A “both/and” model of engagement

Vibrant, multifaith chaplaincy exists where there is a “both/and” model of engagement, Kelly Stone explains.

EPS 10 seamless pattern of many different people profile heads.

Victoria Bar

My conversation with student leaders of the newly formed group, Reclaiming Christianity, is paused by a gentle knock on my office door. “What time is pizza being delivered for Jummah prayers and lunch?” asks one of the Muslim Student Association leaders. Satiated with the reassurance it’s on the way, we dive back into how we might reshape Christian dialogue around positive attributes of Christianity, rather than explaining what Christianity is not. We can hear students from Macalester Jewish Organization in the rabbi’s office practicing a song for Shabbat services, the sung words interspersed with laughter. Meanwhile, the joyful banter of the Muslim community grows as students spill in from class and prepare for Friday prayer.

The volume in the building rises steadily. There is a cacophony of activity.

And for just a moment, I savor the fullness that is all around me. It fills my heart.

As I wrap up my meeting with students, they spill into the kitchen, hoping to find leftovers from an event earlier this week. Without fail, others join in the pursuit of free food, typical of college life. They are comfortable. Some sit on the counters and others rummage through the fridge. They microwave leftovers, eat and talk in the crowded kitchen, lingering a while to be nourished. The nourishment comes in the form of community, conversation and scraps of food and organic passing of plates, cups and boxes of food. This is where moments of growth and transformation are seeded.

Individual needs, and the needs of others

Vibrant multifaith chaplaincy exists where there is a “both/and’’ model of engagement.

Housed within our office is support for both individual traditions specific to communities of practice and there is interaction between the communities of practice. A colleague once spoke of religious tension being built into multifaith space. In multifaith spaces, you are mindful of the presence of the other and negotiate space, continuously. In spaces such as this, individual needs are always put in conversation with the needs of the other. In 2022 and 2023, Passover, Ramadan and Holy Week overlapped and offered the opportunity for interaction, education and affirmation of a pluralism of practices. When the Jewish students who koshered our kitchen for Passover shared a dining space with students gathering for evening iftar – catered from a local East African restaurant – they shared more than space. Curiosity was a welcome guest at the tables as each person leaned in to learn more about the culture and practices of their peers.

Housed within our office is support for both individual traditions specific to communities of practice and there is interaction between the communities of practice.

These moments become high-impact experiences for college students, who grow in appreciation of another while experiencing affirmation of their own identity. This “both/and” is one of the hallmarks of facilitating a meaningful multifaith community, in my professional experience.

These high-impact experiences are not limited to those who identify with a religious or spiritual worldview. A number of years ago, a student reached out to me to express discomfort with a prayer for peace being a part of public life at Macalester. His email outlined the perceived problems, personal impact and a multitude of solutions. I responded with an invitation to meet. Our conversation revealed much: religious trauma, a strong secular identity, curiosity about humanism, and genuine curiosity about what religion might look like outside of the religious right. Together, we imagined what a humanist group and learning community at Macalester might look like. We identified faculty support and the group met periodically to explore this identity.

This student also joined the Multifaith Council – a group of students that met weekly over a meal to explore how religion, faith, worldview is at work in their lives – with the aim of fostering understanding and relationships across lines of difference. In June, this young alumni returned to campus for a reunion. He spent an hour catching me up on what had transpired since graduating five years ago. He touchingly shared that he uses his “CORESIST” mug – the one we gifted him at his graduation – every morning. Our conversation further illuminated the way his learning experiences about religion have fundamentally transformed his life. His religious literacy is higher; his embodied knowing is stronger; his advocacy for religious difference is notable; as a non-religious person. The listening, learning and sharing he did in multifaith council over two years was a significant part of his personal formation. He simply needed to be invited in. Organized religion rarely offers these entry points to someone who identifies as non-religious.

The original vision for Macalester College was that it would be equal to the finest colleges of the East and open to people of all faith traditions. Founded by a Presbyterian pastor and financed by a Philadelphia businessman (and namesake), Macalester was founded in 1874. The earliest years of Macalester’s religious life were built around a Presbyterian identity and practice. Led in the earliest years by presidents who were ordained ministers, the tide changed in the 20th century with just one president who was clergy. A strong commitment to academic distinction and social responsibility has long been paired with a commitment to building a global campus community. A symbol of commitment to international harmony, the United Nations flag has flown on campus since 1950, exactly half of Macalester’s history.

