Wednesday, December 06, 2006

postal scrotum: USAFA chapel
not the best example?

My use of the US Air Force Academy's chapel as an example of multi-use sacred space didn't fly well with one gent, MW, who wrote in very quickly:

Mr. Big~

As any Catholic cadet can tell you, the USAFA chapel is decidedly NOT non-denominational.

The big structure up top is the Protestant Chapel... and the Catholic chapel is located in the basement. With our mix of both self-respect and ever present martyrdom, being shunted to a less spectacular/gaudy space brought a mix of both resentment and pride. Regardless, the Chapel designation certainly provided a visual understanding of what region/ideology brought in the most cadets (read: Bible Belt/Baptist).

The Jews had it even worse, they were in some cave even deeper behind the Catholic basement. At the time I was there, in 1989-1991, there was no separate space for anyone else (Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus)... there might be now.

FYI - the church was the best place for Freshmen to escape the hells of hazing. Whether it be early morning Vespers, or special services on Ash Wednesday, the Administration had a soft-spot for maintaining Freshmen access to the holy halls. They may say that there are no atheists in foxholes, but there sure the hell were a ton of atheists in mass each day, avoiding the bracing, yelling, and pushups that often accompanied our daily wake-up call, back in tha' day.



While I had visited the USAFA grounds as a high school junior who had been thinking about joining the academy (largely to please my dad and chase a very special girl), the visit occurred during a nasty white-out, and our tour-- which was largely outdoors-- didn't include a stop inside the chapel. I never had a chance to see how the place was laid out.

The USAFA Wikipedia entry has this to say about the chapel:

The 17-spired Cadet Chapel is the most distinctive building in the Cadet Area. The subject of some controversy when it was first built, it is now considered among the most beautiful examples of modern American academic architecture. The Cadet Chapel contains a 1,300 seat Protestant chapel, a 500-seat Catholic chapel, a 100-seat Jewish chapel, and interfaith rooms for cadets of other religions.

I think "nondenominational" is a fair description of the chapel as a whole, but MW's letter is a reminder that the chapel's interior layout manifests, to put it politely, a certain heavy bias. While I don't think the USAFA chapel's bias changes the substance of the argument in my previous post, it does provide us with a wrinkle: how, exactly, are shared sacred spaces laid out, and what can they really be used for? If, for example, a multi-use room has been designated a "meditation room," can people use such a room for loud communal prayer? I doubt it.

Thanks, MW, for pointing out the not-so-rosy reality of the USAFA situation. However, I think you Catholic cadets were a model of exactly the sort of religious tolerance I'm talking about: you didn't rise up as a group and rumble with the Protestants. That ability-- the ability to coexist peacefully-- is what shared sacred spaces can cultivate.


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