Photo of luminary lights on a campus green with students


Campus Chaplains Hold the Center When Things Fall Apart

Luminaria labyrinth walk in front of the Chapel at Vassar College. Buck Lewis/Vassar College

By Celene Ibrahim, Elizabeth Aeschlimann, and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer

The campus chaplain’s job is a peculiar mix of the mundane and the ineffable. Some days, it requires placing just the right-sized catering order, and others it requires emotionally supporting—sometimes physically—an inconsolable parent who has received a nightmarish word of a child’s death. At the outset, a chaplain can only guess which kind of day it may be and show up for the unfolding of the profane or the arrival of the sacred. Campus chaplains are some combination of spiritual guides, trusted confidants, coordinators of meaningful activities, and public intellectuals. Chaplains have to know how to walk with people of very diverse backgrounds through loss, protest, mass casualties, and more. They must know how to support the students who regularly experience racism and other forms of bigotry while also being skilled at the task of helping white-identified students, economically well-off students, and other privileged groups understand how their backgrounds confer privilege that other students cannot take for granted.

Campus chaplains toggle between their many roles, between private spaces and public platforms (both in-person and online), keeping an eye out for the spoken and unspoken needs of individual human beings, supporting the programming of departments and offices across campus, and helping to meet the needs of the wider communities that interface with campus. Institutions of higher education, whether they are denominational or nondenominational, private or public, small or large, have the need for liturgy and ritual convenings to mark the seasons of the academic calendar and to help a diverse and ever-rotating collection of people form and feel themselves to bean authentic community. This sense of community must be expansive enough, but also structured enough, for diverse members to all find a home, a sense of belonging, and the ability to thrive. In an era of increasing secularization, but also disenchantment with the world, many students—and employees, too—crave guidance to help them cultivate a sense of re-enchantment, purpose, and personal integrity in a changing, unpredictable, and sometimes brutally unfair world.

Due to changing demographics and generally decreasing levels of religiosity, campus chaplains are more and more likely to be the first religious professionals that students encounter regularly. They assist students who are housing or food insecure, or who are undocumented, to access resources; help international students acclimate; and support activist students in finding their networks. They also ensure that students who are navigating trauma, sexual assault, or forms of domestic or psychological abuse find reliable long-term care. Campus chaplains care for and about students—and care about the issues that students care about—especially when their dignity is hurting, when their stress is high, and when their futures seem unsure. All the while, chaplains engage in the perennial task of modeling character alongside the mandate to help students navigate conflicts with parents, siblings, friends, roommates, intimate partners, and intimate partners of roommates. While juggling all this, the prayer space probably also needs another vacuuming!


Working with young adults who are discovering their spiritual and ethical footing, campus chaplains find themselves on the front lines of the work of restorative justice. Students face multiple pressures related to the increasing price tag of an education and expectations that they should be striving for a career while also pursuing social justice. Students seek out chaplains as mentors who serve both as sounding boards for big dreams and as sources of grounding. In this high-pressure context, young adults need affirmation, guidance, and practices for the art of living—just as we all do.

The campus experience is designed to broaden students’ intellectual and professional horizons, but it often stretches their spiritual and moral horizons simultaneously. The Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, MDiv ’80, longtime chaplain of the university at Brown, describes the previous generation of college chaplains, the likes of Howard Thurman at Boston University, Peter Gomes at Harvard, and William Sloane Coffin Jr. at Yale, as figures who “exhorted, comforted, and fiercely interrogated their communities” by “decry[ing] the unrighteousness of discrimination, racism, imperialism, privilege, and exclusivity that was found within the academy and the nation.”1 Chaplains may no longer be perceived as campus prophets channeling the authority of biblical patriarchs, but their tremendous platform for advocacy remains. Chaplains work with student groups to help translate social justice passions into action, such as the weekly rotations in a local shelter that Tufts University Catholic chaplain Lynn Cooper, MDiv ’05, organizes, or service-education trips like those that Khalid Latif and Yehuda Sarna sponsor through their Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership at New York University.2

John Schmalzbauer, a sociologist specializing in campus chaplaincy, observes that chaplains regularly contribute to students’ vocational discernment by nudging them toward socially engaged occupations: “When asked to tell a story about a successful student, many chaplains focused on vocational themes,” he notes, “tracing the students’ journey from college service projects to a career of social service.”3 Celene Ibrahim distinctly remembers an occupational therapy student attending a chaplaincy-sponsored panel that featured medical professionals who worked with refugee families in Greece, and the very next break this graduate student was on a plane to assist in their efforts. “Shazia’s transformative experience prompted her to focus her graduate program and subsequent career on the care of vulnerable and migrant populations,” Ibrahim reflects.

