The complex legacy of the Chapel as a place

The presence of the Lois Perkins Chapel on campus forces students and faculty to grapple with difficult questions of tradition and belonging.

A space such as the Lois Perkins Chapel, simply due to the religious nature and purpose of the building, exerts a force on all those who interact with it. Walking into the Chapel seems to demand a hush, a reverence, regardless of religious background or spiritual belief. The presence of this building and its central location has a tangible impact on all who set foot on Southwestern’s campus, even if they never pass the threshold.

Christian churches as a whole operate as unique memory spaces because their function is connected to remembering: remembering God, Jesus, and the events of the Bible and Christian history. This is accomplished through the repetition of hymns, stories, and prayers that invoke the sentiments of an ancient God and the actions of an ancient people. This is designed to provide modern humanity with equipment for living today based upon historical events. This act of remembering situates churches as a touchstone of collective memory because they connect the past to the present. The Lois Perkins Chapel is no different, and while this dynamic act of placed collective memory would have been more impactful during the time that regular services were held, it is nevertheless intrinsic in the space itself even today.

In addition to the general Christian memory of Christian churches, the Lois Perkins Chapel has an added function of remembering Protestant, and specifically Methodist, history. This is accomplished vividly through the figures portrayed in the stained glass windows. On the west side of the chapel, leading from the apse to the altar, are stained glass windows depicting important figures from Protestant history, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wycliffe. The east side of the chapel are similar stained glass windows that feature individuals from Methodist history specifically, such as Francis Asbury and Martin Ruter. It is important to note that every figure in this pantheon is a white male, serving to not only normalize whiteness and maleness, but also creating a normative force that implicitly excludes those who are not white and male from the space. In addition, the gaze of the figures operate as a surveilling set of symbols of authority, looking from on high at the actions of those who enter the Chapel, which further reinforces the sense that this is a white space.

This creates a memory space that offers a sense of belonging selective to those few who practice Methodism and Christianity, or who are able to engage in the memory practices of this religion as if they are just a matter of course. The space does not take any time to reckon with the difficult history of Christianity: the human rights violations, the injustices, the historic sense of oppression enacted by this powerful force, particularly the way it has been aligned with colonialism around the world, including in Texas. Those who practice this religion are able to see the Chapel at the center of campus and consider this its rightful place, or view it as simply a beautiful building. Those who have been actively harmed by the actions and ideologies of white Protestant Christianity, on the other hand, must deal with a sense of pain and exclusion.

In order to gain a fuller sense of the force exerted by the Chapel on students of different backgrounds, I spoke with a friend who has a long and complicated history with the Chapel as a Muslim student. Bilal Khan, class of ‘23, was the president of Muslims and Allies for three years, a member of Southwestern Chorale, and an active member of the campus community. Prior to Covid-19, Muslims and Allies met in the interfaith prayer room adjacent to the Chapel for Jum’ah, or Friday prayers. During the pandemic, the space was converted to a storage room, and they were no longer able to use it. Bilal spoke on the power of the Chapel as an institutional space, and the feeling of control and conditional acceptance experienced by students who do not conform to the institutional values and traditions it reinforces. He also stressed a deep lack of belonging that came from being a person of color moving against the white normative power of Southwestern, and the performance enacted by students of color attempting to survive in such a space.

As a vocalist, composer, and musician, Bilal has memories of the Chapel as a space of joy in connection with both music and with others. Bilal was the first Muslim student to ever perform a solo at the annual Candlelight service in over a hundred years of this tradition. While this initially gave him a sense of belonging, he began to realize that the space, what he repeated as just “the four walls and ceiling” of the Chapel, is ultimately nothing more than what you make of it: that as a student of color who practiced a different religion and who did not have a claim to the traditions embodied the Chapel, it was up to him to create a sense of belonging for himself that would not be provided by the institution or the predominantly white culture of Southwestern. This is something many students of color say about their struggles to belong here as well: you can make it work, but it’s on you to make it work.

In my own experience as an openly queer student, the Lois Perkins Chapel and its function as a memory space for Christian tradition has confused my understanding of Southwestern as an accepting space for queer people. Generally, I feel welcomed as I am in this community. But the same is not fully true of the Chapel. I keep bumping up against Southwestern’s continued commitment to its affiliation with the Methodist Church despite the Church’s rejection of the LGBTQ+ community.

While same-sex weddings are still permitted in the Lois Perkins chapel, this stands in contrast with the general consensus of the Methodist church and ties which persist despite Southwestern’s declaration of support to queer students. My own experience growing up in the Church means that the Lois Perkins Chapel is, to me, a space that serves as a reminder of the controversy of my own identity and reinforces the lack of belonging that I feel in religious spaces, even those which advertise otherwise.

While for many students, particularly those with Methodist and even Protestant backgrounds, the Chapel serves as a means by which their identity is affirmed on campus, other students find that the history of Southwestern as manifest in the Chapel makes it difficult to exist authentically in this space. The force exerted by the Chapel is one of white Protestant normativity, and this force leaves little room for other identities and religions on campus. In order to move forward into a future of diversity and inclusion for the University, it will be necessary to critically examine the ways in which spaces such as the Lois Perkins Chapel operate as sites of collective memory, particularly which collectives’ memories are privileged here.

Images

Interior of the Chapel, from the balcony Source: creator Creator: Teddy Hoffman Date: 2023

Location

Metadata

Hannah Jury '24, “The complex legacy of the Chapel as a place,” Placing Memory, accessed May 23, 2024, https://placingmemory.southwestern.edu/items/show/63.