After eating her lunch fifth period, Mintis Hankerson ’14 treks from the lower quad to St. Saviour’s Chapel. The door opens with a creak, and in silence she takes a seat in one of the pews. Pulling out her iPhone, Hankerson opens Islamic Compass, an application that points her in the direction of Mecca, the holiest city of Islam. She stands and pulls the scarf that loosely wraps around her neck over her head in the fashion of a Muslim hijab. She walks to the chapel’s elevated pulpit and kneels. For the next eight minutes, she chants a Muslim prayer in Arabic.
The chapel Hankeron prays in is Episcopalian, although Harvard-Westlake is home to a student body whose diverse array of beliefs range from secular to devout.
Hankerson said she was not always this devoted to her religion. Her father has been a committed Muslim since converting through the Nation of Islam more than 20 years ago.
Two years ago, she decided to follow in his footsteps and officially converted to Islam.
“I didn’t always have religion,” she said. “I wasn’t always a Muslim, and I wasn’t always serious about it, but praying makes me feel like I’m doing something right — like I’m keeping my mind focused.”
Choosing to follow this path, Hankerson sometimes feels that she has to defend her religion to other students.
“Jihad means struggle, it doesn’t mean to kill people,” Hankerson said. “My jihad is explaining to people what my religion really stands for.”
Liza Wohlberg ’13, is an active member of the Jewish community.
“Everyone at school who knows me knows that I am Jewish,” Wohlberg said. “My religion is such a big part of my life. It finds its way into most of my classes and friendships in some way or another.”
Wohlberg, who has spent time studying Hebrew and the principles of Judaism, often finds herself driven by her religious views in the face of challenges.
“Problems sometimes arise when I feel that others dismiss religious ideas as though they are not substantial enough to be the foundation of an argument,” Wohlberg said. “I beg to differ.”
Despite her strong affiliation, Wohlberg enjoys engaging in conversations with those who have different beliefs than she does to discuss the implications and impact of religion.
“Sometimes it is difficult given that religion is often of a sensitive, personal nature but I think it is crucial to be able to talk to others about something so important, and to be open to different perspectives,” Wohlberg said.
History teacher Matthew Cutler, a practicing Christian, believes that engaging in such discussions can make people more universally accepting.
“When I was a teenager, I often struggled expressing my religious beliefs to my peers fearing that I would be judged,” Cutler said. “This is why I believe it is so important that teachers feel comfortable expressing their religious views, so as to provide an environment where students feel equally as comfortable expressing their views.”
Cutler, who has engaged in religious discussions with both teachers and students, said that such conversations are “natural among people who are academically inclined. So long as we are respectful of each other’s opinions, these discussions are rewarding. I have had a religious discussion with students, but again, these are not disputes.”
Father J. Young, who identifies himself as an Episcopalian, said that religious conversations can enlighten the school and the issues students face every day.
“Talking about things that are greater than us can lift up a community in a certain way,” Young said.
Young leads an Episcopal service every Tuesday morning for a congregation of around ten people in St. Saviour’s Chapel.
“There are a handful of teachers and administrators who go to chapel with me on Tuesday mornings,” Morgan Hallock ’13 said. “It’s nice to see them at school during the day, knowing them as someone else other than a teacher.”
Although others criticized her religious beliefs in ninth grade, Hallock, a devout Christian, said students have become more open-minded and respectful of her choices over time.
“I think that people get too caught up in defending their religious beliefs, when really, the true purpose of religion is to give people hope, love and something to believe in,” Hallock said. “I would encourage students to find what they believe in and be confident in it.”
Young agrees that affiliation with a religion can provide a true sense of comfort and camaraderie.
“One of the primary benefits of being a member of a religious community is the world community,” Young said. “People are happy if they are well supported. Being in a community is a means of being well supported.”