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Compiled by Kristen Cole   Date: 4/7/10 Bookmark and Share

Restructuring the Chapel for a More Diverse Spiritual Community

Q & A with the Dean of Religious Life

Last year, Smith made the decision to reduce the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, resulting in the elimination of chaplain positions, which will take effect at the end of this semester. The Gate recently asked Dean of Religious Life Jennifer Walters about the changes. Her responses are below. Also, read a statement about the chapel restructuring by Dean of the College Maureen Mahoney; and a white paper (pdf) by Walters, "A new model of spiritual and religious life at Smith College."

Gate: Why did Smith make this decision?

Jennifer Walters: In 2009, as Smith confronted the effects of the economic downturn, President Christ asked for a careful review of all areas of the college’s operations. It was a moment to step back and re-examine how we use our resources. We took that opportunity to consider the current information about religious and spiritual practices of college students, in general, and at Smith, in particular. For most of the 20th century, the college could feel secure in meeting the spiritual needs of its student body with chaplains from the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. But in recent years the student body has become much more diverse. We have students who identify as Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu and others—with tenets of multiple faiths—as well. It was time for the staffing and programming of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life to support more equitably the wide range of student beliefs at Smith today. The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life will continue to provide support and guidance to students seeking to practice their religion while offering new programs to engage all students in interfaith dialogue, learning, reflection and leadership development. The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life aims to prepare each student to live and work in a world in which religion plays a vital role.

Gate: Are college students less religious than they were in the past?

JW: That is a difficult question to answer. In the last decade, social scientists have become increasingly interested in researching college student religiosity and spiritual development. What we can conclude from the studies is useful but not definitive: Among non-religiously affiliated colleges like Smith, a small minority of students participate in formal religious services on campus. Further, the number of Smith students who declare an affiliation with a religious tradition or denomination upon arrival is declining—60 percent now compared to 80 percent 15 years ago. An increasing number of students are claiming multiple religious identities, for example Buddhist and Catholic or Unitarian and Jewish. During college, young people are often more likely to express a belief in God or concern about spiritual growth than they are to attend religious services. Those who are strongly affiliated with a religious tradition typically continue to practice their religion in college.

Gate: What is the future of Helen Hills Hills Chapel?

JW: When the chapel was built in 1955, it was established not as a college church, but as a gathering place for people of every religion. Currently both the Bodman Lounge and the sanctuary are booked nearly every day of the week with various activities such as Greek Orthodox Vespers, Buddhist meditation, Christian bible study, a small Presbyterian gathering, and the Rosary. I anticipate that the building will continue to be in use for those (and other) religious gatherings as well as memorial services, weddings, and concerts. And, the recent addition of wireless Internet now makes the chapel an attractive gathering place for students to study or take a break. I expect that we will continue to see many students using the chapel building.

Gate: What part has religion played in student life through Smith’s history?

JW: One of the arguments in favor of Northampton as the home of Smith College was that no chapel would be necessary on campus because students could attend the nearby churches. The college founders considered Smith an institution that would, by design, send its students into the “world” beyond campus for learning and spiritual guidance. Over the years, religious life at Smith became rooted in social action, community service and respect for diverse identities and views. The Smith College Association for Christian Work, founded by students in 1892, united the disparate religious and philanthropic student societies and included such activities as interfaith meetings, social action, a group called “Interrace,” which promoted inter-racial understanding, social work with community centers, international student outreach and peace education. The college has always acknowledged religion’s role in students' lives. Over the years, as students—and the world—have changed, our approach to addressing their needs has changed as well.

Gate: What do peer colleges offer in regard to religious life?

JW: Smith is not alone at shifting its organization and philosophy surrounding religious life to support greater diversity in the student body. In recent years, many higher education institutions, including peer colleges such as Wellesley and Mt. Holyoke, have undergone changes. As an initial shift in this area, Smith’s religious life structure was revised in 1997—decentering the chapel as the site of religious life on campus and establishing the position of dean of religious life to function as a spiritual and administrative leader for a diverse college community. The history and culture, student body, and location of each institution shapes its approach to religious life.

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