A Different Kind of Completeness

Reported by Danielle Brown

The world wasn’t created from void at the hand of God. In the story that the Cherokee people believe, humans were born and raised on the shell of a giant turtle until it sunk under the ocean at the end of its life, letting the people walk off and settle onto the land. There they divided into seven clans. Cooper Wohlgemuth, a sophomore at George Fox University (GFU), has painstakingly traced his lineage to the bird clan through the bloodline of his Cherokee and Wyandotte mother.

Wohlgemuth grew up in St. Johns, Oregon primarily with his mom following the divorce of his parents and committed to GFU not for the religious community that draws most us here, but because he wanted to play competitive baseball and attend the William Penn Honors Program. Here, he studies political science and has three additional minors in history, English and philosophy.

Before coming to campus, Wohlgemuth knew immediately that he would stand out as someone who wasn’t Christian, but was hopeful that students would be accepting, though he admitted to being worried that they might feel like he was intruding on their safe haven and force their beliefs on him.

“It was honestly relieving that my freshman year roommate, Thomas Andrews, wasn’t a Christian,” said Wohlgemuth. In his experience with Christians on campus, he often felt like faith was being “shoved down [his] throat,” overwhelmed by everyone’s “obsessive passion for the Bible and God — to the point that it felt scary.” Even in his experience with Honors classes (which discuss mostly Christian texts), he felt like his thoughts were “falling on deaf ears.”

He confessed that at one point, a member of faculty approached him as he was walking to his truck by the baseball field and asked if he could pray for him. When Wohlgemuth told him that he wasn’t a Christian and therefore didn’t want to be prayed over, the person lashed out, telling him “how bad he was and how much better he could be with God.” A religion that Wohlgemuth might have considered accepting when he first started college is something that he has since concluded as “driven by fear and almost elitism.”

Instead, Wohlgemuth believes in animism: “where everything has a spirit.” In this afterlife, all the spirits are equal, reincarnated as living beings from the natural world once they die in order to maintain equilibrium between earth. Therefore, “when you die, something else is born--like a tree or an animal,” he said.

“Like,” Wohlgemuth gestured to the table, “you are supposed to treat this table as it were repurposed as though it were my grandfather. That’s how I should treat this world and everybody else.”

“My own faith gives me everything that I need, centered around happiness and being one with everything else,” Wohlgemuth shared. It teaches him to look for happiness in every single thing that he does, knowing that he is in complete control of his actions and able to experience things as a part of the earth.

And just like the rest of us learning as we walk in our faith, Cooper Wohlgemuth continues to grow in his, diving deeper into its cultural aspects and developing his own personal relationship as he discovers more about it.

Jessica Daugherty