Senior William Leguizaman did not expect to be told to “go to hell” when he entered Vanguard as a freshman. As a Roman Catholic, a majority of his experiences on campus have been pleasant, but there remains a subtle ignorance from students about how he chooses to practice his faith.
He is not alone in this regard. Erika Ortiz, a sophomore who was baptized into the Catholic Church at the age of 12, recalled an experience with a student who had converted out of Catholicism. In the encounter, the student, a former Catholic, shared facts about the Catholic faith that Ortiz noted as simply untrue.
“[She was] probably raised that way, but that’s not how Catholicism works,” said Ortiz, encouraging people to seek education on faith matters.
Alumna Yazmin Guzman, another Roman Catholic student, felt that Protestant students sometimes fail to understand why she makes certain choices in her faith. One example of this has been in her practice of Lent.
“People don’t get it. They’ll say ‘God still loves you, come eat pizza with me…’ I know he’s gonna love me regardless, but how much do I love him?” said Guzman, explaining that her fast is to show her love for God, not earn his love.
Many students hail from different denominations, with varying knowledge and backgrounds. According to the Office of Enrollment Management, after non-denominational and Assemblies of God, the most represented denomination on campus is Catholicism. Each year, Catholic students make up about 11 percent of incoming freshmen.
When he was incoming freshman himself, Leguizamon expected drastic changes in his worship experience and opportunities to practice, but it turned out to be less of a shock than he anticipated.
“What I thought was going to be a huge shift in faith honestly wasn’t as different as I thought it would be,” Leguizamon said.
Another Catholic alumna, Julia Bonilla, said that practicing Catholicism is the same as being any other denomination within Christianity. According to Bonilla, there are differences in practice in some instances, but for the most part, it is all the same heart to worship the same God.
Bonilla specifically noted the apocrypha, the belief in purgatory, and in the perpetual virginity of Mary as differences between the Catholic and Protestant traditions. She said both denominations read the same Old and New Testaments, with Catholics simply recognizing a few additional books.
“Other than that we worship the same God, we still believe in the Holy Trinity,” Bonilla said.
According to Religion Department Chair Tommy Casarez, an Assemblies of God pastor and professor of historical and systematic theology, Catholics are simply choosing a different approach to their faith than Protestants. He sees the practices such as holy communion, baptism, and confession as serving a specific need for those in the faith.
“In the Catholic tradition, there’s a very concrete, tangible way of encountering God in the creative realm, in and through the elements and world God has created. There is a greater sense of God at work in the created realm, not separate or apart from,” Casarez said.
For Ortiz, she chose Catholicism because it was the best fit for her own encounters with God.
“You can experiment with other denominations but if you don’t find Christ in that denomination, then why are you there? It’s where I feel most comfortable,” Ortiz said.
Leguizamon believes diversity in denominations should be encouraged, but he also knows the Catholic tradition resonates most in his relationship with God.
“I’m cool with other people digging [modern worship music], but it’s just not for me,” Leguizamon said. “I’m more of an old timer guy who would rather be in a church hearing a Gregorian chant for my worship.”
Some students may be aware of diversity in Protestant churches, but Bonilla said that it is the same within Catholic churches. As a Latina, she has seen the impact of her ethnicity in her faith.
“There’s different types of Catholicism. There is a lot more culture and traditions,” Bonilla said. “Hispanics tend to be a little more traditional, especially when they’re Catholic.”
Guzman has also met assumptions about her ethnicity and her Catholic faith during her time at Vanguard. Upon arriving, she was shocked to find students stereotyping her as a Hispanic Catholic and assuming she inherited her religion because of her ethnicity.
“They ask, ‘are you Catholic because of your religion or because of your culture?’” she said. “There are plenty of Mexicans that are Christian and there are ton of blacks that are Catholic.”
As Vanguard asserts itself as a Hispanic Serving Institution, Guzman believes more cultural understanding needs to come with further education of the Catholic denomination. Because the school places great importance on its diversity so avidly, she believes it should also be more proactive about educating students on its the different ethnic and religious groups.
