Religious student-led groups serve to combat feelings of isolation

Izzy Gaspar’raj | The Chronicle

Three clubs at Mason High School (MHS) are serving as places of religious security for students.

The Good Book Club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and the Muslim Student Association (MSA) are all religiously-affiliated clubs at MHS. They are places for students to gather with peers of a common religion or for those wanting to learn more about the featured religion. Regardless of possible debate regarding the existence of these clubs in public schools, they are allowed as a result of the Equal Access Act, which allows religious clubs in public high schools when they are student-initiated and not part of the school curriculum. Providing comfort and a sense of belonging, these groups serve as safe, connected spaces for their participants.

English teacher Andy Goetz has been the advisor of the Good Book Club at Mason since 2009. As to why religious clubs are allowed, he said that he recognizes that MHS is a place of learning and that anyone should be allowed to take on the academic endeavors of many different topics.

“We’re an educational institution,” Goetz said. “We ought to be able to honestly take out all sorts of different kinds of ideas and put them in the middle of the room.”

Contrary to his title, advisor of the MSA and Intervention Specialist Hakim Oliver is of Christian faith. Two years ago, he was approached by two students to be the advisor of the MSA, which he said he assumes is likely because of his involvement with the Mason Inclusion Club. Oliver said he is interested in learning about Islam because it is different from his own faith, thus widening his life perspective.

“I do not have a lot of knowledge about [Islam],” Oliver said. “It’s an insecurity of mine as a co-advisor. Sometimes I feel like I’m not qualified, [but] students have been educating me about their religion.”

Oliver said he has loved being a part of these meetings and the learning that the students have helped him to experience. In a high school with a population of over 3000 students,  he believes that it is important for the MSA to exist so that Muslim students can know they have a community among their classmates.

“It lets Muslim students know that they’re accepted by the school district,” Oliver said. “The school administration lets them know that…[they] want to have them around.”

Like Oliver, senior and MSA co-president Zaman Malik loves the community feeling the MSA brings him and other members. As a Muslim student in a public high school, he often misses some of his five daily prayers, which are practices that Malik said are a vital part of an Islamic individual’s life. 

MSA meetings provide time to pray together as a group, which sometimes can act in place of some of the missed prayers. Being in a group that shares many of the same beliefs and rituals, Malik said he feels that the MSA is a place to unwind for him.

“[This is a place] you can call home in a place that might seem stressful for you,” Malik said. “[It’s] a place where you can go and relax. There are no requirements; no agenda for the day.”

Also working to provide a welcoming space, Spanish teacher and cross country coach Tom Rapp is one of the advisors of the FCA. He also sometimes holds a Bible study during Connect Time. He agrees with Malik in that a gathering with those of the same faith tends to be a relaxing setting, which is why he said he chose connect time as the segment of the day to lead a Bible study.

“The purpose of Connect time is to allow students to relax, let their hair down a little bit and be among like-minded people doing like-minded activities,” Rapp said. “For some, that is getting together and discussing or enjoying being able to be a part of [a group of] other people who are like-minded in their faith.”

Rapp said he wants students of similar beliefs to have a place to gather and that students should be able to carry with them all important parts of their identity, just as in non-school settings. He said he feels there is significance in allowing students to express themselves as they truly are, not having to leave any part of their life out.

“For some students, their faith is a very key part of their life,” Rapp said. “To have to leave that at the door when they walk into school seems disingenuous to me.”

Senior Ashley Robey is a member of the FCA as well as on the cross country team. Similar to Rapp, she said she feels that integrating religion into one’s identity and not having it be a separate entity is essential.

“I think [more time discussing faith] is important because a lot of people see your religion as separate from your life,” Robey said. “When you get to integrate it into your school, that’s really cool. It doesn’t have to be two separate things, it can be one thing.”

In such a large school, it is a common experience to have difficulty making friends and finding connections. Many different clubs, including religious clubs, provide this asylum. In a similar fashion to Robey, Rapp said he finds importance in bridging a connection between a school setting and a religious one.

“If they are truly going to be a follower of Christ, that’s 24/7,” Rapp said. “That also happens at school, not just a church, not just a  group meeting on a Wednesday night.”

The Good Book Club is similar to a church’s Bible study group in that it is open to everyone interested in learning about the Bible. Goetz said that, for a few years, there was a Hindu student that regularly attended these meetings just to become more aware of religions other than their own. 

As a practicing Christain, Goetz said this group has helped him further and continue his Bible literacy and thinks that Bible literacy is important for all Christians. According to Goetz, it was a Bible study that his family started 16 years ago that began his personal journey to finding a deeper connection with the book. He hopes that the Good Book Club helps bring that to high school students.

“People say, ‘in the Bible, it says such and such,’ but Bible literacy has declined quite a bit over the course of decades,” Goetz said. “Even a lot of Christan kids who regularly attend church aren’t particularly literate about what’s in the Bible.”

This lack of overall Bible proficiency is why Goetz said that The Good Book Club was started, as the few kids who began it were “just curious about” what was “really in the Bible.”

Malik said that his religion is one that is not usually viewed well by the general public, which adds to the vitality of having the MSA at MHS. Malik said that the MSA is somewhere where he knows he will have an accepting community around him, which in turn makes his school a safe place.

“Knowing the fact that there is an Islamic club at Mason High School and this is [one of] the biggest high schools in the state,” Malik said. “It’s home.”