Accompanying students as they develop into impactful professionals is elating, but some campus chaplains report a tension between a prophetic calling and the mandate they sometimes hear to “just make students smile.” One chaplain has a friendly dog given to wandering the campus and wryly observed that his administration saw his own role as somewhat analogous. In looking back on decades of campus ministry, Lucy Forster-Smith, one of the first women to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church and a longtime campus chaplain, reflects:

I often muse over the contested roles that define my work: Am I staff to the student crisis line? Or am I there for everyone in the community, to foster a safe space for each one to express his or her truth? Am I there to placate traditionalists by delivering “nice prayers” at nice occasions? Or am I there to prick the conscience of the campus on ethical and moral issues many would rather ignore? . . . Am I to support young people unconditionally as they make their way, mistakes and all? Or am I to challenge the “hook-up” culture that reduces sexual activity to recreation and often leaves lives littered with wreckage as a result?4

Chaplains can find themselves torn between speaking out against the ethical lapses and shortcomings of their institution and their own professional success; some chaplains have been driven from their roles because of these tensions. Others wonder if taking a strong activist position compromises their ability to provide support for members of the campus community with differing political persuasions. For instance, what does it mean to stand with students and other campus employees in a union picket line for dining staff or to occupy the green? As students’ existential questions of meaning and purpose are being exacerbated by rising hate crimes, climate crisis, breakdowns of civil discourse, and eroding democratic norms, chaplains are often torn between supporting students in activist pursuits and impartially representing the university administration. On any given day the campus chaplain could be called to “put out the fires of conflict” and then head off across the green to “stoke the fires of passion” in another setting, says Janet Cooper Nelson. Buddhist ministry specialist Cheryl Giles, MDiv ’79, has observed that chaplains are adept at “sitting with discomfort,”5 but if campus chaplains are going to be allowed flexibility in their roles, facilitated forums with chaplains and high-level college administrators are needed to discuss clearer parameters and accountability mechanisms.

Whether acting as advocates or welcoming people across a spectrum of perspectives, chaplains often bring themselves into moments when the center seems like it cannot hold. When sharp disagreements over Israel/Palestine flared up at Vassar, Liz Aeschlimann, MDiv ’17, and the director of Jewish life at Vassar College from 2017 to 2020, reached out to a faculty colleague for her insights. “How can we expect students to engage on this issue well if we can’t even do it ourselves?” observed Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Jasmine Syedullah. Aeschlimann explains: “I sheepishly admitted that I had skirted around the edges of the topic in conversations with my colleague, Nora Zaki, Vassar’s first Muslim advisor. A few weeks later, Nora and I sat together on her couch, nervously drinking tea and nibbling chocolate. We started slowly, sharing stories about how our views had been shaped by our respective upbringings and experiences. As we talked, I felt a release of fear and tension as we found that our mutual respect and appreciation could hold our differences of opinion—and that we had much more in common than either of us had assumed. As Nora and I continued our discussions, we took slow steps to bring others into our conversation, but this slow and deep work began with our own vulnerability and relationship.”

Though it might not always be recognized, chaplains are doing the essential work of helping to integrate diverging identities on campus.

As chaplains strive to provide ethical leadership, enable human flourishing, provide forums for communal healing, and assist students in questions of character formation and vocation, some aspects of their role remain unclear. At a time when higher education is facing a crisis concerning its purpose, utility, and sky-rocketing costs, is building character still central to the mission of the university? Are students still expected to leave campus with resilience and virtues, as well as a set of more readily demonstrable, marketable, technical skills? Many chaplains who used to report directly to the college or university president are now part of student services divisions, a move that facilitates greater levels of collaboration but also situates their work several rungs down the reporting hierarchy. Most public universities provide no institutional support for chaplaincy services, and there is a pervasive feeling that our services and contributions are also undervalued. Chaplains from historically underrepresented communities, in particular, often require fairer compensation. Though it might not always be recognized, chaplains are doing the essential work of helping to integrate diverging identities on campus. They are helping students navigate multireligious, multicultural, intra- and interreligious relationships, and a host of other dynamics. They are also helping institutions realize their aspirations for justice, equity, and inclusion.


