What does Ames have to offer individuals who aren’t Christian?


Courtesy of Faseeh Fawaz on Unsplash

According to Christopher Chase, the Ames, Iowa, area has a diverse amount of religions and cultures.

Claire Hoppe

When one drives through Ames, Iowa, a church of some sort can be found in nearly every part of town. In fact, a simple Google search brings up 20 options of Christian churches in Ames. But this is not the case for religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and many more.

But for Mahmoud Mostafa Gshash, a third-year graduate student in electrical engineering at Iowa State and president of the Muslim Student Association on campus, the lack of places to worship for those other than Christians has never been a problem.

“I have called Ames home since 2015, and I have been an Iowa State Student ever since as well,” Gshash said. “I have never felt that there is [a] resource that is available to other[s] that is not available to me as well.”

Rabbi Leibel Jacobson, the director of Chabad of Ames/ISU, also said the smaller number of places to worship does not negatively affect the Jewish community on campus.

“The smaller the Jewish community, the less Jewish life you’re going to have,” Jacobson said. “So that’s just a reality.”

According to him, because the Jewish population in Ames and on Iowa State’s campus is so small, the Jewish community is satisfied with the number of resources and places of worship. Jacobson said that the Jewish Student Center serves as a “home base” for Iowa State students. From holiday services to meals together, Jacobson said the center offers students a place of community.

“That’s a big deal for them […] for students knowing that there’s, knowing that there’s something there for them,” Jacobson said.

Christopher W. Chase, an associate professor of teaching in philosophy and religious studies at Iowa State and vice president of the board of directors at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ames, noted that the Ames area is actually quite diverse in religions compared to other parts of Iowa.

“There are certainly smaller and rural areas where it is difficult to find physical fellowship beyond a few Christian denominations,” Chase said. “I would say that as far as other parts of Iowa are concerned, Ames is probably second to Des Moines and perhaps the Quad Cities in terms of religious diversity.”

Chase said that Ames offers multiple Protestant churches, a Catholic community, Mormon and Orthodox churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall and a Unity Church. Ames also boasts a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which hosts Buddhist and Pagan communities. Chase said that the nearest Hindu Temple is in Madrid, Iowa, which is around 15 to 20 minutes from Ames, and the nearest Sikh temple is located in Johnston, Iowa.

Gshash also said he has never felt disenfranchised by Ames and Iowa State because of the number of resources and places of worship for religions other than Christianity. In fact, Gshash said his Muslim community thrives when worshipping under one roof.

“Islam promotes unity, thus having multiple worship places in the same community is not something that Muslims look for,” Gshash said. “When people come to DAIC [Darul Arqum Islamic Center] for Friday and Eid prayers, they meet with other Muslims and feel a greater sense of community. On the contrary, if we had multiple worship places, the community will be divided, and differences will be strengthened instead of being discussed and communicated.”

Chase added that many religions don’t require a specific place of worship. According to him, certain religions only require knowing the time of day, time of year and what direction to pray toward.

“As for finding prayer area on campus, one of the beautiful things of being a Muslim is the ability to pray anywhere clean,” Gshash said. “Therefore, I have been able to pray in my office, the library and the multicultural center.”

While Chase said some religions don’t require a place of worship, he said the social component of religion is very important, especially during times of social stress like during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Jacobson, the pandemic did not negatively affect the Jewish student life on Iowa State’s campus. In fact, Jacobson said more students were involved in the Jewish community during that time. He attributes this to the lack of socialization during the 2020 lockdown.

Chase said religious groups in Ames have been finding ways to meet without a consistent, physical place of worship long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So I think a lack of close physical infrastructure can be a problem,” Chase said. “Again though, religious students here at ISU have innovated to form their own organizations and claim their own spaces to practice… It is certainly not the same as having a dedicated physical space, but many religious congregations have started out as small periodic home gatherings as it is.”

Chase also offered ideas on how Iowa State and Ames can continue to support all religious communities. According to him, Iowa State has to be careful about how it surveys the religion of incoming students, and there is data on this topic. He said that staff members who are beginning to look at that data could share information about students’ religious affiliations and needs.

“Also, ISU is in a unique position to address how it trains professionals such as public teachers and accountants with respect to religious needs of the populations they are going to serve,” Chase said. “We have a school of education, a school of business and programs such as religious studies and world languages and cultures to make sure that professionals-in-training have those needs met. In turn, those resources can be also used to train ISU staff according to their needs.”

Chase also discussed how Ames could be more respectful towards the religion of others.

“I think Ames as a whole needs to increase attention to the religious and other cultural needs of its increasingly diverse population,” Chase said. “For example, it is clear that at the middle and high school level there are students who need access to space to engage in short, religious obligations during the school day at certain times. This is a matter of equity.”

Chase said while this may be challenging, there is hope in the future that Ames will be able to successfully meet the religious needs of more students and community members.

“For many people, religion is part of daily life rather than a one day a week obligation, and both ISU and Ames need to catch up to that.”