As a part of Elon University’s commitment to a campus wide interfaith dialogue, the Truitt Center is rolling out several new projects and restructuring their chaplain offices.
Elon’s efforts to diversify in all aspects of campus life have been dictated by carefully thought-out strategic plans. As the university wraps up the fourth year of the strategic plan outlined for 2010-2015, leaders in the Truitt Center are reflecting on what they can do to reach out to people of different religious — or non-religious — traditions.
University administration and Truitt Center staff are already in the formative stages of drafting the next strategic plan for the interfaith initiative. In the fall, students will have the opportunity to give input on the plan. The committee is scheduled to unveil the next strategic plan in March 2015.
While Elon’s many initiatives call for increased diversity, University Chaplain Jan Fuller said long-term change can only be achieved through carefully calculated steps.
“We take a big step, and then we regroup. That may look like we are not moving forward, but we are gaining strength for our next move forward,” Fuller said. “It’s a kind of dance.”
Keeping up with student needs
This dance can be seen in the restructuring of the university chaplaincy positions. The university is currently searching for a new assistant chaplain to take over for Adam Miller-Stubbendick at the end of the year.
Originally, the search committee looked for candidates from all religious affiliations, but senior administrators pushed for a Protestant chaplain. Administrators believed the Christian students on campus felt left out of the diversity initiatives, and as a result they remained in fragmented, disengaged segments.
“I was ultimately persuaded that the way to move forward is to secure the middle,” Fuller said. “That’s what we are doing with the associate chaplain position.”
According to the 2013 university fact book, almost 35 percent of Elon students identify as some denomination of Protestantism, 26 percent identify as Catholic, and 5.5 percent identify as Jewish. In order to better reflect these demographics, the position and the entire chaplaincy structure will undergo major changes next year. Starting next fall, there will be three associate chaplains and one assistant chaplain.
Under Jan Fuller, there will be as associate chaplain for Protestant life, an associate chaplain for Jewish life and an associate chaplain for Catholic life. The assistant chaplain position is open to a person of any religious affiliation. The search committee will interview candidates for the associate chaplain for Protestant life and the assistant chaplain positions this semester.
Father Gerry Waterman, the Catholic Campus Minister, will become the associate chaplain for Catholic life. The Hillel Center is currently interviewing candidates for the position of Hillel director. This new hire will likely become the associate chaplain for Jewish life.
This arrangement follows the staffing structure laid out in the 2010 strategic plan. It also follows the model set by interfaith initiatives at other schools, such as Brandeis University, which has chaplains representing Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Fuller said this structure will make her job easier, because it takes some of the administrative and office work off her shoulders.
“I’m compelled by this structure, and I see how it is going to clarify the roles and make the job doable,” she said.
Expanding minority resources
Many students come to Elon expecting to engage with people of many different faiths, but often this is not the case unless students seek out these opportunities.
“I wanted to come here because the school was trying to promote diversity — especially religious diversity,” said sophomore Shelby Lewis. “I figured out within the first few months of being here that they’re really still working on it.”
As co-president of the Interfaith Community at Elon (ICE), a member of the Better Together multi-faith Living Learning Community and a religious studies major, Lewis has had plenty of opportunities to engage with the university’s interfaith initiatives. Despite her involvement with campus religious life, Lewis said she sees some problems with the diversity initiatives.
“We are on the right track, but we need to work on our implementation in order to improve the authenticity of the message,” she said.
Fuller said it is hard to know how to allocate resources when promoting diversity. On the one hand, providing resources for a student population that represents a small fraction of the campus population may be seen as a waste of resources, but on the other hand, students from that religious faith will not be attracted to Elon unless those resources are available.
“Do you wait until you have the critical mass before you supply the resources? Our perspective at Elon is that we err in the direction of having provided the resources first, rather than waiting for the critical mass of students,” Fuller said.
Elon’s Jewish population has doubled since the establishment of the Hillel Center.