Campus chaplains are cultivating reflective, socially conscientious spaces for the religiously unaffiliated as well. From eliciting stories, to teaching contemplative practices, to engaging in service alongside their campus neighbors, to modeling the importance of resting, chaplains prioritize practices that strengthen the fabric of community. Yale’s associate university chaplain, Maytal Saltiel, MDiv ’12, observes that chaplains are “making space for being in a culture that is driven strongly toward utilitarianism, individualism, systems efficacy, automation, and doing over being.” The gist of her advice to young adults navigating campus life and feeling pulled in many different directions is “s-l-o-w  i-t  d-o-w-n.” In a campus culture often dominated by competition, overwork, and perfectionism, chaplains guide campus communities toward practices that value authentic connection and rejuvenation over self-aggrandizement. This message benefits the religiously affiliated and unaffiliated alike.

Two years ago, it became clear to Liz Aeschlimann and her colleagues in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Vassar that while their student religious and spiritual communities were flourishing, they were perceived by others as little more than an interest group for religious students. Moreover, certain demographics were underrepresented, including STEM majors, athletes, and, most worryingly, students of color. Eager to serve the whole student population effectively, the team undertook an intensive multiyear process to reimagine their work using the tools of human-centered design.6 Again and again, they heard from students a longing for meaningful community and a culture of care, and a frustration with “toxic” fragmentation, judgment, and burnout: “I want to form bonds that aren’t built on productivity, leadership, and exhaustion,” one student commented. “I’m interested in breaking out of the silos I’ve built for myself,” said another.

With these inputs and insights, the team articulated a new mission for their office, framed as a question: “How might we equip students with the capacity to build a culture of belonging in difference that resists fragmentation and burnout, and become a hub of connection and growth where students can be their messy, joyful, full selves?”According to Aeschlimann, “This reinvigorated statement of purpose did not include the words ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ or even ‘contemplative,’ but for us, these questions were deeply spiritual and continuous with our historic mission. Our new clarity inspired several prototypes, including a new space designed for hospitality, a yearlong community-building fellowship that brought together 20 students from different campus networks to engage in relationship building and contemplative practices like jo kata.”7

Sam Speers, longtime chaplain of Vassar College with a new title to reflect his changing role—associate dean of religious and spiritual life and contemplative practices—spent formative years working with the Teagle Foundation on an initiative called “Secularity and Liberal Arts Education,” designed to support students across a spectrum of identities in probing “questions of meaning and value.”8 In a similar effort to engage students across backgrounds, Harrison Blum, MDiv ’12, offered Northeastern University affiliates moving meditation sessions combining a unique interface of science, visual art, and music. Using “danceroom spectroscopy” technology, participants could experiment with an interactive visualization of the invisible nanoworld as it interacted with their energy field.9 Now the director of religious and spiritual life at Amherst College and dharma teacher in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, Blum continues to explore innovative ways for those on campus to connect with each other, with the wonders of the world, and with themselves.

Student pouring a laddle of water over a small Buddha figure

Tufts students bathe the baby Buddha as part of a Buddha Day celebration. Anna Miller/Tufts University


“The work of chaplains involves a constant awareness of the world and improvisation to address what is most relevant—reinterpreting our traditions and practices for each new moment,” observes Greg McGonigle, MDiv ’04, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Emory University’s chaplain and dean of spiritual and religious life. “Last spring, many of us moved everything we could online for the first time and began imagining new ways to serve. While we mostly prefer being in-person, we have found that as Zooming-chaplains we are even more accessible and attract people who may never have joined us before,” he notes. At their best, he says, chaplaincy spaces—whether in person or online—provide spaces for “the deep integration for students’ academic inquiries, friendships, relationships, mental well-being, social activism, family issues, and vocational questions.”

