Students at Southern Adventist University have not been attending Vespers this semester as much as they did in the past, according to Chaplain and Vice President for Spiritual Life Joseph Khabbaz.
Vespers attendance within the two previous years, determined by the number of enrichment credits submitted, ranged between 800 to 1,000, per vespers according to Vice President for Student Development Dennis Negron.
Khabbaz reported that Vespers attendance this semester declined from 551 students attending in-person and 501 students attending online the first week on Aug. 28, to 290 students attending in-person and 190 students attending online the fifth week on Sept. 25.
When a poll on the Accent’s Instagram account asked students if they had been attending vespers this semester, 22%, or 46 poll-takers, answered “yes,” and 78%, or 163 poll-takers, answered “no.”
When students who answered “yes” were asked why they continued to attend vespers this semester, their answers ranged from a desire to “meet others” and “grow closer to God,” to a desire to “open the Sabbath” and “be connected to a community of believers.”
Some of the answers students gave for not attending Vespers included being “concerned about COVID-19,” “It doesn’t feel as engaging” and “not mandatory.”
Senior religious studies major Maddie Harrison chose not to attend Vespers this semester in order to make seating more available for students who feel a need to attend.
“The main reason I don’t go is primarily because I don’t really have to go. Since [Vespers] is requiring reservations now, I feel like, for those people that really, really want to and need to go, [me not going] gives them the opportunity to go,” Harrison said.
According to Khabbaz, enrichment credits were required at the beginning of the semester but canceled after administration decided not to require attendance for classes.
“We wanted to make sure that the students experienced consistent requirements across campus,” Khabbaz said.
Khabbaz said the worship experience at Vespers has changed this semester to be mindful of everyone’s safety. Organizers have spaced out seating, required reservations beforehand and eliminated audience singing.
“I think [canceling enrichment credits] is going to impact students differently depending on their background and context and their own spiritual walk,” Khabbaz said. “I think the experience of just being physically distanced…and the fact that [students] can’t sing during worship, I think that took the experience away more than the credit itself.”
Harrison agreed. “I think music is a large part of worship. Taking it out like that is going to affect people in a very impactful way, because some people are able to understand God most that way. … But at the same time, I can see why they’re doing it.”
Khabbaz said there are still ways for students to stay spiritually connected on campus despite social distancing, such as online devotionals, online LifeGroups and meeting online with a chaplain.