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Petition Concerning Chapel Practices Causes Tension on Campus

On Sept. 25, seven individuals at Point Loma Nazarene University received an email from third-year computer science major and communication minor Noah Shaw. The email, labeled “Petition Concerning Chapel Practices”, was sent to three chapel-affiliated staff members of PLNU’s Office of Student Life and Formation (SLAF), the Associated Student Body (ASB) Director of Spiritual Life, the ASB President and two PLNU chapel interns. 

Chapel has been a part of PLNU’s Community Living Agreement since the beginning of the university and is required for all undergraduate students to attend, the quantity of chapel credits determined by their academic standing. According to the PLNU’s website, it is “designed to encourage greater intimacy with God and one another while also inviting [PLNU] to respond to God’s calling to minister and serve in [the] greater community.”

There are three morning chapels held every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and one “Time Out” chapel on Thursday nights. No classes take place during the chapel times.

Mary Paul, vice president of the office of SLAF, explained that the class schedule break is an intentional university-wide space for there to be a pause from the urgent demands of university life to turn toward God.

“It is our hope and prayer that every student will encounter the saving, sustaining, transforming grace of God made known in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” Paul said. “At the minimum, the chapel hour creates a space for students to ponder and wonder who God is and what that might mean in their lives.”

Shaw’s email came with two attachments: a petition signed by 229 students and one alumni labeled “Petition for PLNU Chapel to Preach the Gospel,” and a nine-page explanation of the petition’s purpose, wording and Shaw’s purpose for writing it. 

Shaw’s petition included the following statement, which is what signees read before adding their names to the list:

“It is unfortunate, but PLNU Chapel has largely stopped preaching the gospel… Chapel intentionally avoids preaching convicting and deep messages in order to not offend the student population, which in turn hurts the students’ understanding of Christ… This petition is for PLNU Chapel to change their practices and preach the biblical Gospel which includes: our sin, the condemnation because of our sin, our subsequent need for a savior, Jesus’ death as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and our need to repent and trust in Christ in order to be saved.” The rest of the petition can be found on lomabeat.com.

Shaw said he’s had this opinion about chapel, excluding “Time Out” chapels, since his first year at PLNU, and that some of his peers have shared similar thoughts on the university’s gathering. He said that there is a growing trend of “watered down Christianity” that does not convict believers, which he has seen in mega churches and Instagram posts.

“It is the growing sentiment of Christianity that does not talk about sin that much,” Shaw said. “That is one thing that I am passionate about in relation to faith.”

He began writing the petition on Sept. 8, and afterward, approached the people he knew, asking if they would be interested in signing it. Shaw said he largely approached people who were not strangers, who would occasionally refer him to their friends who may be interested in signing the petition. Two of his friends eventually got a copy of the petition and shared it with their own friend groups. 

“I would pitch it as ‘this is not a rebellion, we are not walking out…we believe that some things should be done differently in [Chapel] and this is a way to voice our opinion,” Shaw said.

After collecting the signatures, Shaw wrote the nine-page explanation, which included a section labeled “notable signatures,” naming three students who signed the petition and two SLAF student leader groups. 

“I knew that if I sent in just the petition PDF, there would be a million different questions,” Shaw said.

Signees had no knowledge of the nine-page explanation or that it was sent in the same email as the petition, but Shaw said that he did not attach anyone’s name but his own to the ideas of the explanation. He said that he tried to use the first person as much as he could, avoided using “we” and was intentional about sending the documents separately.

However, Shaw did not tell signees that their signatures were going to be emailed to the seven recipients. 

“I do not see how someone would sign onto a petition without knowing that the petition would be presented to someone,” Shaw said. “When I turned in the petition, if [the signees] names were on it, I felt like that was implied.”

Shaw said that the petition is a way for more student voices to be represented, and is a less confrontational push for change. He said that he is currently unaware of other avenues of change where students can collectively come together and take action.

“[I have been asked] if I have exhausted all my options by staff members and students. The reason that I presented the petition is to further have those conversations but with more weight behind them,” Shaw said. “This will increase the chance of meaningful change.” 

Paul was one of Shaw’s email recipients.