The Venerable Priya Sraman, MDiv ’17, Buddhist chaplain at Emory University and longtime monastic, also found that online spaces have enabled even more robust participation, particularly among alumni who are now scattered across the world. He’s seen a pronounced uptick in alumni participation in Buddhist chaplaincy programming since creating a regular online gathering and book club last spring. “Communities of belonging and vulnerability,” he observes, “are grounds for authentic care, attention, understanding, and friendship where it’s not just the chaplains providing care, but where participants learn to tend to each other, too. For many at this time, our weekly meetings are one of the only avenues to feel connected and acknowledged, spiritually and emotionally.” He evokes the image of a tree to explain the role of campus chaplains as “mentors and caregivers providing stability, resources, nonjudgmental accompaniment, and firm grounding for times of crisis, such as the present.”

Even before a global pandemic increased the online presence of chaplains, humanist chaplains Vanessa Zoltan, MDiv ’15, and Casper ter Kuile, MDiv ’16, had already discovered the power of digital media for reaching new demographics yearning for meaning and community. Since 2016, on their podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” they have been reading the fictional series week by week, chapter by chapter in dialogue with each other and a growing group of followers. More than 35 million downloads later, their podcast is wrapping up the seventh and final volume. Zoltan and ter Kuile apply themselves to the task of reading with rigor. To do this, they make use of practices from the traditions of their own origins, Judaism and Christianity, respectively. For instance, drawing on a Jewish method of text reading known by the acronym PaRDeS, they explore the plain sense of words, their hidden meanings, the moral sermon within, and possible mystical secrets (the four levels of reading a story as described in rabbinic tradition: the pshat, the remez, the drash, and the sod).

This form of reading offers a way to think about the work of chaplains, who listen to the stories that individuals tell about themselves and the stories institutions tell: What is the pshat? That’s the literal level, the who, what when, where, why. Then there is the remez, the hints—noticing openings in the narrative where deeper questions peek through. The drash is the drawing out of significance, the heart of narrative therapy—helping people craft meaningful interpretations out of their life experiences. And finally there is the sod, the secret. According to the rabbis, every narrative also has a secret level, the spot that reaches down into the unknown, to evoke Sigmund Freud’s famous description of the navel of a dream. Chaplains have the incredible honor of getting to sit with people—mostly young adults—as they discover and embrace these layers of meaning and unknowing and as they awaken to their unfolding futures.


As Varun Soni, MTS ’99, knows well, self-harm, anxiety, and depression—treated and untreated among students and employees—are very real issues on campuses, and risk factors such as anxiety and loneliness are rising on campuses where students are technologically connected but socially isolated.10 Soni is the dean of religious and spiritual life at the University of Southern California, and the first Hindu to serve as the chief religious leader of an American university; he also now serves as the vice provost of campus wellness and crisis intervention. As he quips: “Talking with thumbs can’t replace talking with tongues.”11 Students use curated social media feeds to “perform pantomimes of uninterrupted fun and unalloyed fabulousness,” all the while experiencing heightened sensations of isolation.12

Most human beings have a deep yearning for acceptance and communal belonging, but this need is acute in the context of emerging adulthood. Chaplains create spaces for authenticity and intimacy, spaces that ward off the scourge of loneliness and support student well-being in a myriad of ways. Asha Shipman, Yale University director of Hindu life and Hindu chaplain, describes the uniquely rejuvenating space of the campus Hindu prayer room:

They hear the ringing bells, see the lit lamps (tea lights, in our case), inhale the fragrances of incense, fruit, and flowers, chant the prayers and sing the hymns. The entire service and the catered Indian dinner afterwards feed the mind, body and soul—with the goal of supporting the inner yagna. . . . They may walk in with the burdens of the secular student day—anxious, hunched, tired, and pressed for time. Surrounded by people of a similar religious and cultural background, bathed in the warm colors and soft sounds, they visibly straighten, their faces brighten, and worry lines fade as they embark on a shared inquiry into themselves and their faith.13

