by Hannah Harn
Photography courtesy of BU Dance Groups
Boston’s history as a hub of cultural evolution is not bound solely to music, scientific research and diversity. It is also a hub for religious unity.
The city’s dense population is part of what creates harmony amidst the diversity. As more denominations move into the city, more groups mix. Through this cultural blend, different performance groups seek to spread their messages.
According to the Pluralism Project of Harvard University, the Greater Boston area alone has places of worship and cultural centers for nearly 20 different religious groups, 16 of which have metro-area locations. In addition, the Pew Research Center shows that 58 percent of adults in Massachusetts identify as Christian, 34 percent as Catholic and nine percent as Non-Christian.
Justin Wong (SAR ’18), the president of Boston University’s Mustard Seed, however, has seen the gradual shift in how people worship in his performance group. Mustard Seed, a non-denominational Christian a capella group, doesn’t look for one specific faith, but rather the right type of person regardless of denomination.
“We just want a wholesome person,” said Wong. “Faith is more important than our music. Music is just our medium to express our faith. We see a lot of value in being able to reach people, reach the public, through music.”
Wong has noticed a major shift in the group’s main priority and their message to the public. “In recent years, we’ve had a change of direction. We took a semester hiatus because we didn’t have enough membership. Now, it’s remembering that 70 percent of Christians, when they go from high school to college, actually fall away from their faith, and for us that’s really saddening.”
According to Wong, Mustard Seed now wants to remind people that their faith is still a part of them. “[God] may not be as relevant to you now but you’re still very relevant to him.” A big part of this shift away from faith comes from feeling at odds with whatever church people may follow.
“In this day and age there’s a lot of touchy, controversial subjects that, to be honest, the church is responsible for,” said Wong. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh wow, if that’s what the church thinks, I want no part of this.’ Our goal recently has been to dispel the idea that one church is not representative of all the Christians in the world.”
While they haven’t shied away from their faith, the group has made a significant change in the message they send out. Mustard Seed also aims to reach a general public and to reach out to everybody.
“We try to avoid over complicated songs, or songs with a lot of what we call ‘Christian-ese,’ because we just want everybody to take something away from it,” he said. Wong said that their purpose is to be less of a performance show and more of a way to reach out and “uplift everybody” they perform for.
Reverend Julian Cook, the senior pastor of St. Mark’s Congregational Church, also helps to encourage religious diversity on campus. He works as the Assistant Director for Thurman Networks and Community Engagement at the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground at Boston University.
“All of these denominations are having to exist in fairly small quarters,” said Cook. “Most of our living we have to do together, and so the religions, the various religious traditions have had to find ways to coexist.”
BU’s gospel choir, Inner Strength, has found that the best way to bridge the gap between faith and modern social issues is to sit down and talk it out.
Imani Roberson (COM ’20), the group’s public relations chair, said that discussing how current events intersect with faith and spirituality has helped create unity in the group.
“When the election occurred, a lot of people were afraid, so we had someone come in during one of our rehearsals and we all just got to talk and be a support system,” said Roberson. “If there are things that happen in the world, it’s a good place to come to and have that support system.”
Inner Strength, which focuses more on gospel music performance rather than faith, has emphasized the importance of utilizing the group as a support system for its members regardless of their religious preferences. According to Roberson, this has helped alleviate conflict.
“It sounds idealistic, but it’s true,” said Roberson. “Conversation is what’s kept people from butting heads.”
All in all, Boston continues to nurture its diversity.
“Boston is a center for ideas,” said Cook. “Wherever there are ideas and those ideas are being developed and being grown, there will be challenges to the status quo. So if you have a center for ideas, and Boston is the United States Mecca for education, you’re going to constantly have religion needing to reinterpret itself in order to remain viable and relevant in the world.”