Embarking on an Adventure
By Jan McCoy Ebbets
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Walters is Smith's first dean of religious life, a position she assumed on August 1. Her assignment, one that signals a new direction for the chapel, is no small task. Her mandate? To foster a multi-faith vision of religious life, reflecting the increasing di- versity of practice among students, faculty and staff. Walters is the former university ombudsperson and chaplain at the University of Michigan; before devoting herself to higher education, she worked as an HIV educator and at a community health center in Boston. Walters holds an undergraduate degree from Marquette University as well as a master's degree in pastoral ministry from Boston College, a doctoral degree in ministry from the Episcopal Divinity School and a master's degree in philosophy from Michigan State University.
What follows are her answers to questions
posed by NewsSmith about her new role at Smith. It is apparent
that she has been giving serious thought to the work she will
do at Smith helping the community recognize and explore the increasing
diversity of religious faith as well as providing a center for
moral and ethical
Is there a distinction that should
be made between religious life and spiritual practice? Most people nowadays
Why does spirituality seem to be a booming business on college campuses these days? I'm not so sure it is booming. There are some campus groups that provide entertaining worship and small group activities such as Bible study. But many groups provide religious-sounding moral guidance rather than engage students in finding the words to articulate their own questions and beliefs. However, there is a bubbling of interest among people seeking a community in which to reflect on their lives, receive support, and to be of service. A few colleges-including those in the Five College Consortium-are examining the spirituality of education, which is very exciting.
Are there women's issues that can be handled in the context of religious life and development? A national survey of incoming college students shows year after year that female students who get better grades than their male counterparts consistently underestimate their competence and achievement; male students consistently overestimate. Learning how to be honestly self-reflective about strengths as well as weaknesses is a critical component of healthy development that can be explored in this context. I am also very interested in initiatives that make connections between spirituality, health and science.
How do you address God in a community with wide-ranging beliefs, from Muslim to Buddhist to Catholic and more? We cannot underestimate the power of words and symbols to inspire and offend. In Tickets for a Prayer Wheel Annie Dillard writes that religious people conduct worship as if they are sure of who God is or what God is all about. She says we need more humility and less smugness. When we honor and listen to different-even uncommon-ways of speaking to and about the divine, we become altogether more humble and, perhaps, more aware of our need to be in touch with a power greater than ourselves.
Before getting into higher education
you worked at a community health center in Boston. What was your
role there, and what did it teach you? My
work at the Fenway Community Health Center coincided with the
beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I had a number of roles,
but the work that really changed me involved counseling those
seeking to be tested for HIV. I learned about the difference
between healing and cure. I learned from my clients that often
the truest part of our selves is hidden. Few of us really live
fully in the open; maybe no one does. But there are moments of
The poet Joy Harjo writes "Truth comes as disaster in a land of things unspoken." College is a time when students are faced with challenges to everything they've ever thought to be true about themselves and the world around them. As the dean of religious life, I hope to nurture a dynamic conversation in which the whole Smith community will speak openly about critical issues, honor one another as we do so, and, when we walk away, be changed for the better.
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