Similarly, while serving as Muslim chaplain at Tufts University, Celene Ibrahim found ways to provide spaces of care and connection, including once with the help of 50 pounds of halal, grass-fed beef. “Sure, students could have frozen patties for their first ever ‘Eid on the Green’ celebration, but I wanted the meal to be something more special,” she says. “I wanted to communicate care and hospitality by saying, ‘My family and I personally made your meal, and we have a friendship with the farmer who raised the cow.’ In a fast-paced and often impersonal-feeling world, small gestures help create connections and demonstrate sincerity. Taking the time to go the extra mile—in this case the 40 extra miles to the farm—was a way of communicating to students: ‘You matter, our holiday matters, and bring friends, because they will also be nourished.’ ”

For Ibrahim, another important message was communicated by this gesture. “In the context of the often-intensified anti-Muslim biases, delicious homemade kebab becomes campus diplomacy,” she reflects. “This is part of a wider cultural movement from ‘foreigner’ or ‘terrorist’ being the first association with ‘Muslim,’ to notions like ‘generosity,’ ‘hospitality,’ and ‘friendship.’ It is also a way for the chaplain to show values in action, in this case, by supporting local industries and humanely raised animals. ‘You have no idea how much my soul needs this!’ remarked one first-year student from Pakistan. Sometimes, a soul just needs good kebab.”

Chaplains bring their own particular tricks and techniques for cultivating presence and resilience, for carving out spaces for celebration, for nurturing joy, for inculcating virtues, for expressing gratitude, and for providing hope. Alex Weissman, a rabbi at Brown/RISD Hillel, found that students were hungry for spiritual practices that would ground them in values and traits that they want to embody. In rabbinical school, he had learned about a Jewish tradition of personal ethical transformation, Mussar, and was struck by hesed practice: Several times a day, think about what the person in front of you needs. He found that students experienced this orientation as helpful with anxiety. “It helps them relax and gives their mind something to do that is good for the person in front of them and—as it turns out—good for them,” he says. “Our culture of education is very much about individual success. ‘How do I say the smartest thing? How do I get an A?’ But what if you reframe your experience to think instead about what you can contribute from which others might benefit?” One of the traits that Mussar teaches is hospitality. One day, Weissman received an email from a student who had been filled with dread and stress while preparing a presentation for class, but when she started to think about the other students as her guests, it shifted and reshaped her experience.

Chaplains help attend to students’ “inner-life of fear, worry, joyful wonder, and longing for love,” as Lucy Forster-Smith explains,14 and in doing so, they attend to the well-being of the community as a whole. Grace Lee Boggs, the visionary Detroit-based activist, is said to have had a poster on her wall that read: “Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual.”15 Practices from religious and spiritual traditions are embodied knowledge passed down through generations that teach us to connect with our shared humanity as bodies who sit and walk, sing and speak, eat and touch, hope and fear. These practices are ideally building reserves of compassion, patience, courage, and other virtues. Practices teach us to carry on in the day-to-day work of self-development and sustaining community without an expectation for immediate gratification.

Chaplains have a role in providing spaces of connection, and chaplains also provide pastoral care in the traumatic wake of lost lives. Campuses are full of people who are experts in their fields: the medical school professors know how to study, diagnose, and treat illness; the counseling center professionals know how to respond to different types of distress; but it is the chaplains who are tasked with knowing how to cultivate and celebrate joy, how to foster deep, meaningful connections, and how to provide the structure necessary to help put communities back together in the wake of calamities.

The chaplain’s task is to be present; be attentive; hold space; listen; grieve with people; celebrate with people; and know what to say or how to express eloquently that the situation is beyond words.

When a student death occurred on her campus, Nora Woods, a rabbi and interfaith chaplain at Bryn Mawr College, provided a container for confusion, grief, and fragility. Friends of the student and wider community members, even students who were not particularly close to the student, needed to express their pain, be guided, be held. Woods explained Judaism’s structured approach to death—based on thousands of years of experience with grief and mourning—instructing them in this moment to honor the person’s life, to look at the heartbreak of the loss and the reality of death directly, and to reaffirm the holiness that infuses all of life. In this spirit, she facilitated an open space for processing and asked students to share what they had appreciated and loved and learned from their friend. Because the student was Jewish, she recited the Mourner’s Kaddish in Aramaic and in English interpretive translation. In the weeks that followed, she counseled individuals and groups of students and reached out to staff who were supporting students while attending to their own grief. She assisted in crafting a memorial service and helped students write eulogies. A year later, she continued to meet with some of those most affected. Woods reflects: “It is confusing to young people that the rest of the world seems to be going about their business while they are grieving. Tradition—in this case Jewish—reminds them that they are not alone. For generations people have lived through unbearable loss. There is a context here, bigger than their individual suffering.”

