The Many Paths to Spiritual Discovery
Straight, Winding, Forks in the Road —
BY CARRIE Z. KENNEDY ’90 AND ALEXANDRA ORLOV ’13
Early-morning classes with temperatures on the Hill hovering just above zero. Current and former students can commiserate over those bone-chilling walks. But how about daily chapel attendance — mandatory at 6 a.m. — when the campus was still dark and a single stove heated the hall?
Samuel Kirkland, Hamilton’s founder, was a minister, as was each of the College’s first nine presidents. Daily morning religious services were de rigueur for more than 100 years before eventually decreasing to once a week. Then in 1965, after much debate, all religious requirements were dropped. The reason? A member of the Board of Trustees at the time pointed to “a reluctance, as a matter of principle, to associate compulsion with religious worship.”
“Hamilton is not associated with any particular religion,” says College Chaplain Jeffrey McArn, “and we’re far removed from required attendance. But that’s not to say we don’t consider it important to support students as they explore the spiritual side of their lives.” Indeed, the Rev. Kirkland’s clear vision was to educate the whole student, and while other campuses have standard bell towers on their chapels, Hamilton’s historic cupola is topped with a quill weather vane. This small visual detail has become a treasured symbol for the College, recognized for its commitment to teach students to communicate effectively and think for themselves in all areas of growth.
Hamilton, then, is a secular institution that seeks not only to support students as they explore various religious and spiritual practices, but also recognizes how valuable these experiences can be. Lindsay Kramer ’13, for example, attended Catholic services and says, “I need to make time for it. It helps me stay grounded when things feel like they’re getting out of hand.” And although she loved her time at Hamilton, she had trouble adjusting as a first-year student. “I remember calling home and telling my family Sunday Mass was my favorite part of the week,” she says, “and it was a profound benefit to be part of the religious community.”
It’s also inspiring to note that — more than ever before — students interested in exploring metaphysical world views can work closely with their professors, the chaplaincy and one another to create or tailor opportunities to address their interests. Hannah Fine ’15, co-president of Hamilton’s Hillel, says she’s learned much more about the Jewish faith since starting at Hamilton. “And it’s so much more meaningful,” she adds, “because I’ve helped develop opportunities for the campus’ Jewish community.”
A physical space shaped a new sense of faith
Roxanne Bellamy-Campbell, the adjunct chaplain for multi-cultural communities, strives to support students in a variety of ways. “Our dining halls allow students to nourish their bodies, to fortify themselves, right?” she says. “And they’ve changed over the years to provide healthier options, like salad bars and gluten-free cereals … all of that. We haven’t always provided a full menu of options for students to nourish themselves spiritually, but now I think we’re much closer to that.”
A key factor in this change was the renovation of unused space on the third floor of the Chapel in the fall of 2000. With significant support from Life Trustee David Mason ’61, meeting spaces and chaplain offices were designed for comfortable, flexible interactions. “There wasn’t a great deal of intentionality about the chaplaincy prior to the renovation of this part of the Chapel,” McArn explains, sitting in his brightly lit office. “The creation of this space is what really allowed us to move forward with a much greater sense of purpose.”
Newman Chaplain John Croghan, who’s been involved with Hamilton’s religious community since 1982, agrees. “In my early years, we had solid offerings for students of traditional faiths. But the chaplaincy has grown as a reaction to students’ changing needs.” He points out that while the Religious Studies Department does an excellent job of providing an academic foundation — the history of religion, the geography of the issues, the philosophies of prominent figures — the role of the chaplaincy is to “help kids bounce this important information around and ask, ‘OK, how does this fit me?’”
Established organizations with evolving communities
Many of Hamilton’s devout students report that their faith community allows them to feel at home on campus, and some have opted to help broaden these existing organizations. Fine, for example, was initially disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm at Hillel, but she and other passionate students have helped the organization expand its membership and activities. The group now regularly comes together for Shabbat services and dinner on Friday evenings, and Fine and co-president Rebecca Hillel ’15 say this has increased the camaraderie.
“The Hebrew word chevra means ‘community,’” says Fine. “Hillel has become my family at school.” In fact, both Fine and Rebecca Hillel smile when they call Anat Guez, Hamilton’s Jewish chaplain, their surrogate “Jewish mother,” and they’re currently working with her and other Hillel students to fund a kosher kitchen on campus.
