Where Jerusalem and Mecca Meet
College freshman Nida Hassan, 18, walks between buildings to a campus lawn where students routinely fall prone across mats, praying toward Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the most sacred site of Islam.
But this isn't Public State U. It's Houston Baptist University (HBU), a confessionally Christian liberal arts school whose Muslim undergraduate enrollment jumped from 26 in 2006 to 61 in 2009.
Hassan's Shia Muslim parents emigrated from Pakistan, then settled in Sugar Land, Texas, 20 miles southwest of Houston. After Nida attended Catholic high school, HBU seemed right, even though she and her family retain their Islamic faith. She still fasts during Ramadan and prays to Allah during campus convocation.
Hassan insists that Muslims are respected on the urban, ethnically mixed campus founded by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Hunter Baker, HBU's director of strategic planning, agrees, but says the school can prod students toward the Cross even while working toward its institutional goal to "bring Athens and Jerusalem together."
"Muslim students know what they are getting themselves into," Baker says. "Our seal has a Bible with a cross on it. We are out for evangelism."
President Robert Sloan, the man whose ambitious plan to turn Baylor University into a premiere Christian research institution polarized the Waco campus in 2005, has brought a similar faith-and-learning vision to HBU—one that has room for Muslim students. "It keeps us from being too insular," says Sloan, president since August 2006. "It also gives us an opportunity to learn how to witness right here, from experience."
Shepherding this spiritual nexus is Colette Cross, HBU's chaplain and director of spiritual life, who oversees the Community Life and Worship program (CLW) program, an 80-credit graduation requirement that includes Bible study, weekly chapel, and community service, among other options. Cross works with director of campus recreation Saleim Kahleh, a Muslim-background Christian who prays with students before intramural sports events. He says that recently a freshman Muslim woman made connections through Bible studies and basketball games, and is now "walking with the Lord."
Kahleh also runs an on-campus Alpha course, the popular co-curricular introduction to Christian basics. His last session featured three Muslims in a group of ten. Further, Cross hosts interfaith discussions with representatives from Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. While comparative religion studies are typical at evangelical schools, a multi-religious populace is not.
"Our campus is very diverse on ethnic grounds anyway, so the religious diversity doesn't shock people," says President Sloan, noting that the student body comprises Hispanics, whites, and blacks in roughly equal parts. "I'm guessing we are the most diverse evangelical school in the country."
Houston's religious composition appears to have evolved with the industrial landscape. Since the 1980s, a municipal facelift initiative has improved parks, cultural centers, and theaters. New businesses emerged in aerospace, technology, and health-care industries.
Surfing the industrial wave have been large numbers of emigrants from historically Islamic countries. The 50,000 Muslims living in Houston, the fourth largest U.S. city by population, make Houston the second-fastest urban incubator of Islam. It hosts a group claiming to be the largest Islamic community organization in the nation. The Islamic Society of Greater Houston operates 17 mosques, 4 schools, a funeral parlor, a senior citizens center, and a social service center doling out $40,000 per month along with free medical and legal services.