involvement there in our history,” Lake said. “We really have enhanced out Christian mission in our departments and our classes.”
The transition also affected how the school’s University Ministries interacts with the rest of campus. For years, it was officially part of Baptist Campus Ministries and a group that didn’t do much to reach out to students. As the organization lost its denominational title, the group also needed to make an active change about how it operated in relation to the rest of campus, said Chmieleski.
“Seven years ago, we started to build more institutional relationships,” he said. “What I feel like we’ve done is provide increased opportunity for staff and faculty to engage with students on campus.”
As the organization has changed how it operates, its role on campus has also grown. Next year, the optional Chapel services that were scheduled once a week four years ago will be three days a week. The mission trips it sponsors have also grown exponentially as at least 12 different groups are set to go across the country during Spring Break.
Associate university minister Christy Ridings, who also graduated from Belmont as a undergraduate student in the ’90s, said the change in roles not only allowed University Ministries to reach out and connect to more students, but also to provide them all a place to discuss their beliefs even if they disagree with each other. University Ministries sponsor organizations that vary from the evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ to Belmont Bridge Builders, a group that examines connections between Christian and LGBT issues.
“Having our offices structured like that gives us a very different role on campus,” she said. “Now there is a willingness for discussions and dialogue about our Christian differences even amongst ourselves.”
Like with University Ministries, Chmieleski said Belmont’s current state allows for a greater level of involvement and religious discussion on campus.
“When you are not tied to a denomination, it allows you to create space for more conversations, for different conversations, and for more theologically diverse conversations,” he said.
Even without those crystallized beliefs, the university is still steadfast in defending their policies and mission and how it can connect with people of different backgrounds.
“We’re very unapologetic about the lens we view our faith,” Ridings said.