the Chapel for a More Diverse Spiritual Community
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 by Dean of the College Maureen
Mahoney; and a by Walters, "A new model of
spiritual and religious life at Smith College."
Gate: Why did Smith make this
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
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.
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.
What part has religion played in student life through Smith’s
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
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,
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.