۹ مهر ۱۴۰۱ |۵ ربیع‌الاول ۱۴۴۴ | Oct 1, 2022
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Al-Huda is a nonprofit religious institution funded by charitable donations and is the only mosque in Athens. Founded in 1987 by a group of Muslim UGA students, the mosque currently cannot afford to hire a full-time imam, the person who leads the prayers.

Hawzah News Agency – Lonesome two-mile treks from one side of Athens to the next are a Friday afternoon ritual for Abdulsamad Olajide Yusuf.

For 35 minutes, Yusuf faces a “difficult” walk, dodging honking cars and freight trucks and bolting through traffic-heavy streets on a frigid December afternoon. His mission: to make it on time for jummah prayer at Al-Huda Islamic Center. Upon arrival at the one-story pastel yellow house, the first-year University of Georgia doctoral student struggles to catch his breath. At the entrance, he spots a police car, a familiar sight.

The religious makeup within the Athens and UGA communities is not recorded — the last time data was collected was in 2010 by the Association of Religion Data Archives. According to the report, 42,101 out of a total of 116,414 Clarke County residents were recorded as Christian adherents. Other religious communities listed in the report were Bahá’ís, Buddhists, Hindus and Orthodox Jews.

Driving through the UGA campus and Athens, the overwhelming presence of Christian churches can also be seen. There are churches for many denominations and representations including Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists.

In a Bible Belt state, campus organizations like the UGA Wesley Foundation and city institutions like Athens Church are part of what amounts to around 96 churches in the area, by The Red & Black’s estimate.

These demographics reflect a thriving Christian community compared to minority religious groups such as Muslims, Hindus or Jewish people, who only make up some of the many religious communities in Athens.

For non-Christians in town this prompts a deeper search for connection to their religious identities with slender options in the Classic City.

The number of diverse religious institutions between UGA and Athens today can be counted on one hand. The lineup consists of two Jewish organizations, one synagogue, one mosque and one multicultural organization for Indian students of various beliefs, ranging from Hinduism and Sikhism to Buddhism.

The million-dollar question of why this trend has occurred can be traced back to one of a few common denominators: private funds.

“UGA is a public institution, so we have the separation of church and state. Now, because of the separation of church and state, only those institutions which have local private support are in a privileged position to provide their students support on campus,” said Hisham Qureshi, a UGA world religions instructor.

Qureshi, also a Ph.D. candidate studying religious diversity on campus, said minority religions don’t have the resources or facilities provided by the university for an adequate base of spirituality.

Hillel, a Jewish community center that sits at the heart of Five Points on Milledge Avenue, receives financial support from many places including donors, philanthropic organizations and grants, according to UGA Hillel chapter director Jeremy Lichtig.

The organization of more than 1,500 students is currently constructing a new building on Baxter Street across from UGA’s first-year high-rises.

Beyond the UGA community, Al-Huda is a nonprofit religious institution funded by charitable donations and is the only mosque in Athens. Founded in 1987 by a group of Muslim UGA students, the mosque currently cannot afford to hire a full-time imam, the person who leads the prayers.

Instead, money is allocated for police security — a necessity for the protection of the Muslim community, Qureshi said.

Despite Yusuf’s tight schedule, the Nigerian student rarely skips the journey from the Mary Frances Early College of Education to Al-Huda. Even on unbearably cold days, he spends his “already limited resources” on $16 round-trip Ubers and Lyfts, simply because there are no available public transit buses that travel through campus to the mosque.

“It is important to walk to the mosque to be close to my creator and walking a long distance should not stop me from doing that. I typically observe other prayers in my room since there are no designated spaces in school to do that, and I only do so when I get home in the evening,” Yusuf said.

Although room 349 in the Tate Student Center is reserved for quiet reflection, “brief prayer” and meditation, according to the UGA Campus Ministry Association website, some students are not aware of this or grapple with limited time during busy class days.