Iliana Brodsky, a freshman, said the resources for Jewish students were what initially attracted her to Elon. After spending a gap year in Israel, she realized that a strong Jewish community was essential to her college experience.
“Both the Hillel House and Numen Lumen Pavilion are brand new, quite functional and beautiful. When I first got here, that alone really excited me,” Brodsky said. “I also immediately got the feeling that the university was making serious efforts to expand religious and spiritual life.”
Brodsky said the staff within Hillel and the Truitt Center made her feel safe and welcomed at Elon.
“I knew that Elon was a place that cared, and a place that wanted me to be a part of the building process,” she said.
Similar resources will soon be in place for students of underrepresented faiths.
Elon recently hired Eesaa Wood to serve as the campus Muslim coordinator. He worked on the Four Weddings and an Understanding series, in which the Truitt Center staged marriage ceremonies from different religious traditions.
A large part of bringing in diversity is creating a hospitable campus climate, and this includes educating the campus about faiths they may never have been exposed to. In order to teach students about different traditions, religious studies lecturer L. D. Russell hosted a “Whirlwind Tour” of world religions, which focused not only on understanding, but also experiencing different faiths.
Fuller said events like Holi and Diwali are important because they show that exploring other faiths can be fun and something the campus can rally around.
“Bringing in speakers and hosting events is starting to plant a seed in peoples’ minds, and hopefully people will go to the Truitt Center and get engaged,” Lewis said.
Exploring the big questions
However, some students who do not have a strong religious affiliation feel these activities are not directed towards them. Sydney Lawton, a freshman, said she would like to learn about other faiths, but is sometimes hesitant to go to religious services in Numen Lumen because she is not religious.
“I just always assume they are for religious people, and I feel like I’m intruding,” she said.
Almost 22 percent of students are listed as an “unknown” religion in the 2013 survey. These students may come from mixed religious traditions, they may be questioning their religious affiliation or they may be spiritual without a religious affiliation.
“Another way to read it is this developmental movement. Entering college often coincides with psychological and spiritual development,” Fuller said. “Students may drop their religion for a while and pick up pieces here and there that they can claim as their own. It’s not because they don’t care about it, but they’re busy doing other things.”
Next year, programming will focus on what Fuller calls the “big questions” that college students face. Every Thursday morning, the Numen Lumen center will host talks that focus on these questions. The center will also take over the Phoenix Question blog, where each week, students and faculty can reflect on philosophical or personal issues.
Fuller said the beauty of this theme is no prior understanding or familiarity with religion is required.
“Every student is asking the same set of questions,” she said. “Who do I want to be? What difference do I want to make in the world? What character do I have? What will I major in? These are all spiritual questions.”
For students who enjoy these activities and want to learn more, Fuller has developed a program to teach students how to engage with deep questions. The Multi-Faith Engagement Program, a two-tiered training program to teach students how to become multi-faith leaders, will launch its first cohort in the fall.
A group of about 10 students will follow a curriculum they can tailor toward their spiritual interests. The program will take about four semesters to complete. At the end of the program, students will have learned how to facilitate the exploration of different religious traditions.
Fuller’s long-term goal for the program is to develop a fund for graduates of the program so they can go to other universities and share what they have learned.
Enriching student life
It was not long ago that Elon was affiliated with the United Church of Christ, and all religious life on campus centered around the church’s teachings. Students were connected through a common religious tradition.
Fuller said that, since today’s student body is made up of people from all faiths, the university must find a way to unite the campus by creating an open-minded atmosphere.
Next year, the Truitt Center’s interns will be responsible for reaching out to all segments of student life. Student interns will partner with resident life, Elon athletics, professors, service organizations, study abroad programs and Greek life.
“When a student crosses the stage at graduation, we want to make sure they’ve had a mutli-faith experience of engagement,” Fuller said. “We have to bring the students along with us.”
Warning against the common premise that we should ignore our differences, Fuller said we should instead work to understand what makes us different and how we live in the context of those differences.
“Religion will either divide us forever or it will bring us back together. The peace of the world depends on the religious world to lead the way,” she said.