Safety, Hospitality, and Engagement Nurture Leadership
by Rachel A. Heath
More than 120 students from colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada braved wintry weather to participate in the sixth “Coming Together” conference (CT6), three days of interfaith dialogue and programming. CT6 was hosted last month at the University of Chicago by the Spiritual Life Office and Rockefeller Chapel.
Coming Together conferences began over a decade ago at Princeton University. The idea: to gather student leaders from across the continent to meet, engage in interfaith conversations, and share ideas about enhancing interfaith work on their campuses and beyond. The vision calls for the gatherings to be free for participants and proposes that the group, as a whole, form a microcosm of the world’s spiritual and religious community.
Last November I was approached by the Spiritual Life Office and Rockefeller Chapel to coordinate CT6; essentially, to bring the vision to fruition in three months time. My own passion and ideas about interfaith work had been cultivated in a university setting, so I was excited by the opportunity to use what I had learned to in a positive way for the next generation of college students.
My Formative Multifaith Chaplaincy Experience
Four years ago, I descended into the basement of Bingham Hall in the historic Old Campus of Yale University to visit the Chaplain’s Office. On the verge of completing my first year at Yale Divinity School, I wanted to set up an internship for my second year. I knew very little about university chaplaincy. “Chaplain” for me meant designated hospital staff or military personnel, usually Christian. I knew even less about interfaith work but was open to a new experience.
The job description had ignited my curiosity:
to work with undergraduates from multiple spiritual and religious traditions, participating in an office whose vision is to serve as the spiritual center for the university by offering hospitality to all and building a foundation for religious communities to flourish and learn from one another.
Though raised in exclusivist Christian environments, I had come into my own through theological education, broadened social horizons, and international travel. The diversity of human spirituality, which I was increasingly able to accept, embrace, and love, was leading me to see interfaith work as a channel for creative peacemaking. A convergence of my personal beliefs and vocational aspirations was underway.
Over the next two years I learned that chaplains can play a unique role in fostering both interfaith and intra-faith engagement within a greater institutional framework. They have an opportunity to be bridge-builders and community organizers, able to connect different students and nurture relationships, creating welcoming spaces for intentional, respectful dialogue.
The experience solidified my belief that one can be firmly rooted in one’s own religious tradition while being open, welcoming, and affirming of those from other traditions. Tensions arising from religious differences are not necessarily eliminated, nor is that the goal. I myself became more rooted in my own tradition by embracing the diversity around me. I experienced how building intentional relationships that acknowledge diversity without trying to dilute differences is key to cultivating and transforming the next generation of interfaith leaders.
Developing a Vision for Interfaith Dialogue among Students
The CT6 team worked to come to agreement on a clear vision and tangible goals. Developing a vision for the program puts everyone on the same page. Afterward it helps assess whether you’ve accomplished your goals.
Developing a vision for CT6 was collaborative work. Spiritual Life Council members wanted to provide an atmosphere of spiritual and religious diversity, a space to compare various types of programming, and opportunities for dialogue and education. Spiritual Life Office staff wanted to offer sessions to enhance interfaith work in future professional lives and in personal spiritual formation. We also wanted students to have fun, to include laughter and joy in this interfaith work.
To realize this vision we took a variety of approaches to our learning and social interaction. “Traditional” lectures were offered by University of Chicago Divinity School and Religious Studies faculty. Leaders from interfaith organizations talked about models of community engagement and engaging student interns. Space was saved for spiritual and contemplative practices.
We were conscientious about emphasizing the arts as an interfaith tool, particularly since much of the work of Rockefeller Chapel and the Spiritual Life Office is rooted in musical and visual arts. The Yuval Ron Ensemble, an internationally recognized interfaith musician and artist group, offered a concert at Rockefeller Chapel, open to the Chicago community, and presented workshops for CT6 students , sharing its experience of connecting mysticism and spirituality to art.
The “Spirit Lounge” encouraged intentional interfaith conversation, one of our goals. Here was the “unprogrammed” open space around a fireplace in the conference hall where students could hang out with each other. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and various snacks were available all day. There were couches, round tables scattered with various art supplies, and a bulletin board where students could pin ideas from their own campus interfaith programming.
CT6 and Beyond
Coming Together gatherings happen every couple of years, but the basic vision can flower on campuses everywhere. University chaplains and religious life professionals should never underestimate the power of free snacks and a loosely-structured, safe environments. Students want to engage one another, to ask deep questions. They want their religious and spiritual imaginations expanded through art and music, conversation and laughter. A most memorable moment may be conversation over cups of hot chocolate. At the end many spoke about having made new friends.
During my own student days, I thrived most when offered a safe, fluid space to explore who I was becoming interpersonally and spiritually. Those memories helped sculpt my vision of how university chaplaincies can encourage the spiritual and religious development of young adults. Create a welcoming space to ask important questions, religious or not, whenever they arise. CT6 gave a glimpse of the synergy that is possible when that vision for the next generation of interfaith leaders becomes reality.