Art by Whitney Powell | Powell illustrated a woman emerging from the Pacific Ocean near Santa Monica to symbolize renewal and the new beginning that can come with baptism, when the old self is washed away.
Some people seek faith and ponder its meaning in their daily life, others wonder what, if any, tradition is right for them.
These questions and more confront members of the wider Pepperdine community as they interact with the world. For some, these questions bring them closer to their religion, for others, it leads them to walk away.
“I know that whatever belief comes out on top, I will be that much more cemented in,” junior Philosophy major Dahn Hugh said. “Because think about it, I’ll have studied all those different ideologies, I’ll have found what I actually believe in, right, like this is something that I went out and found for myself.”
Faith for oneself
Though he grew up Presbyterian, Hugh does not associate with any religion. Hugh said he had an aversion to the religion because he felt his parents imposed it on him, and he wanted to explore other faiths and experience different tenets of wisdom for himself.
“I’m one of those types of people who wants to read the Quran, I want to read the Torah,” Hugh said. ‘I want to go out and research teachings of Confucius and Buddhism and Islam, and I want to be exposed to those teachings. I think we have a responsibility as people.”
Religion Professor Dyron Daughrity said a common problem with religious polls are the “nones,” people who mark themselves as not having a faith because they do not see themselves in any of the poll options offered. People who mark “none” may be extremely spiritual, but they may not resonate with the organized religions offered, or know the specifics about their denomination.
Almost a third of adults in the United States do not identify with any religious identity, according to a December 2021 Pew Research Center poll.
“It [can be] the opposite of atheist,” Daughrity said. “It could be someone very interested in faith.”
College-aged respondents are more likely to mark “none” than older generations, Daughrity said, as people move from strict organized categories to nondenominational places of worship.
While Hugh said he does not subscribe to a particular organized religion, he does believe in a higher power. Hugh explained the difference between himself and a computer — for Hugh, while both he and the computer are made of the basic building blocks of matter, there is a reason he is alive while the computer isn’t.
Hugh said he knows there is a possibility he won’t find a belief system that is perfect for him — this journey is a continuous search.
“I think there is a higher power, that’s not what I’m trying to figure out,” Hugh said. “I’m trying to figure out the way I should go about it.”
Baptism at the Brock House
Penelope Soler-Sheffield, first-year Computer Science major, said she grew up Roman Catholic but moved away from her faith in high school. While her mother was Catholic, Soler-Sheffield said her father was Baptist. Presently, many of the churches Soler-Sheffield attends are nondenominational evangelical churches.
While she attended Catholic school, Soler-Sheffield said her father would teach her and her siblings about the Baptist faith. As she attended Catholic services, Soler-Sheffield said it felt more like a routine than an active part of her faith.
As a baby, Soler-Sheffield said she received baptism in the Catholic Church, but in high school, she regularly thought about being rebaptized in a different faith tradition.
Daughrity said the majority of the world’s Christians baptize their children as infants. During the Reformation, a group known as the Anabaptists argued Scripture did not contain any examples of infant baptism. This group grew in size, and today, many Baptist denominations baptize believers from the “age of accountability” — around 10 years of age and older. Other movements followed their lead, like the Churches of Christ, Pepperdine’s denominational affiliation, which has Baptist origins, and many nondenominational and Pentecostal churches today.
At Pepperdine, Soler-Sheffield began attending the Well. President Jim Gash, as a guest speaker, invited students to a separate baptism event at the Brock House on Dec. 2, 2021.
Soler-Sheffield said she watched other students enter the pool to be baptized and was inspired to join herself.
“When I went into the water and when I came up from the water, all I heard was cheering,” Soler-Sheffield said. “And it was really nice knowing that I had this big group of people cheering me on and being there for me while I was committing myself to the faith, finally.”
After her baptism, Soler-Sheffield said her faith is stronger. Now, she attends weekly Bible studies through the Alpha Omega ministry, which is affiliated with the International Churches of Christ, a different denomination than Pepperdine’s.
“There were a lot of different churches that I went to and I was like, ‘I don’t like this, this isn’t what I need, or want,’” Soler-Sheffield said. “And then finding the one that I actually really love was so satisfying, and it felt like a weight lifted off my chest.”
Offering a new perspective
Brittany Weinstock, senior Vocal Performance major, said she grew up with two faith traditions — her father is Jewish and her mother is Christian — and she holds beliefs and traditions from both religions.
Weinstock said she celebrated two baptisms — one in an Episcopalian church when she was an infant and her parents were still searching for a home church, and one in a nondenominational church at age 8.
“Even though I was still a child, it honestly solidified that faith in me because I was old enough to be able to understand a little more of what was happening, obviously,” Weinstock said. “And so it felt more like a choice and more kind of a commitment instead of something I had just been blanketed into when I was younger.”
Part of growing up in one’s faith, Weinstock said, is questioning it. Questions Weinstock faced include the history of Christian persecution against the Jewish people. Weinstock said she always tries to bring these questions to God but never felt she had to choose which faith to practice. Weinstock attends both churches and synagogues.
“Especially in terms of history and some of the Christian persecutions of the Jewish people that really, I struggled with, but at the end of the day, I had to realize that that was kind of a human interpretation of God and the Bible and the Christian doctrine and not God,” Weinstock said.
Weinstock said she plans to continue being active in both aspects of her faith.
“I’m able to give my peers and my teachers and everything new perspective on that faith and so I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily one moment, but it’s kind of lots of little conversations and little moments that I’m able to really be glad for the unique experience that I’ve had in my faith background,” Weinstock said.