Rebecca Hillel and many other students have embraced these communities even if religion wasn’t a large part of their lives back home. Asked about her Reform Jewish upbringing, Hillel responds, “I enjoyed it, but honestly, I wasn’t that into it. Once I came to school, I realized how important my Jewish identity is to me.”
Shakil Hossain ’14, president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), also says being on campus made his faith stronger. Raised Muslim, Hossain didn’t start praying five times a day until coming to Hamilton. “Praying made me feel at ease, connected to my house, my home and my family,” he says. He got involved with the MSA his first year and made friends with other students during car rides to the Kemble Street Mosque on Friday afternoons for Jumu’ah prayers. It was Hossain who later initiated the creation of a Muslim prayer room and Wudhu foot-washing station in the Chapel. Formerly a storage closet, the beautiful prayer room now has northeast-oriented carpets thanks to donations from a Utica mosque.
Croghan notes that such a maturing of religious belief is not uncommon as young people move from the often-mandatory religion of home life to an environment where they must choose to belong — or not. “Some students are on automatic when they get to college because religion was a ‘have to’ part of their lives,” he says. “So it’s important for college chaplains to act as a bridge between what was and what will happen next. Here, church becomes sort of real for the first time because the students see that it still exists in this new setting, and it allows students to put their own name on a faith.”
Religious- and Spirituality-Based Organizations
Among the more than 200 student-run clubs and organizations at Hamilton are the following:
Christian Fellowship: Non-denominational campus organization that meets biweekly to discuss Christian principles, sing worship songs and host speakers. Students break into smaller Bible study and prayer groups during the week. Also hosts retreats, prayer events and concerts throughout the year.
Christopher Dawson Society for the Study of Faith and Reason: Group that meets monthly to discuss texts that explore how people of faith have engaged the intellectual world of the ancient, medieval, early modern, modern and post-modern West.
Fellowship of Christian Athletes: National organization, founded in 1954, that has as its mission “equipping, empowering and encouraging people to make a difference for Christ.” Student-athletes come together to tackle shared issues faced by fellow faith-followers in pursuit of sports.
Hamilton Secular Society: Group of students who discuss existential questions and societal issues from a secular viewpoint.
Hamilton Spirituality Initiative: Hamiltonians of various faiths join together to discuss faith on campus and make the Chapel accessible for students of all faiths and practices. Meets biweekly for discussions and to organize events such as Spirituality 101 Week to prompt conversation about diversity of spirituality on campus.
Hillel: Jewish students come together each week to introduce Jewish life, culture, education and identity to campus. Hosts social events open to the campus community.
Meditation Club: A non-denominational group that holds sitting sessions once a week.
Muslim Students Association: Muslim students, as well as non-Muslims who wish to learn more about Islam, meet weekly to provide insight into the basic foundations and practices of Islam. Also provides a forum to discuss common issues and topics related to Muslim students and Islamic culture.
Newman Council: Catholic students, along with those interested in Catholicism, meet weekly for spiritual, intellectual and social interaction. Also participates in several community service events, including hosting the annual Trust Treat, a Halloween celebration that brings children from the Utica area to campus for safe and fun trick-or-treating.
The sense of community that develops when students observe similar traditions and share values seems paramount for those active in more traditional religious life on campus. “Part of Christianity is having brothers in Christ that you can pray with,” says Drew Jelinek ’13. “It can lift you up in times of trouble.” The founder and president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), Jelinek says the group grew out of conversations about the Christian gospel among varsity hockey teammates. The FCA meets on Sunday afternoons, a time convenient for the athletes, and uses a text called The Competitor’s Bible: A Devotional Bible for Athletes. Jelinek has found solace in gathering with peers who share both Christian values and a love of sport.
Seeking other approaches
For Jasmin Thomas ’15, president of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a connection with Bellamy-Campbell led to the creation of an alternative Sunday service in the Chapel, which incorporates song, poetry and theater. Thomas says she’s never viewed her beliefs as institutional, but rather “just as my relationship to God as an individual.” For her, a connection to God is not contingent upon the completion of any standard ritual.
Bellamy-Campbell sees the second service as “an expansion of a more traditional approach” and points to the cross section of students who participate, including those with Creole, Asian, Hispanic and African-American roots. “My approach to supporting these students is to carry what I believe in my heart, not just preach,” she says. “I’ve found if I impose what I think, it’s not as effective as if I share what I’ve experienced. That way, students can try things on for themselves.”