Yusuf said that universities in northern Nigeria bloomed with a plethora of mosques and streets filled with community markets vibrated with the sounds of a singing imam. But now, he’s limited to UGA’s Muslim Student Association and Al-Huda. Yusuf said he would feel “out of place” in Athens without the two organizations.

Without proper funding, MSA also struggles in this same financial sentiment, according to president and UGA junior Raafay Syed.

“What we (MSA) can provide is very limited, and that creates this barrier for people to grow this Muslim community and support it for the future,” Syed said.

Syed said up until November 2021, the 1992-founded Muslim organization wasn’t a club under UGA’s Multicultural Services and Programs initiative, which strives to envision a UGA that “honors the identities, perspectives and worldview of our entire community,” according to the MSP website.

For the first time in 30 years, MSA secured “first dibs” on the Tate Student Center MSP Intersection space as a recurring prayer location for the remainder of the semester, Syed said.

A comfortable scene of moved furniture and large blue tarps as makeshift prayer rugs layer the room and quick conversations between friends ensue. The only unfixed element to the fundamental Friday prayers is an imam who leads the sermons, according to Syed.

Syed said a small rotation of imams, including Muslim UGA professors, community members and even himself, is common because the organization is not sustainably funded. In fact, one of their main sources of economic support is from Al-Huda, similarly on limited funds.

“UGA is not proud of their Muslim students — it feels as if we're outnumbered and we have no support. It limits the progress that we can get as well as a significant presence of other religious organizations,” Syed said.

MSA, which has 300 members, is one of the largest multicultural organizations next to the Black Affairs Council and the Indian Cultural Exchange, according to Syed.

While there is also a smaller Jewish demographic in Athens, a spirit of community helps drown out feelings of isolation.

“Fallback,” Abby Ventimiglia, a Jewish sophomore UGA student, said. “That is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the Jewish community here. I don’t necessarily need to go to Hillel and Chabad every day or every week, but I know it’s always there — it’s right around the corner, like a neighborhood of my own."

When she first came to Athens and UGA, Ventimiglia quickly became immersed in her Jewish identity and joined Hillel, the historically Jewish sorority Sigma Delta Tau, and the Rohr Chabad House, a Jewish UGA student organization. She is also a substitute teacher at the Congregation Children of Israel, the only synagogue in Athens.

Ventimiglia said although she doesn’t necessarily believe in God, she finds herself driven by the community when it comes to Judaism — a support system of familiar faces with people who advocate and understand her.

Religious diversity in a particularly “capitalist society” reinforces dominant religious beliefs, such as Christianity, to prevail and “even push out others under the guise of neutrality,” said Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Jesse Houle.

Houle, who grew up Catholic, said they resonate with Buddhism but aren’t devout to a particular faith. Although there are no Buddhist temples ingrained into Athens’ framework, the Athens Zen Group is a nondenominational sangha, or a Buddhist community, of lay practitioners of Zen Buddhism and meditation.

“I think, in some ways, Athens does a better job than many communities, but in some ways, I think we have a long way to go. The lack of spaces is maybe both a symptom and driver,” Houle said.

Although there are no direct government solutions to expanding religious diversity in Athens, Houle said they feel “hopeful” about the establishment of the Human Relations Commission. This comes after the passage of ACC Mayor and Commission’s non-discrimination ordinance in August 2021.

The Human Relations Commission was formed because of the ACC government's commitment to “building an Athens-Clarke County where every community member and/or visitor belongs by prioritizing inclusion, diversity, and equity throughout government policies, processes, and decision-making,” according to the ACCGOV website.

The group will serve as an avenue for residents to engage the government as an institution to drive positive change but is not focused specifically on increasing religious diversity. Houle said the advancement of this needs to happen outside of government institutions.

“One of the things that we learned from spiritual practices is the power of people to unite around common causes and common beliefs and bring transformation about in their own lives and be the change,” Houle said.

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