STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep, and let's get one more installment of our series Generation Next.
Our guest correspondent, Judy Woodruff, has interviewed high school and college students and young workers across the country. Tonight, many PBS stations will air a documentary based on Judy's travels. In the last of MORNING EDITION's Generation Next reports, one young woman describes her own journey.
Ms. GILLIAN SIPLE (Senior, Davidson College, North Carolina): My name is Gillian Siple and I'm a senior at Davidson College in North Carolina. If I had to define myself in a few words, the first word I think I would use would be -spiritual.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm Judy Woodruff. When you're born, your religion, your faith, may get handed to you by your parents and you may accept it without question. But Gillian Siple is typical of her generation. She sees faith not as an inheritance, but as a choice.
Ms. SIPLE: Perhaps growing up in the diversity of ideas and cultures and religions today, it's so much easier to find through the Internet and through television this breadth of information that maybe the youth of today aren't sure if the way of their parents is the way that perhaps they want to follow. And I think that's wonderful.
WOODRUFF: Last year, for the whole year, Gillian left her own familiar surroundings at Davidson College and traveled to places she had never been.
(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)
Ms. SIPLE: Right now, I'm sitting in front of my computer looking at some video clips that a friend of mine sent me from our travels last year.
WOODRUFF: With a small group of students, Gillian traveled from China to Thailand to India. She meditated in monasteries and ashrams, lived and studied among Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims - not your typical study abroad program.
Ms. SIPLE: And where I grew up I never met somebody who is Buddhist or a Muslim. The diversity we had was Baptist or Presbyterian. And not until I probably went to college did I meet somebody of a different faith, other than my one friend who is Hindu.
WOODRUFF: Gillian's own faith was strong. Growing up, she attended a Presbyterian church near Columbia, South Carolina. Her parents she describes as liberal, college professors who encourage her to question.
Ms. SIPLE: I think as soon as I met another person in South Carolina who was a different religion other than Christianity, I said I want to know this person, I want to know what makes them tick. Religions are huge, meaning-making structures. How could I not want to know about someone else's life, someone else's world?
WOODRUFF: What role do you think your church played in, in all this?
Ms. SIPLE: In my church, growing up, there was a Sunday school teacher - I remember him coming up to me one day. I had come home from college and was preparing to go to study abroad. And he asked me, why would you want to go and study these religions of the world? You could attend my class, and I would tell you that they are all wrong.
I was so shocked by that comment. And I thought, that's exactly why I want to go out and learn from other people who practice these other religions.
(Soundbite of chanting)
I remember when I was in Thailand and living in the meditation center, and I was wearing the traditional garb of a yogi. I remember waking up at four o'clock in the morning and taking out my mat. And I can remember just thinking, what if my friends saw me now, would anyone recognize me? What - I am so far from the person and the life that I lived back at Davidson, right now. There's no remnant of that life on my body right now.
WOODRUFF: Even her faith began to fall away - first in Thailand, then in India. She says that when she meditated, she felt an uncommon sense of peace. She wondered - have I gone into this too deeply? Am I still a Christian? Or am I becoming something else?
Ms. SIPLE: During that time, I was trying to reconnect and pray to God, and feel the Christianity that I came from. And so, one night, I remember feeling pretty low. And it's hard to imagine how I could feel low in the midst of all that's going on. Maybe it's what culture shock feels like - to be so overwhelmed by something, that you've lost your balance. You've you're your lost footing.
So I went to pray in my room, I knelt and I closed my eyes, and I began with the words: dear God. But words didn't come out after that. I couldn't - I couldn't think of something to say. I couldn't think of anything because at that moment I just felt so disconnected from God.
I didn't feel like I could pray to somebody who I didn't - I didn't know anymore. And I stop in the middle of the prayer, and there was one moment that I said, if I lose this, if I don't believe this anymore, what am I? I've lost myself. I've lost what I come from. It was a horrible moment.
WOODRUFF: But it was just one moment in her travels and her travels are not over. Here's where Gillian is now, back at Davidson College, back in the faith she knows best: Christianity. It's stronger now, she says.
(Soundbite of music)
CHORUS: (Singing) Bless the Lord my soul…
WOODRUFF: She attends prayer and fellowship meeting, heads an interfaith group on campus, and still meditates - based on the teaching she learned in Thailand. She calls herself a Christian pluralist.
Ms. SIPLE: Pluralism sort of answers the age-old question of - are we the only ones who are right? Is Christianity the only way, and pluralism would answer that question, saying no, we're not the only ones. And it's we just standing from one religious tradition and being open to the validity, to the possibility of validity in other traditions.
WOODRUFF: But if you took this pretty far down a path, you could get to a point where an individual religion could be so diluted that it wouldn't stand for much of anything. Because if everyone in a congregation was going around exploring other faiths, saying - well, we need to bring back some of this and some of that - would that shake the foundations of that faith?
Ms. SIPLE: I think it definitely can shake the foundations of the faith. And I say, wonderful, shake the foundations. And I don't think that it's everybody's religious journey to go out and have conversations with people of other faiths. For me it's been important but I don't think that that is everyone's path.
WOODRUFF: Do you think it's more important to do that for your generation, the younger generation, than it was before?
Ms. SIPLE: Well, this current generation, the generation that I'm part of, Generation Y, is certainly growing up in a more diverse America. I think we will be the ones to answer what we stand for today. Are we a nation grounded in a single religion? I would answer, no, because of the different religions that have become a part and call themselves Americans. They are welcomed here. They are citizens.
And I think that if we would like to say that our identity is based on tolerance and acceptance, that we need to do a better job of doing that.
Gillian Siple, 21 years old, a religion major at Davidson College in North Carolina. She wants to leave us with an image of how she began to sort through the jumble of last year's journey. After her tour of Asia, she spent a week at the Taize Monastery in France, a place that attracts young people from around the world.
In a Taize service, there is chanting and reading from scripture, and long moments of silence.
Ms. SIPLE: Actually there is ten minutes or 15 minutes of silence. And I was amazed the first time I went at the powerful, piercing effect of being in a sanctuary with 1,000 or 2,000 young adults. And there's nothing. There's no speech, no music, complete silence. And the brothers of Taize never tell you what to do in that silence. You do what feels right for your religious practice.
I think that's what our generation is screaming for right now. People want not to be told what they should do, but to figure it out for themselves.
WOODRUFF: For NPR News, I'm Judy Woodruff.
INSKEEP: You can see photos from Gillian's travels at NPR.org. And tonight, many PBS stations will air "Generation Next," Judy Woodruff's documentary about the lives and views of young Americans.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.