For students interested in exploring spirituality outside of traditional organized religion, Hamilton offers opportunities in the form of discussion-based, interfaith communities. The Hamilton Spirituality Initiative meets every other week to examine topics such as animals in religion, prejudices and stereotypes, and humanitarianism. Most members are fascinated by religion but aren’t necessarily religious scholars.
“Everything’s fair game in the meeting, and nothing is taboo,” says President Lauren Lanzotti ’14, who leads the group’s small but lively discussions on the third floor of the Chapel. Lanzotti, a self-described Pagan who was raised Catholic, says, “I encourage others to share personal experiences and beliefs, not in an effort to promote their faith and convince others of its validity, but because I think learning about other faiths may make you feel all the more secure in your own.”
And last winter, the chaplaincy helped students organize Spirituality 101 Week, which grew out of a desire to support students’ exploration of religion. Activities offered during the week included a sitting Zen meditation, a “Kosher Gospel” concert, a Kabbalah Shabbat service, documentaries and community service initiatives. The week even included an event billed “The Super Bowl Party: America’s Religion,” which offered a “liturgy of pizza and wings.”
“We are very aware of how uncomfortable students can be when talking about capital-letter words like God, Faith or Devotion,” says Guez. “It’s common for students to feel ambivalent about discussing religion and spirituality with their peers. Spirituality Week was a way to make it a more comfortable exploration and to help students define spirituality without putting any kind of limit on that.”
Hamilton students can also find numerous opportunities to explore religion in more academic settings. Professor Mireille Koukjian, for example, the MSA advisor and a visiting instructor in Arabic, chooses films and speakers to bring to campus in order to broaden students’ understanding of the Middle East.
“I’m trying hard to correct misconceptions about the Islamic religion,” Koukjian says, “and I’ll never forget when a student in one of my courses came up to me and said, ‘You know, this class is creating a big problem for me. I’d always just thought Islam was the reason women were oppressed, but now that I understand the religion better, I know I can’t say that anymore.’ That just made my day!”
An increase in “Nones”
How about those students who approach their lives more philosophically or intellectually? Erik Marks ’15 came to campus hoping to connect with people interested in secularism and philosophical and political issues, only to learn that a group for atheists and agnostics had dispersed several years earlier. So Marks established the Secular Society as a venue for community members of all faiths to come together for discussions of philosophical and political issues related to secularism.
In his campus-wide emails advertising weekly meetings, Marks encourages students to attend by saying, “the more diverging opinions the better.” Born and raised in Sweden to Swedish and American parents, Marks calls himself an agnostic atheist. He claims that he was skeptical starting from the age of 6, when his atheist mother tried to force him to attend Sunday school.
“I believe in nothing supernatural, but I don’t claim to know for sure,” he says, noting this belief is fairly common among Secular Society members. Recent topics of discussion have included moral and rational agency, the concept of free will, religion and politics, and Islam as a global force.
Like Marks, many students are religiously unaffiliated. According to a recent Pew Research study (www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx), roughly one-third of Americans younger than 30 have no religious affiliation and are labeled “Nones” by demographers. Harvard professor Robert Putnam says the increase in Nones began around 1990, when kids came of age as religion became more associated with particular politics.
Professor Emeritus Jay Williams ’54 began teaching in the Religion Department — now Religious Studies — in 1960, when chapel attendance for Protestant services was still mandatory. The fluctuations in attitude that he’s seen on campus throughout the years mirror the larger American culture. “As our college, our country, has become more diverse, it only makes sense that we embrace different ways of thinking,” he says, “and while religion has always been a part of human culture, there have been shifts away from established religions and toward more civil religions.” Hamilton’s Religious Studies Department certainly attracts devout students, but many others approach the subject from a sociological, philosophical or anthropological standpoint, and Williams has enjoyed learning along with his students, because they “always offer interesting perspectives.”
Reaching out for the greater good
While many faith-based organizations still emphasize charity and social justice, a majority of community service activities now operate as social outreach programs, many of which are coordinated by the Hamilton Community Outreach and Opportunity Project (COOP). COOP also works tangentially with the student-led Hamilton Association for Volunteering, Outreach and Charity (HAVOC), which arranges programming for more than 400 students who complete about 3,000 hours of community service each semester.
