Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Two

This is the latest installment in a long story about my struggles with BYU's administration after finding out that although I'd been allowed a beard in order to act in Church films (despite a rule BYU has had against beards since the late 1960s), a Sikh friends of mine had been denied permission to keep a beard in accordance with Khalsa Sikh religious practice. If you're interested in this story, you should probably start reading at the beginning.

Part Two: Interfaith Irony

I left Otterbein College from 2002-2004 to serve as an LDS missionary in the former East Germany. In accordance with missionary guidelines, I was clean shaven all that time. The night before I went home from my mission, I stayed with two missionaries I knew well who were serving as Assistants to the Mission President. In the morning, as they got ready to take me to the airport, I left my razor on their bathroom counter and told them I wouldn't be needing it any more. They laughed. Many of the missionaries had seen old pictures, and knew about the beard I was waiting to grow back.

After my mission, I didn't cut beard and hair at all. I wanted a litte bit of the Khalsa look of my maternal-side ancestors back. This helped when I hosted a Sikh holiday function on my college campus as a way to break down some post-9/11 stereotypes against Sikhs. The beard meant more connection to my paternal-side history, too. When I substitute taught for my father, a Jewish friend of his gasped. She told him later I looked like I'd walked straight out of a shtetl into the school. A professor of mine, himself Jewish, invited me to be part of a production of "The Merchant of Venice" that would work innovatively against the play's anti-Semitism.

More importantly, I felt like myself again. It was nice to look in the mirror and see the beard which is an important part of my own self-image. I was happy to have it back.

Tuition had drastically increased at Otterbein, though, and the scholarships were in fixed-dollar amounts that didn't change after admission. If I'd been re-entering as a freshman, I might have been offered a package that covered all school costs again, but as a returning sophomore, the difference between new costs and old scholarships was something like seven thousand dollars, and increasing each year. I only stayed in school for two quarters before dropping out and trying to transfer.

Very few colleges offer much scholarship money to transfer students, so I needed to find a place that was more inherently affordable. The obvious option was church-sponsored, low-tuition BYU. I applied, got accepted, and braced myself to shave my beard in January 2006.

Since I wasn't yet a student, I did not shave my beard before visiting my sister, who was just graduating from BYU, the month before.

The day before I got on the plane to visit her, I saw a call for submissions to the Student Religious Education Symposium on the BYU website. Any student could submit a paper on a variety of religious topics, including comparative religion, to the symposium. Good papers would be given a conference slot; the best prizes would also be given a significant cash prize. I'd won an award in comparative religious studies at Otterbein six months before, so this seemed like a great opportunity. The one difficulty was that the paper was due 5 pm the day after I'd arrive.

I packed several books with me and spent the plane flight outlining a paper that described various strong parallels between Sikh and Mormon faiths. I thought it would be a great gift to give a Mormon audience--the awareness that across the world, other religious teachers had advocated ideologies and adopted symbols which were not unlike what our own faith had experienced and taught.

When I got to Provo, my sister took me with her to campus. She'd need my help in the evening, but she logged me into a library computer so I could type up my manuscript for submission during the day. She'd come check on me periodically, she said, and I could use her student ID to print. I sat down and began to type furiously in a mad race against the clock.

It didn't last long. An attendant came by and asked to see my "beard card," proof that the University had authorized me to grow a beard on medical grounds or for an approved artistic project. I explained to the attendant that I wasn't a student yet, but would be the subsequent semester and was eligible for the contest. It didn't matter, he said. Without a beard card, I needed to leave the area. Hoping that this particular attendant was unusually strict, I found a lab several floors away and asked permission to work, but was denied there as well.

With only a few hours until the deadline, I found myself sitting on a bench in the atrium of the library, frustrated that because I looked like a Sikh, I might not be able to finish a paper that suggested the possibility of strong positive Sikh-Mormon relations.

My sister found me there and took me to a computer lab deep in the basement of the Fine Arts building where she personally knew the attendant and asked him to turn a blind eye to my presence. I finished the paper at 4:45 pm.

I hadn't been happy, before that day, about the prospect of shaving my beard to finish college, but I'd been fairly resigned to it. What place doesn't have a bizarre but basically harmless rule or two? Besides, I had kept such a rule for two years as a missionary: I could manage for the six months it would take me to finish my undergrad. Having been thrown off of library computers where I would have otherwise gone unnoticed made me uneasy, though. Was this rule entirely harmless?

Next up: in Part Three, I go back to school--but not quite the way I'd expected.


  1. I'm glad you're telling this story! I can't wait for the next installment.

  2. I hope the answer is "no, this rule was far from harmless."


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