“Generally, petitions are best utilized for a dispersed community that is asking for a policy change,” Paul said. “Given the small size of our community and the open doors for students to have access to staff I would say other means of reaching out are more effective and less divisive.”

The first time that Shaw heard a response about the petition from PLNU’s office of SLAF was Sept. 26 at a LEAD event, held for PLNU student leaders to have conversations around their leadership.

Nearing the end of the LEAD event, Scott McGowan, director of Community Life and advisor to the ASB board members, spoke to the attendees about the petition.

The Point received a recording of the meeting. In the meeting, McGowan initially asked the student leaders to raise their hands if they had heard about the petition and explained how there are alternative ways for student leaders to voice their concerns and opinions.

“If you are a big polity and your representatives are distant and they are not paying attention to you, petitions might be a way that you can get into the discourse and do that,” McGowan said. 

McGowan said that there are discourse accords that student leaders had developed the previous year to interact with the general culture on campus.

“We are a small community. Your leaders are here tonight…frequently they are available to you, we hope you feel that,” McGowan said. “Just want to note that petitions just are not necessarily the best way to build trust.”

McGowan then mentioned that there were a number of student leaders who signed the petition, and how the nine-page explanation of it was included in the same email.

“We want to make sure that you know that…the petition was then attached to a nine-page document and your names went under that…document. It was hard to tell if you saw that nine-page document when you signed [the petition],” McGowan said.

McGowan said to the LEAD attendees that they could expect in the next week or two that there will be a follow-up invitation to further the conversation around the petition.

Shaw said he was discouraged by the way that the petition was mentioned in the LEAD event. 

“I felt like my character was being unfairly put into question because I had not received any contact from SLAF,” Shaw said. “The first response was what happened at LEAD and I believe it painted me as deceptive like I tricked everyone. I never signed anyone onto those nine pages.” 

After the LEAD meeting, Shaw said that some petition signers wanted to hear more about the nine-page explanation they were initially not aware of. In the days that followed, Shaw said he had to tell his peers that he did not deceive them.

Josh Brushwyler, third-year mechanical engineering major and Alpha Family group leader had signed the petition and was at the LEAD event.

“I understand these counters, the school’s frustration and the hurt petitions can cause, but I also understand Noah’s frustration. The method should not overshadow the message he is trying to get across,” Brushwyler said.

Brushwyler recommends for PLNU leaders to meet with students right away if future petitions are to occur.

“I think what happened at the LEAD meeting caused trust to be broken and students may be discouraged about coming forward when they have issues in the future,” Brushwyler said.

On Sept. 27, Shaw met with university chaplain Esteban Trujillo to discuss the petition’s presence at the LEAD event. Trujillo was another SLAF staff member who received Shaw’s email.

Trujillo has known Shaw since his first year at the university and has met with him before to discuss chapel and feels that they have had good dialogues with one another.

“My highest priority has been to offer pastoral care. I wanted to show him that we can still talk,” Trujillo said. “I fully believe the petition was not intended to discredit chapel and its staff.”

Both Paul and Trujillo are a part of the chapel planning committee at PLNU. There are several chapel planning groups that meet every week to discuss how each chapel has gone, as well as a larger group that meets monthly to talk about large scope planning. Students and staff are included in all those meetings.

On Sept. 29, Paul emailed all LEAD event student attendees and those whose signatures on the petition SLAF could discern. This email included an invitation to a follow-up conversation on the petition. Below is an excerpt from the email.

“[The petition] was addressed briefly at our LEAD event Monday night because it felt difficult and disingenuous not to mention something where there seemed to be some common knowledge,” Paul wrote. “We believe dialogue gives space for greater understanding and the opportunity to be seen and heard while staying committed to being people who in word and deed express Christlike love.”

After receiving that email, Shaw said he emailed Trujillo requesting to participate in the discussion to publicly answer any questions that students or staff may have about the petition. He believes that this will restore trust that may have been broken with students after the LEAD event. 

According to Shaw, as of Oct. 2, PLNU’s office of SLAF has yet to directly respond to Shaw about his petition.

A follow-up conversation will be held on Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. in Solomon Theater.

Linked below is the petition itself as well as the accompanying explanation.