Many student leaders in faith-based organizations are key members of secular community service groups on campus: IVCF President Jasmin Thomas ’15 volunteers through HAVOC at a community development center and a soup kitchen in Utica. HSI President Lauren Lanzotti ’14 works with a group that raises funds for AIDS resources. Hillel President Rebecca Hillel ’15 helped repair the hurricane-damaged Jersey Shore during an Alternative Spring Break trip. And Drew Jelinek ’13, president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and his teammates hosted a date auction fundraiser for the ABC House in Clinton and took part in a “breaking bread” program with Clinton families.
Additionally, students of many faiths participate in a day- long fast for the Muslim Student Association’s annual Fast-o-thon, a fundraiser in honor of Ramadan. The campus food service provider donates $5 to charity for every fasting student.
“Anyone of any faith can plug into these opportunities and learn the value of working with a shared purpose,” says Father John Croghan. “Spending time with others, helping in small and large ways, traveling, sometimes working with people who learn differently or see the world differently — it’s all extremely important stuff.”
Tensions rooted in religion
So are all these students — the devout, the Nones and those still exploring — blissfully co-existing on campus?
Jeffrey McArn smiles and says, “That would be a really tall order, wouldn’t it? But there’s a wider issue at hand, which is that our culture often sees spirituality as irrational and not necessary to day-to-day living. And it’s this way of thinking that can make it difficult for students who have connected with religion.”
Guez agrees. “People can get uncomfortable talking about a subject that doesn’t come from the intellect, especially in an academic setting. Being religious isn’t just about knowledge; it’s not something that can be listed in a course description.”
Many students say they aren’t comfortable discussing their beliefs with those outside of their faiths. And while a student like Fine thinks combating stereotypes about Jews is important, she feels no need to convert others. Thomas, on the other hand, feels it’s part of her faith to spread the Gospel and often prays aloud before a meal. “There are days when my friends request ‘No God talk,’ though,” she says with a laugh.
And even students who identify as religious aren’t necessarily involved in a faith group on campus. Nicolas Keller Sarmiento ’13, a native of Argentina, is a practicing Catholic at home but stopped going to Mass his first year. “To me, I guess, religion is in Spanish,” he says. “To hear it in English is just not the same.” He feels spirituality isn’t strongly encouraged on campus and that the right resources aren’t always available. But he does pray every night in Spanish, something he sees as less dogmatic and more personal. “The fact that Hamilton isn’t related to any particular religion gives you the freedom to go seek it out for yourself,” he says, “but that also makes it your responsibility.”
And what about more serious issues of religious tension? In April 2012, Chiuba Obele ’13 wrote an opinion piece for The Spectator titled “Religions should coexist peacefully on the Hill.” In it, he cited examples of how sacred places on campus had been vandalized, including intentional damage to a Jewish Sukkah tent the previous semester and the desecration of the Muslim prayer room the year before. Obele called for a change in policy to handle these isolated but severe offenses, and also addressed the need for a more supportive environment from students:
“In the current climate on campus, it is easy to ignore religion, because it often seems so marginal and inconsequential. People simply do not appreciate just how important religion remains for students like myself. … But whether you’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheist, agnostic, Wiccan — no one should feel unwelcome on our campus.”
A critical time for learning
While Father Croghan acknowledges that he’s aged in the 31 years he’s been involved with religious life on campus, he points out that the students he works with are always between the ages of 18 and 21. “And that is an exciting and frightening time of life. Along with all the other major issues college students face, many of them are figuring out where they stand on faith.”
Asked how he handles the delicate role, Croghan laughs. “Actually, I’ve gotten really good at creative loitering. Kids with questions don’t always show up during office hours, but if I’m eating at the Pub, they’ll approach me, I’ll invite them to pull up a chair, and I offer an ear. I want them to know I’m here.”
Hamilton’s chaplaincy members agree that being present and available for the students is their main role, and they all expressed agreement that they love to see students make religion or a spiritual practice their own. Koukjian points to Hossain and the other students who worked so hard to create the Muslim prayer facilities in the Chapel, and says, “On a small-college campus in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society, it’s been rewarding to see Hamilton’s Muslim students create a place that’s their own. They created that space for their religious practice. They did it.”
And students are grateful for the presence and support of the chaplaincy. When asked about his experiences at Hamilton, Hossain identified College Chaplain McArn as an important mentor. “He is such a good resource for anything you want to do.”
Nothing could make McArn happier. “The chaplaincy shares the purpose of helping students navigate through the really big issues,” he says. “Getting an education is about curiosity, about seeking out what you’re not familiar with because you hold respect for the very act of learning. We want to help kids enter into the space with good will.”