Monday, November 10, 2008

Greeks Who Seek Greater Religious Experience

Christian fraternities offer different path

It's 11 a.m. Saturday, and whiskey is flowing at the big houses on fraternity row at the University of Alabama. Guys in ties and baseball caps are laughing and dancing with sorority girls in bright dresses as a band blares away just around the corner.

Smack in the middle of that row is the Lambda Sigma Phi house, but things are a lot quieter inside. Parents are helping put out the lunch spread before a Crimson Tide football game and a few members lounge in the den watching TV.

A Bible passage decorates the door to the main room. "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord," it begins.

Lambda Sigma Phi is part of a wave of Christian fraternities and sororities that has gained a foothold on U.S. college campuses, sometimes despite the wishes of school administrators. Members get pumped up about prayer, Bible study and service projects, passions they say campus officials should and often do embrace as fresh amid a Greek culture typically seen as centered on hazing, keg parties and little else.

Founded in 2001, Lambda Sigma Phi hopes to show other groups at the university what Jesus is all about.

"We're almost in a bubble because we're surrounded by all this. That's why we're here on Jefferson Avenue, to minister to these guys," said chapter president Daniel Weaver. "We want to be a light on this campus."

Many social fraternities and sororities have Christian tenets in their teachings, and Christian-lifestyle fraternities have existed for generations. Several began about 80 years ago to promote faith-based fellowship during the Roaring Twenties.

Greek-letter organizations that promote Christian practices have become more common in recent years with young evangelicals seeking new ways to live out their faith and parents looking for a haven from the drunken daze that often happens in college.

At least 210 exist on campuses nationwide from the West Coast to the Deep South, where they are most common. But the groups are also strong in parts of the Midwest and in Southern states along the Atlantic coast.

Rules against drinking are common in these groups, along with Bible studies and service projects that resemble church-based missions work.

Alpha Delta Chi, a Christian sorority with 14 active chapters nationwide, is straightforward about its membership requirements: Churchgoing Christians only. No smoking or illegal drugs. No premarital sex. And please, no drinking to the point that it would reflect badly on Christianity.

A small committee works with members who break the rules, said Kiran Thadhani, president of Alpha Delta Chi at Georgia Tech, where a chapter began five years ago. But the group says it isn't just about rules, it's about young women trying to live like Christ.

"All the girls are in Bible studies. We also do sisterhood retreats and outreach," she said. "Many girls work at soup kitchens, go on summer mission trips and work right here on homelessness and poverty issues in Atlanta."

Many campuses welcome the combination of old-time religion with Greek-letter social groups, but others haven't.

At the University of Florida, Beta Upsilon Chi filed a federal discrimination suit last year after administrators refused to officially recognize the fraternity because it required members to be Christians. The school considered the requirement discriminatory, and the fraternity claimed it was wrongly deprived of meeting space and the ability to recruit on campus.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the school to recognize the group as a fraternity while the lawsuit winds its way through the legal system, and Beta Upsilon Chi has asked the court to make that recognition permanent.

An attorney for the Christian Legal Society, Timothy F. Tracey, said Christian Greek-letter groups have been opening on the nation's campuses more frequently since the mid-1990s, and such court fights have been rare.

"I can think of four or five cases that have come up with fraternities like this," said Tracey, who represents the group at Florida. "You'd think that (schools) would look at this and see the benefit of having them on campus, but they don't always."

At Auburn University, members of Alpha Kappa Lambda decided in 2000 to switch the focus of their fraternity from athletics to Christianity. Drew Bonner, a junior from Birmingham, Ala., visited the group and liked what he saw.

"I didn't really look into fraternities at first because of the reputation," said Bonner. "I met a bunch of these guys through the semester and started looking into it. I really liked it. I'm active in a church here, too, but it's not the same as this."

AKL, part of a secular fraternity with more than 30 chapters, rents a house and throws parties, but without alcohol and members keep the fun pretty tame. "Animal House" it's not.

"We pride ourselves on not hazing," said Bonner. "We consider the pledges to be brothers in Christ, and we treat them that way."

Traditional, secular fraternities also have banned hazing - the physical or mental abuse of new members - as arrests and lawsuits over the practice threatened the Greek system. But it persists in places.

Bonner's group, like many Christian fraternities or sororities, is small by big-campus standards. Alpha Kappa Lambda's membership hovers between 30 and 35 - less than half the size of many Auburn fraternities - even though its semester dues of $750 are much cheaper than many.

At Alabama, Lambda Sigma Phi lost about 40 members last year in a split over whether to become more like a traditional fraternity. "We really stood up against it because we wanted to remain Christian," said Weaver, the president.

The group only has about 30 members now, which is fine with Weaver and his fraternity brothers. They often feel like they're under scrutiny for their beliefs, but they say they're not willing to sacrifice their faith for parties.

Clete Hux, a Presbyterian minister who has two sons in Lambda Sigma Phi, said he hopes the group sticks to its principles. He said he's got a peace of mind that eludes many parents who send their children off to college.

"You know there's not going to be any wild parties going on. They have accountability groups and Bible studies," he said. "It's kind of furthering what you as parents instill in your children."

Associated Press writer Peter Prengaman in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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