Solitary two-mile treks from one side of Athens to the other are a Friday afternoon ritual for Abdulsamad Olajide Yusuf.
For 35 minutes, Yusuf faces “difficult” walking, dodging honking cars and freight trucks and rushing through busy streets on a freezing December afternoon. His mission: to arrive on time for the jummah prayer at the Al-Huda Islamic Center. Upon arriving at the one-story pastel yellow house, the freshman University of Georgia doctoral student struggles to catch his breath. At the entrance, he spots a police car, a familiar sight.
Religious composition within the Athens and UGA communities is not recorded – the last time data was collected was in 2010 by the Association of Religion Data Archives. According to the report, 42,101 of a total of 116,414 Clarke County residents have been registered as Christian adherents. Other religious communities listed in the report were Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus and Orthodox Jews.
Walking through the UGA campus and Athens, the overwhelming presence of Christian churches is also visible. There are churches for many denominations and representations, including Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists.
In a Bible-belt state, campus organizations like the UGA Wesley Foundation and civic institutions like the Church of Athens are part of what amounts to about 96 churches in the region, according to The Red & Black’s estimate. .
These demographics reflect a thriving Christian community compared to minority religious groups such as Muslims, Hindus, or Jews, who make up only a portion of the many religious communities in Athens.
For non-Christians in the city, this prompts a deeper search for connection to their religious identities with slim options in the classical city.
The number of diverse religious institutions between UGA and Athens today can be counted on the one hand. The programming consists of two Jewish organizations, a synagogue, a mosque, and a multicultural organization for Indian students of various faiths, ranging from Hinduism and Sikhism to Buddhism.
The million dollar question of why this trend has occurred can be traced to one of a few common denominators: private funds.
“UGA is a public institution, so we have separation of church and state. Now, due to the separation of church and state, only institutions that have local private support are in a privileged position to provide support to their students on campus,” said Hisham Qureshi, world religions instructor at UGA.
Qureshi, also a Ph.D. candidate studying religious diversity on campus, said it is a double-edged sword as minority religions do not have the resources or facilities provided by the university for an adequate base of spirituality.
Hillel, a Jewish community center that sits in the heart of Five Points on Milledge Avenue, receives financial support from many places, including donors, philanthropic organizations and grants, according to UGA Hillel chapter director Jeremy Lichtig.
The organization of more than 1,500 students is currently constructing a new building on Baxter Street across from UGA’s freshman high-rises.
Beyond the UGA community, Al-Huda is a non-profit religious institution funded by charitable donations and is the only mosque in Athens. Founded in 1987 by a group of Muslim students from UGA, the mosque currently cannot afford to hire a full-time imam, the person who leads prayers.
Instead, money is allocated for police security – a necessity for the protection of the Muslim community, Qureshi said.
Despite Yusuf’s busy schedule, the Nigerian student rarely skips the trip from Mary Frances Early College of Education to Al-Huda. Even on unbearably cold days, he spends his “already limited resources” on $16 round-trip Ubers and Lyfts, simply because there are no available transit buses that cross campus to the mosque.
“It is important to walk to the mosque to be close to my creator and walking a long distance should not prevent me from doing so. I usually observe other prayers in my room because there is no no designated space at school to do it, and I only do it when I come home in the evening,” Yusuf said.
Although room 349 at the Tate Student Center is reserved for silent reflection, “brief prayer” and meditation, according to the UGA Campus Ministry Association website, some students are unaware of this or are taken with limited time during busy school days.
Yusuf said universities in northern Nigeria were blooming with a plethora of mosques and streets filled with community markets vibrated with the sound of a chanting imam. But now it is limited to the UGA Muslim Student Association and Al-Huda. Yusuf said he would “feel out of place” in Athens without the two organisations.
Without adequate funding, MSA also struggles in that same financial sentiment, according to UGA President and Junior Raafay Syed.
“What we (MSA) can provide is very limited, and it creates this barrier for people to grow this Muslim community and support it for the future,” Syed said.
Syed said until November 2021, the Muslim organization founded in 1992 was not a club under UGA’s Multicultural Services and Programs initiative, which is working to envision a UGA that “honors the identities, perspectives, and worldviews of our entire community,” according to the MSP website.
For the first time in 30 years, the MSA got the “first dibs” on the Tate Student Center’s MSP intersection space as a recurring place of worship for the rest of the semester, Syed said.
A cozy scene of out of place furniture and large blue tarps as makeshift prayer rugs cover the room and quick conversations between friends ensue. The only element not attached to the fundamental Friday prayers is an imam who leads the sermons, according to Syed.
Syed said a small turnover of imams, including UGA Muslim professors, community members and even himself, is common because the organization is not sustainably funded. In fact, one of their main sources of economic support comes from Al-Huda, also with limited funds.
“UGA is not proud of its Muslim students — it’s like we’re outnumbered and have no support. This limits the progress we can achieve as well as a meaningful presence from other religious organizations,” Syed said.
MSA, which has 300 members, is one of the largest multicultural organizations alongside the Black Affairs Council and the Indian Cultural Exchange, according to Syed.
Although there is also a smaller Jewish population in Athens, a sense of community helps quell feelings of isolation.
“Retreat,” said Abby Ventimiglia, a second-year Jewish student at UGA. “That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of the Jewish community here. I don’t necessarily need to go to Hillel and Chabad every day or every week, but I know it’s always there – it’s just around the corner, like a neighborhood of my own.”
When she first arrived in Athens and UGA, Ventimiglia quickly immersed herself in her Jewish identity and joined Hillel, the historically Jewish sorority Sigma Delta Tau, and Rohr Chabad House, a Jewish student organization in UGA. She is also a substitute teacher at the Congregation for the Children of Israel, the only synagogue in Athens.
Ventimiglia said while she doesn’t necessarily believe in God, she finds herself guided by the community when it comes to Judaism — a support system of familiar faces with people who stand up for and understand her.
Religious diversity in a particular “capitalist society” bolsters dominant religious beliefs, such as Christianity, to prevail and “even fend off others under the guise of neutrality,” said Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Jesse Houle.
Houle, who grew up Catholic, said they resonate with Buddhism but are not devout to any particular faith. Although there are no rooted Buddhist temples as part of Athens, the Athens Zen Group is a non-denominational sangha, or Buddhist community, of lay practitioners of Zen Buddhism and meditation.
“I think in some ways Athens is doing a better job than many communities, but in some ways I think we still have a long way to go. The lack of spaces is perhaps both a symptom and a driving force,” Houle said.
While there are no direct government solutions to expanding religious diversity in Athens, Houle said he was “hopeful” about the creation of the Human Relations Commission. This comes after the passing of the Mayor and ACC Commission’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance in August 2021.
The Human Relations Commission was created because of the ACC Government’s commitment to “build an Athens-Clarke County where every community member and/or visitor belongs by prioritizing inclusion, to diversity and equity in government policies, processes and decision-making,” according to the ACGOV website.
The group will serve as a way for residents to engage the government as an institution to drive positive change, but does not specifically focus on increasing religious diversity. Houle said advancing this needs to happen outside of government institutions.
“One of the things we’ve learned from spiritual practices is the power of people to unite around common causes and common beliefs and bring about transformation in their own lives and be the change,” said Swell.