This accompaniment and guidance is particularly helpful for emerging adults who might be facing such loss for the first time, helping them to go through stages of mourning and to know how to take care of themselves and each other. Recognizing this very need, Walker Bristol, MDiv ’18, Tufts University’s first Humanist chaplain, hosted a “Death Café” as part of a transnational spiritual care movement that fosters intimate conversations around experiences of loss and meanings ascribed to death and dying.16 Such an initiative builds resilience and community in front of a crisis, not merely in its wake. Chaplain-facilitated spaces and ritual practices are especially grounding “when things fall apart,” to evoke the title of the popular book by Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. The chaplain’s task is to be present; be attentive; hold space; listen; grieve with people; celebrate with people; and know what to say or how to express eloquently that the situation is beyond words.


Pema Chödrön’s book title When Things Fall Apart comes from the early twentieth-century Irish poet W. B. Yeats, who just over a century ago and during another devastating pandemic, famously observed that: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”17 Job descriptions for campus chaplains are increasingly multifaceted, but they could perhaps be boiled down to a few succinct words: “Hold the center when things fall apart.” This daunting task is made all the more difficult by personal tragedies, by clashing identities on campus, and by tumultuous events in the wider world. From a worsening climate and natural disasters to political corruption and injustice, legacies of systematic marginalization, and now confronting the evolving realities of a global pandemic—every day brings fresh outrages, and many caring people fear that weariness will soon render them incapable of mustering a response.

Even before the gravity of the pandemic set in, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg reflected upon the dearth of optimistic visions of the future in an opinion piece titled, “The Darkness Where the Future Should Be.”18 Pessimism, cynicism, and profound skepticism have indeed become prominent cultural paradigms, and with some good reasons. At present, the United States is facing the worst health crisis in a century, the greatest financial disruption in decades, a centuries-overdue racial reckoning, storms and wildfires of epic proportions, and continuing discord from two presidential elections of existential consequence. In front of their screens and behind their masks, the work of chaplains continues. Chaplains are helping individuals and their campus come to grips with uncertainty, with a sense of loss, and possibly with a new normal. In what is often termed a “post-truth world,” chaplains help both individuals and their institutions face an uncertain future with resilience and hope.

On campuses that are full of experts and experts-in-training, chaplains are experts in not knowing. They appreciate contemplative surrender to the unknown, and their competency set includes intimacy with mystery and things unresolved. Their place in the ecosystem of the university is the place that embraces the existential questions, the pain, the joy, the potentials for fear, the times for hope, and the ambiguities. The chaplain brings knowledge from ancient wisdom traditions, brings repurposed traditions, brings prophetic voice, brings the processes of her own self-work, and brings the space for intimacy without knowing. Chaplains show up as mentors who can be authentic, be imperfect, and be vulnerable.

From encouraging interfaith engagement, to mediating campus conflicts over Israel/Palestine, to supporting campus movements in support of Black, Brown, indigenous, queer, trans, and other marginalized student lives, chaplains, as Janet Cooper Nelson describes it, “urge humane perseverance in catastrophe, natural and political; they offer comfort in illness, trial, and tragedy; they provide historical and spiritual wisdom to encourage capacious, liberal vision.”19 Chaplains remind us that, all too often, we “can’t control what’s happening in outer space,” but that we can learn practices to “control what’s happening in inner space.”20 In the quest for meaning and coherence, in ordinary and extraordinary moments, chaplains serve as ethical guides and exegetes of individual and communal lives. The toolkits of chaplains—the practices, dispositions, and abilities to occupy spaces of unknowing—serve campus communities when things fall apart, when the center cannot hold, when there is darkness where the future should be. But because practice is always, explicitly or implicitly, practice for something—a life well lived, compassion, death—it welcomes an unknown future and fosters hope that we might meet the coming day with our best, most awakened selves.


