FORT WORTH – The chaplain at a Christian university in Texas on Tuesday defended the university’s decision to set aside a room on campus for Muslim students to pray, saying it was the Biblical thing do to.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Kenji Flowers, chaplain at Texas Wesleyan University and also an adjunct world religion professor there, said in an interview with The College Fix that recent controversy over the room – which is a little over 1-years-old - came as a surprise to him. Debate over the room flared after a campus news report about the room was published last month.
“Like most schools that are called Christian institutions, historically we were aligned with a particular faith tradition, but through the years that affiliation has diminished,” he said. “It’s a misnomer in some ways to even say it’s a Christian university.”
As for the controversy surrounding its Muslim prayer room – which some have suggested illustrates the Islamification of America, the kowtowing of Christians to Muslims, and serves as an insult to the Christian traditions of the university - Flowers dismissed those claims as “far-right paranoia and misinformation.”
“Even to make that kind of assumption to me is misguided and it doesn’t represent my version of Christianity or that of a lot of people I know,” said Flowers, an ordained United Methodist minister and pluralist.
“If we are Christian, should we not show love and hospitality to all people,” he said. “Even in the Old Testament, there is a commandment to show hospitality to strangers. That word stranger is interchangeable with foreign and alien. Even the Book of Leviticus says the foreigner in your land, you should treat them as a citizen, and treat them as you want to be treated.”
Texas Wesleyan University, founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1890, opened the prayer room in 2012 in the campus fitness center. The room was set aside at the behest of the school’s Saudi Students Club. Flowers said there has been an influx of students from Saudi Arabia in recent years at the school.
“The reasons for this (prayer room) are twofold,” Flowers told The Rambler student newspaper in the Nov. 19 article that started the debate. “One, to show hospitality to our foreign students and, two, our campus needs to be open and tolerant of other faith traditions whether it is Islam, Hindu, Jewish, or otherwise.”
Students who use the prayer room wash their hands and feet in the gym’s bathrooms to comply with their cleansing rituals before prayer, but there is talk of late as to whether a different – possibly more reverent – area should be carved out for Muslim students, the paper reports.
Flowers said the university is in an urban setting – roughly 80 percent of its 3,000 or so students commute, so the prayer room is a gesture of courtesy. One the pillars of Islam is to pray toward Mecca five times throughout the day.
Flowers said about 200 Texas Wesleyan University students are Muslim, and use of the prayer room fluctuates. There is a window in the small room that faces east, toward Mecca.
The university’s website, regarding tolerance of other faiths, states: “In keeping with Methodist tradition, the university welcomes individuals of all faiths and is thoroughly inclusive in its practices.”
But not everyone supports the prayer room, the Christian News Network reports, citing in part an opinion in Freedom Outpost.
“Texas Wesleyan has dangerously aligned itself with Islam, not unlike most colleges across the United States. However, the Methodist affiliated private university, which doesn’t mean the school is Christian by any stretch of the imagination, is caving to sharia,” reporter Janna Brock wrote on Freedom Outpost. “All in the name of ‘interfaith’ worship, which is surely the most outrageous claim. Islam does not co-exist.”
The Christian News Network also pointed out a few online comments under the student newspaper article, including one which stated: “I am disgusted by this submission to Islam. What’s next, a room for Rastafarians? How about Voodoo? Santa Ria? Devil worshippers? You are supposed to be a Methodist university. What is wrong with this school?”
Another online commenter wrote: “I am appalled by this Methodist university. My great grandfather Gifford was a Methodist circuit rider minister. He is probably rolling in his grave.”
Flowers said he is “puzzled” by such comments.
“Hospitality is one of the things we should do for all students, particularly foreign students who are our guests,” he said. “It’s just the way we approach different faith traditions, whether it’s Islam or any other faith tradition.”