Macalester has grown in innumerable ways over the past 149 years. Religious life in the earliest years was built around Christian community worship in the Presbyterian tradition, which was mandatory until 1967. Today, we have roots and relationships in the Presbyterian church but gone are the days of assumed Presbyterianism, which was once – many years ago – the backdrop for a Macalester experience. Today, just 25 of our 2,100 students hold a Presbyterian identity. And approximately one-quarter of our students disclose that they hold a Christian identity (this includes Catholic, Orthodox, non-denominational and mainline Protestant).

Like many small liberal arts colleges, Macalester carries the inheritance of past generations with respect to religious and spiritual life. Memories are layered thick in our chapel of intimate worship gatherings, large-scale college protests, and quiet moments where one steals away from campus to pause and contemplate in silence. And over the years the memories of the physical space have made way for a multiplicity of identities. The chapel is the site for Jummah prayers, our mindfulness community gathers on meditation cushions throughout the week, Jewish high holiday services gather in the round and Christians gather in a circle to light candles, talk and pray. Here, pagan students find a home and community to mark cycles of the moon, and so too our Unitarian Universalists find a place to light a chalice, sing and be grounded in wisdom and community.

A spotlight was shone on Macalester in 2002 when we ranked #1 on the Princeton Review list of campuses where students ignore God on a regular basis. The metrics that landed Macalester in that spot are unclear. The sample size of our student body, unknown. More importantly, the tools for measuring how one “ignores God” are somewhat problematic, not to mention illusive and ambiguous, from my perspective. With other flagship Christian colleges winning the top spot for the “most prayerful” and “stone-cold-sober” it seems this ranking was measuring a particular flavor of Christian piety most Macalester alumni – especially Presbyterian – would reject.

Had that survey been designed to uncover meaningful spiritual and religious engagement for the 21st century on college campuses, there would have been some very different categories and likely some different top placeholders. When we ask questions designed for Christians – and a particular flavor of Christian, at that – we get a one-dimensional glimpse of engagement. We attempt to quantify the number of people who pray, what campuses are dry, and how many show up to worship — but do we learn anything meaningful about what’s vital and relevant for the multifaith world in which we live? Survey results don’t tell the story of a thriving community that is diverse in practice and dynamic in its interactions. This is, in part, because we don’t have much imagination for this possibility in our world.

Chaplains are religious professionals who architect a place of belonging that is rooted in mutual respect, authentic curiosity, and makes space for wonder and awe to unfold.

This is why thriving centers for religious life on college campuses are vital and increasingly relevant. Chaplains are religious professionals who architect a place of belonging that is rooted in mutual respect, authentic curiosity, and makes space for wonder and awe to unfold. As students enact and clarify their own belief systems – or worldviews – they come to know others who are on a similar path. The personal work of examining one’s own beliefs, expanding understanding of the plurality of expressions within traditions builds skills to live – competently – in an intercultural, interfaith world. Vital and relevant chaplaincies nurture elastic and expansive understandings of and imagination about faith, culture and religion. With this work unfolding, the 20-year-old assessment that at Macalester, we ignore God, somehow seems uninteresting and antiquated.

At Macalester, students grow in appreciation for the differences in our human family and respect for each other. This is work that the PC(USA) aspires to be part of … and part of through support of religious and spiritual life on college campuses.

Wisdom about the sacred

Giving voice to the work of college chaplaincy has long plagued the field. Historically, we were trained as pastors, priests and rabbis. In this century, we have seen a burgeoning of Muslim chaplains and a boom of professional positions, particularly in higher education. Our colleges are not congregations; our public theology has no weekly pulpit; and the field of chaplaincy doesn’t measure up when we use the metrics we employ in the church to assess health. The following excerpt from our mission statement aims to capture imaginative work that we hope unfolds.

“At Macalester, our chaplains affirm that our global community holds diverse wisdom about the sacred. We explore wholeness, belonging and purpose – with curiosity – as we orient ourselves towards experiences of wonder and awe.”

We have roots and relationships in the Presbyterian Church. We are multifaith in our staffing and support of the many worldviews that make their home at Macalester. Chaplains seek to cultivate compassionate, empathetic, growth-mindset expressions of curiosity in navigating religious pluralism. Compromise, care and compassion are cultivated when shared space is needed for.

I savor the fullness that is all around me.  It fills my heart.