  1. Janet M. Cooper Nelson, foreword to College and University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century: A Multifaith Look at the Practice of Ministry on Campuses across America, ed. Lucy A. Forster-Smith (Skylight Paths, 2013), xi.
  2. Of Many: Then and Now, directed by Linda G. Mills, executive produced by Chelsea Clinton (2014; Interfaith Broadcasting Commission and ABC, 2017), film.
  3. John Schmalzbauer, “Campus Prophets, Spiritual Guides, or Interfaith Traffic Directors? The Many Lives of College and University Chaplains,” Luce Lectures on the Changing Role of Chaplains in American Higher Education, November 13, 2018.
  4. Lucy Forster-Smith, Crossing Thresholds: The Making and Remaking of a Twenty-First Century College Chaplain (Cascade Books, 2015), 4–5.
  5. Janet Cooper Nelson’s and Cheryl Giles’s observations were both made during gatherings of campus chaplains—Janet’s was from a 2019 working group convened by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, hosted by Auburn Seminary and sponsored by The Henry Luce Foundation, and Cheryl’s happened during a summer 2020 convening of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.
  6. With support from the Organizational Design Lab at Hillel International, over two dozen students from groups underrepresented in Office of Religious and Spiritual Life programs were interviewed about how and where they spent their time, what made them anxious and what brought them joy, and what impressions—honestly—they had of the office.
  7. Derived from a tradition of Japanese self-defense, jo kata involves moving through a ritualized sequence of motions performed with a staff. As students learned the movements, they began to embody a fully sensory awareness of each other. From a distance, the jo kata teacher could see individual and communal patterns—the students who took up too much space, the students who shrank from conflict, the students who struggled to raise their voices. This yearlong community-building fellowship provided a felt experience of collaboration, a mirror of group dynamics, and a window into each individual’s patterns of engagement.
  8. This work dovetailed nicely with the language of “spiritual practices” that Nancy Fuchs Kreimer had been exploring through a multiyear initiative supported by the Henry Luce Foundation called “Campus Chaplaincy for a Multifaith World,” which included representatives from Vassar. Kreimer and Aeschlimann invited Stephanie Paulsell, Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School, to give a talk at Vassar titled “The Art of Living: Practices for Flourishing in a Fractured World,” followed by faculty members offering workshops on writing, reading, moving, contemplating, and activism.
  9. For this and others of Harrison Blum’s kinesthetic and experiential spiritual endeavors, see Moving Dharma,
  10. Why Are We So Lonely?Metaphysical Milkshake, season 1, episode 2, September 25, 2019.
  11. Varun Soni, “There’s a Loneliness Crisis on College Campuses,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2019.
  12. Frank Bruni, “The Real Campus Scourge,” The New York Times, September, 2, 2017.
  13. Asha Shipman, “Space for Spiritual Care,” in Hindu Approaches to Spiritual Care: Chaplaincy in Theory and Practice, ed. Vineet Chander and Lucinda Mosher (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019), 181–82.
  14. Forster-Smith, Crossing Thresholds, 4.
  15. adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press, 2017), 88.
  16. See
  17. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” was written in 1919, first printed in The Dial in November 1920, and included in his 1921 collection, Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
  18. Goldberg’s op-ed appeared in The New York Times, January 24, 2020,
  19. Cooper Nelson, foreword to College and University Chaplaincy, xiii.
  20. “Dr. Varun Soni: Mindfulness, Leadership, Spirituality,” Finding Mastery 96, November 8, 2017,

Celene Ibrahim, MDiv ’11, served as the Muslim chaplain at Tufts University from 2014 to 2019 and is presently a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy and is the Muslim chaplain at Groton School. She is the author of Women and Gender in the Qur’an (Oxford University Press, 2020) and the editor of One Nation, Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets (Wipf & Stock, 2019). She holds a PhD from Brandeis University and an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School.

Elizabeth H. Aeschlimann is the interim director of community building at Tufts Hillel and served as the Rose and Irving Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life and assistant director for religious and spiritual life at Vassar College from 2017 to 2020. She received her MDiv in 2017 from Harvard Divinity School, where she studied the role of spirituality in social change.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer is Associate Professor of Religious Studies Emerita and the founding director of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she was ordained in 1982. She holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School and a PhD from Temple University and is the author and editor of several books. With support from the Henry Luce Foundation, she has pioneered innovative national campus chaplaincy gatherings and other multifaith initiatives.

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