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  • Writer's pictureRev Liza M. Neal

Chaplains To All

First published in Inside Higher Ed, March 2010

Walk the paths that wind through Hampshire College’s wooded campus and you will find offerings left behind: Prayer flags and God’s eyes hang from trees. Stacked stones mark certain paths, with students referring to one cairn-filled location as the Zen Garden. Poems, hopes, meditations, and prayers are left behind, stashed in plastic lockers. These items are continually shifting and replenishing.

No one organized this. It is a spontaneous outpouring of spirituality that is powerful, personal, creative, and unconventional — like our students themselves. Yet the world often seems to perceive mine as an institution hostile to religion and devoid of spirituality. The Princeton Review’s college guide includes Hampshire on its annual where-God-is-ignored-on-a-daily-basis list.

Where God is Ignored On A Daily Basis

It is true that 40-year-old Hampshire did not have a chaplaincy program for its first 33 years. It is true that politics on campus are progressive, challenging, and fervent. It is true that Hampshire students, like college-age students elsewhere, examine, question, and possibly eschew ideas they were raised with. It is not true that these realities are mutually exclusive with a rich and deep spiritual life.

The stereotypes assume my campus does not have religious students. This could not be further from the truth. We have Ash Wednesday and Good Friday services. We have a weekly Bible study. We celebrate the High Holidays, Passover, and have a kosher kitchen and kosher mod (an apartment-style residential area). We have Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, Buddhist monks, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Roman Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Baha’i, Hindu, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and more. We also have mystics, atheists, and antagonists of organized religion who want to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

The hardest thing for more orthodox students is not so much practicing their faith, but dealing with others’ prejudices — traditional religious practice is sometimes assumed to be outdated at best and, at worst, oppressive and wrong. I am myself a graduate of Hampshire. As a student, I was part of the Hampshire Christian Fellowship, a group of students from a variety of denominations who meet weekly for support, prayer, Bible study, and dinner. Many students, staff, and faculty did not know we existed. They felt free to make statements inside and outside the classroom about "those Christians." When discussing great Christian leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, faith was separated from work as if it were an aberration.

Like my friends in the other recognized religious group on campus at that time, the Jewish Student Union, we kept our spiritual practice to ourselves. Once someone got to know one of us as a reasonable, intelligent, caring human being, then if it happened to come up, we might reveal ourselves.

When — after working as a counselor, attending Yale Divinity School, and being ordained in the United Church of Christ — I returned to campus as director of spiritual life, I was surprised to find out that this was not just true for students. Through countless confessional conversations I discovered that there are far more individuals — students, staff, and faculty — seeking to deepen the spirituality in their lives than those who are derisive and dismissive.

Change Began in 2003

In 2003, Hampshire contracted with chaplains at neighboring Mount Holyoke College to reach out to and serve religious students. That agreement opened a door for exploration of campus needs. In 2006, the college started its own independent spiritual life program, uniquely suited to Hampshire, and radically different from other college chaplaincy models.

We all seek meaning in our lives. We all have questions about how to live. What does it mean to be ethical? How do we find compassion when it is difficult? How do we communicate across difference? How do we understand the value of another being? What is our purpose? These are questions that we explore. They do not have to be answered by religion or faith. In fact, they do not have to be answered. But we allow space and support for the questions themselves.

Twice a month faculty, staff, and alumni relate their "spiritual journeys" over lunch. They share where they have sought meaning in their lives, how that has shifted and changed, and where they are now. It provides an opportunity to ponder these questions and share parts of ourselves that we usually keep separate. It illustrates how each of us answers those questions differently, how it is an evolving process over one’s lifetime, and how we may connect intimately with someone whose labels are not our own. Last semester we chose to celebrate an “atheist holiday” as a chance to explore these questions from that point of view. We had holiday foods (cake and pie) and celebratory decorations (balloons, etc.). We held a discussion about what it means to be an atheist and what it means to be both atheist and spiritual. Participating individuals shared information about their backgrounds, where they discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and what brings them through difficult times. Discussion focused on defining one’s self through the positive, or what one does believe and value, as opposed to the negative, or what one does not believe and value.

In a fast-paced world driven by achievement and consumerism, spiritual life provides balance. Where does one go to address one’s sense of well-being on a college campus? Our spiritual life program provides opportunities for students to focus on connections between mind, body, and spirit. We address wellness issues such as coping with death and loss, fragmentation and despair, and loneliness and isolation, seeking out complementary practices.

Our entire program is grounded in practice. We offer a wide variety of meditation, movement, and yoga every day. During spring break, we take a service trip. The past two years we have gone to New Orleans, and next year we plan to make a trip to Haiti. This annual trip provides more than service. It is an opportunity to practice compassion and ethics, to get outside of our minds and live our truths in our bodies.

In a world divided by ignorance or hatred of other religions and religious violence, we explore divisive issues, providing education and models of communication and community building across difference. We regularly host workshops and speakers around Israel/Palestine, religion and science, misperceptions of Islam, and queer spirituality, to name just a few, as well as participating in and leading intergroup dialogues. We strive to teach that true diversity that exists within every system of belief and every group of people. We seek to create a different kind of community on campus: a community that truly values and embraces its heterogeneous nature; a community that explores other belief systems; a community that communicates with compassion and nonviolence.

In short, we serve our entire community. Multi-faith is not enough of a definition. Religious pluralism is not enough of a definition. Meaning, ethics, well-being, systems of belief, death, and tragedy — they affect us all. Hampshire’s current spiritual life staff comes from four different faith traditions: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. But there is no requirement that our four chaplaincy positions must be filled by members of particular faiths. Instead, we focus on leadership in different areas, including contemplative life, intercultural community, religious life and political intersections, and wellness and ritual. In reality, a Christian chaplain may have a completely different faith belief and practice from a Christian student, yet there is no question that it is his or her job to advise the student. As spiritual advisers, though coming from particular faiths, we are chaplains to all. We do not have to have the same beliefs in order to understand and help another grow. We do have to have the ability to connect to those who are different and the drive to constantly educate ourselves about other ways of being.

We lead specific holiday services pertinent to our own traditions, such as High Holidays and Ash Wednesday, and weddings, memorial or baptismal services. Students also lead services on campus, with guidance from the staff, and these shift according to group needs. We currently have student-led Quaker and Shabbat services, and other student-led events that include elements of worship but are not services in the traditional sense.

In the last five years, student groups on campus of a spiritual, philosophical, or religious nature grew from 2 to 15. Programs run daily, with anywhere from 2 to 300 in attendance, and provide a place where students, staff, and faculty come together as one.

Deeply Spiritual, With & Without Religion

Be original, show off your style, and tell your story.

As a student, whenever I did share my spiritual practice and theological beliefs, I found students, staff, and faculty with beliefs of their own. I found many who understood themselves as deeply spiritual even though that might have nothing to do with religion. Almost everyone was seeking to live ethically in the world, to somehow make it a better place, and to seek a deeper purpose.

That is spiritual life at Hampshire College.

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