Emerson College’s new director of religious and spiritual life talks about the challenges of helping students find spirituality on campus. (Video by Vishakha Mathur)
By Corallys Plasencia
At many college campuses in liberal Boston there are few, if any signs, of religious life.
But that doesn’t mean students aren’t seeking answers to some of life’s biggest spiritual questions and interviews with several college chaplains indicate that their services may be needed now more than ever.
They say religion often takes a back seat to progressive social causes, sometimes making religious students hide their conservative beliefs to avoid confrontation.
“Believe it or not at Emerson that’s been challenging for a lot of students,” said Brian Indrelie, a protestant chaplain at Emerson College since 2014. “I know particularly when I first came here trying to assess the need, students felt like they had to hide. They couldn’t really talk much about their faith, particularly Christian students.”
New Spiritual Director at Emerson College
Harrison Blum, the new director of religious and spiritual life at Emerson College, reaches out to help students of all beliefs feel more comfortable on campus and with their spiritual lives.
“I do think there can be a silencing of faith in higher education,” said Blum. “Unless you present yourself as explicitly religious, the assumption can be that you are secular.”
“I do think there can be a silencing of faith in higher education.”
— Harrison Blum
Indrelie said Blum’s arrival earlier this year was long awaited and he is excited to have someone with a different religious background than most college chaplains head the school’s office of religious and spiritual life.
“It’s very cool to have someone from a Buddhist background,” Indrelie said. “He connects students with spirituality. He wants people to feel very comfortable in being themselves whatever their background is.”
Indrelie said Blum’s interaction with students is very positive and that people are engaging and interacting with the center for spiritual life in a way they haven’t before.
“He’s not just sitting here. He’s going out and building those bridges and his relationships and that what we really need here,” Indrelie said.
Exploring Faith at MIT
MIT Chaplain Adam Reynolds describes himself as non-traditional. He’s part of the Blue Ocean Faith, a denomination from Cambridge known for being “richly spiritual and supernaturally-focused.”
“For me, I’m a bit non-traditional for a campus chaplain,” Reynolds said. “One thing I do is I help students who are interested in exploring faith (for) the first time. I’m more focused on holistic health, mental health and offering support. I also work with students of various religions, or no religion, who want to work on integrating spiritual with the academic.”
At MIT, the literature department allows students to take bible classes but Reynolds said most campus religious activities take place outside of the classroom.
“I try to help students find ways to apply either religious practice or spiritual wisdom to have lives that are balanced, holistic and sustainable,” he said. He explained that this often isn’t easy as students find it hard to balance religion with the rigorous academic requirements at MIT.
The Right to be Religious at Boston College
Mark S. Massa, the dean of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, said prospective students should consider whether a school is religious or not before deciding to attend there, but choosing a secular school doesn’t mean they’ll suffer or be silenced for being religious.
He noted Yale University is a secular institution that has a very large percentage of Catholic students. “Just because they go somewhere secular doesn’t mean they are deprived for being religious,” he said.
One of the major religious challenges at Boston College is making Catholic theology understandable to a wide variety of students from different backgrounds, according to assistant theology professor Gregorio Montejo. He noted that our culture often places religion in direct conflict with scientific progress and that when students approach him with these concerns he introduces “them to an alternative way of doing theology that is more in keeping with rationality.”
(Xiangqiong Liu contributed to this report.)