Guzman has seen some efforts by administration, but she still hears complaints about bilingual chapel and fails to see classes teaching about Hispanic culture. As Vanguard focuses on diversity, she believes administration should look for a hands-on approach of making everyone feel included, whether Asian or Latino, Protestant or Catholic.
“Don’t just use us as a stat, help us,” Guzman said.
Bonilla, Leguizamon, Guzman, and Ortiz — though noting an overall pleasant experience at Vanguard — all remembered instances where Protestant students misunderstood the Catholic tradition. Their solution remained the same: provide more opportunities for Protestant students to learn, be willing to ask questions, and be ready to have a conversation ending in a healthy understanding.
But even with the bad experiences, there were still others helping them feel welcomed and heard on campus. With an overall pleasant time at Vanguard, these students still have suggestions to help improve the atmosphere of religious diversity.
“There are moments where Vanguard could be a little sensitive,” Bonilla said.
In January, the Intercultural Student Programming team hosted a Dinner and Dialogue panel representing various denominations to begin a conversation about religious diversity. Along with Guzman, students from other faith backgrounds were joined by Dr. Tom Carmody, an Anglican priest, and Dr. Richard Park, a former Mormon, in answering students’ questions.
In charge of the event was alumna Nahtori Johnson, who was the student lead for Intercultural Student Programming at the time. She had heard a story a few years ago from a Catholic student who felt outcast for his faith. As a freshman in Huntington Hall, this student was not accepted into a conversation about faith by two religion majors, who discredited him because he was Catholic. This story planted a desire in Johnson to have a greater conversation among the community.
Instead of divisiveness, Johnson saw beauty in diversity among religions and wanted the chance to highlight that through her event.
“Together [different denominations] make up a very beautiful mosaic, and we just want to celebrate that,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that at an Assemblies of God school, it may take more effort to find places of diverse religious expression which everyone can identify with. However, there are options like like The Way Gathering and morning prayer with communication professor Dr. Tom Carmody.
Campus Pastor Mike Whitford has made an effort to connect with students of both Catholic and Protestant tradition through his Pastoral Care meetings. He has seen these as a time of connection with Catholic students, who he has found to be very respectful of the Spirit-empowered approach to faith at Vanguard.
Ultimately, Whitford stresses the importance of students from all walks of faith to find a common ground. Though it is impossible to solve differences in traditions like communion, there is a always a welcoming of all students to partake in the faith practices of Vanguard.
“While we cannot deny our own identity as a Spirit-empowered community of believers, rooted in Assembly of God and Pentecostal theology, we can and do certainly seek to find common ground with our Catholic brothers and sisters,” Whitford said.
Similarly, Johnson encouraged students to look for opportunities to learn about those who have different experiences from different backgrounds now that everyone is brought together in this place.
“There’s a ton of your peers who don’t believe the same things you do, or they don’t enjoy chapel the way you do. Or they do! Even though they’re from a different background,” Johnson said.
These Catholic students strongly recommended an ongoing, open conversation with those wanting to learn more.
Guzman suggested classes on Hispanic heritage and culture to address the Catholic influence. Bonilla called attention to special dietary requirements during Lent, while Ortiz asked for mass to be held once a semester. Like bilingual chapel, she suggested, this would help many students feel comfortable in their practice of Christianity, while giving others the opportunity to learn. For now, she is looking to start a small group with some of her Catholic classmates.
Since becoming university pastor last fall, Whitford has made it his priority to have chapel be about glorifying God, preaching the word within the institutional framework, and allowing for reflection and experience with the Holy Spirit. He also hopes to welcome a Catholic Minister in the next academic year from the Franciscan order, Damian Stain, to speak in chapel. Because Stain is also charismatic, Whitford believes this will be a great opportunity for students to find common ground with one another.
As Casarez pointed out, the Catholic tradition holds true to historical continuity and connection of the church. This link to the past gives a strong connection to how Christians grow in the future, according to Casarez.
“[The past] gives us help and hope for the future, so I think the historical trajectory, the backwards, points forwards and creates a larger faith story that we are a part of,” he said.