Parallel experiences shape faith
Despite being a priest for Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church, Rev. Matt Murphy said he was not always extremely religious — rather, for 20 years, he turned away from the church before leading a youth ministry at the age of 34.
Originally born Catholic, Murphy said his mother’s prayers contributed to him rejoining the church.
“There’s a moment where you either have to accept the faith for yourself or try a new path, and I tried to blaze new paths,” Murphy said. “Because I obviously knew more than Jesus and my parents at age 14. I started out on a 20-year journey, literally 20 years of self discovery, and I discovered that I never found happiness. I never found joy or lasting joy.”
Murphy said he prayed for guidance and felt called to the priesthood.
“So I answered the call,” Murphy said. “It was a six-year song and dance. So it wasn’t overnight. It did not happen overnight. It was six years of what we call discernment, which is when you start praying to a depth that discovers God’s will for our lives.”
Murphy said two parallel moments define his faith experience: The death of his father when Murphy was 27, and the death of his mother when he was in seminary, 20 years later.
”I thought it was beautiful,” Murphy said. “Such a beautiful moment because I knew that, I knew the hope of something on the other side of that eternal life. And I don’t know how you can live without that hope. I mean, that’s why I say at 27 I didn’t have that hope. At that time I had that sense of hope, and I just found that in the same event — the death of two different parents — one was despair and one was unbelievable hope.”
In his third and last year of seminary, Murphy said there was a mandatory hospital ministry component. Though he was never a big fan of hospitals, Murphy said he was able to see a different side of the ministry.
“I realized that the bed was an altar,” Murphy said. “And we’re all celebrating around this flat surface of the altar and the person who was in need of our prayer most was literally on the altar. It is such a wonderfully sacred space and I’ve seen a lot of people have really, really deep questions from those encounters.”
Murphy said the sacraments provide people moments to encounter God, but there is also something beautiful in watching someone who wanted nothing to do with God turn it around.
“Those are my favorites, quite frankly,” Murphy said. “Although I do like traveling with people who have these aha moments, I call them epiphanies, right? This moment of revelation and just trying to help them journey with Him to understand how God is speaking through that moment. It’s amazing when people have those aha moments. It changes everything.”
“A sinner saved by grace”
Dawn Megli, a reporter for the Thousand Oaks Acorn newspaper and Seaver 200 guest speaker, said her faith changed over time.
“I’m nothing but a sinner saved by grace,” Megli said. “I have a deep and abiding faith in loving God, and I believe in a God that always stands on the side of the oppressed. I believe in a God who is a healer. And I believe God is love, that God is life.”
Megli said she grew up an eighth-generation Mormon, more formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her ancestors immigrated to the United States, adopted the faith and eventually settled in Utah.
At the age of 17, Megli said an adult advisor sexually assaulted her on a high school trip.
Megli said she went through both civil and criminal court proceedings. Megli also sought spiritual counseling from her bishop, and though Megli believes the bishop tried his best, Mormons do not have professional clergy who only work as religious advisers — Megli’s bishop at the time doubled as an accountant.
“I think that he was probably really well intentioned, but he said all the wrong things, like he asked me what I was wearing that evening, which was really twisted,” Megli said. “And then he also asked me, or he would say things like, ‘Don’t worry, someone’s still gonna want to marry you anyway.’ So it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was not a place, like the place of spiritual truth, and it wasn’t a very nurturing or welcoming place for me after that, and so I fell away.”
Megli said she was an atheist for 15 years after the incident. She struggled with alcohol and drug addiction.
“I found my faith through a little glass pipe, you know, and so after my sexual assault, you know, I struggled with all sorts of mental health issues,” Megli said.
She was married twice before the age of 23 and had three children before 25, when she received her second DUI.
As a result of the DUI, Megli said she went to therapy, which helped her finish school and attend graduate school at University of Southern California. But she started drinking again, and in rehab, a fellow attendee convinced her to try meth and she got hooked.
Despite reaching success in her professional career as a journalist, Megli said she was in a very dark place. Her children joined a church day-care program, and Megli said a woman within the program befriended her, coming over to her house and offering aid.
“She showed me the love of God before she ever told me about the love of God,” Megli said. “One time I was having a really bad day. And so we just stood there and in my entryway she said, ‘Dawn, can I pray for you?’ And I said,’ Yeah,’ and I thought that meant that she was going to go home and pray for me. But instead she just stood there, and she wrapped her arms around my neck, and she just started praying. And she started praying to God like she really knew God.”
Megli said this experience put her on the path to finding her faith.
“And all of a sudden I just felt this warmth, just like radiating from the inside out, and it was just the first time in years that I felt OK, I felt safe,” Megli said. ”And then I felt loved. And that just kind of started me on this journey of faith.”
Megli said it was the Holy Spirit who helped her find her faith and her sobriety.
“When I say that God saved me, He literally saved me,” Megli said. “He saved me from dying. He saved me from an early death. He saved me from losing my kids. You know, He saved me from myself. You know, He saved me from my past. Like He saved me from throwing away my future.”
As a journalist, Megli said she has used her experiences to connect with sources, including when a mother reached out to her to inform Megli of a sexual assault case involving the woman’s 16-year-old daughter.
“I was able to bring this thing that happened in secrecy and in darkness to light, and I was just so grateful that God put me in position to be on the other end of it where instead of being victimized by people like this, that I was in a position to help bring people like this to accountability,” Megli said.
Contact Samantha Torre: firstname.lastname@example.org