Sacred Stories Inspire Public Responsibility
A university project with refugees exemplifies chaplaincy decentered.
Students and Professor Robert Karl working on the Asylum Project at Princeton University. Courtesy Matthew Weiner
By Matthew Weiner
What does it mean to be a chaplain at a secular university for religiously diverse students who want to engage the world? There are many ways to answer this question, but here I will focus on one project I found myself working on as a chaplain at Princeton: what went on to become the Religion and Forced Migration Initiative. This project has expanded the ways I think about the possibilities of chaplaincy and its unique role within a university. The stories of how events unfold on a particular campus and the meanings we choose to make of them are at the heart of my own work and discernment process.
The curious story of how the Office of Religious Life came to be involved in this project is one of friendship with the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Roman Catholic lay community that started as a group of high school students and now works with refugees around the world. We were inspired by their model, and when a graduating student helped us see the huge student interest that already existed on our campus, we worked with students to organize an international conference on religion and refugees.
Religious leaders routinely respond to problems in the communities and worlds around them. Before I was a chaplain, I worked as a grassroots interfaith organizer in Sri Lanka, in New York, and at the United Nations. In each case, we recognized the role religion plays in the social and moral lives of underprivileged communities. Parallel to this, I was working on a dissertation that argued that grassroots interfaith organizing fosters civil society and civic engagement. In the case of this project, chaplaincy was a way to respond with and around religious identity.
And so our conference drew attention to the outsized—though rarely noticed or understood—role that religion plays in why people move and in how they resettle and make sense of their lives. Because there was a gap in public, scholarly, and professional knowledge on this topic, we found it easy to convene hundreds of interested professionals, scholars, volunteers, United Nations officials, grassroots organizers, students, and refugees. We were not experts in refugee work, so our strategy was to invite friends in each of these categories, starting with Sant’Egidio, and encourage them to invite their friends. We made a point of speaking with almost everyone before they came, and these conversations shaped the conference—and made us many more friends still. The conference then led to the ongoing Religion and Forced Migration Initiative that continues to develop as a series of experiments.1
Our initiative began responding to this “religion gap” through a series of national-level symposia that oriented resettlement offices to the role religion plays in the resettlement process.2 All refugees enter the United States through one of nine agencies, and while we believe that understanding the religious and spiritual life of refugees is critical to understanding their experience and to promoting their successful resettlement, within these agencies, religion often goes unaddressed.3 We wanted to ask: How does the religious life of refugees inform the mental and civic health of these new Americans? How do advocates engage local religious actors in a way that fosters civic ties between new citizens, religious communities, and the agencies themselves, while deepening resources for civic participation, resiliency, and mental health?
These symposia helped resettlement offices develop what is often called “religious literacy,” and they were also a venue for knowledge production for the field. Scholars, refugees, religious leaders, and advocates served as our faculty for various sessions on such themes as the role of spiritual care, the ways congregational participation builds good citizenry, and the ways in which religious and secular nonprofits can interface meaningfully with refugees during the resettlement process. For example, Drocella Mugorewera, a Christian refugee from Rwanda, said that when she fled her home country, “[her] weapons were always [her] rosary and [her] Bible.” They helped her to escape troubled times and gave her a reason to keep going. Before arriving in the United States, she was in hiding for nine months and couldn’t go to church, which she said was the most difficult part of her journey. The church community she encountered upon resettlement invited her family to picnics, BBQs, and other events, and “always made [them] feel welcome.” Ven. Rath Muni of the Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple in South Philadelphia fled the Khmer Rouge when he was 10 years old. Only he and his father survived, finally coming to the United States. Religion, he said, had shaped their lives, and since many of the monks in Cambodia were killed in the conflict, he decided to get ordained a year later. He has served his community as the abbot of a temple, which provides a space for community building, prayer, and meditation instruction, all of which are badly needed. “Our community,” he says, “was all but destroyed.”
At the symposia, students served as rapporteurs, joined us for meals, and learned alongside workshop participants. As trainings took place, we realized how important the opportunity for retreat, lament, and community building was for all refugee advocates. Moreover, we organized these gatherings during a time of crisis as the Trump administration brought the refugee resettlement system to the edge of collapse.4
Along the way, I practiced chaplaincy for the students, though perhaps it went unseen. Chaplaincy is called the invisible and unmeasurable work; it is the most intimate social space within an institution, the opportunity to reflect spiritually and confidentially with another.5 In this case, it happened on the go, through working with student volunteers: as they reflected on the religious life of others in relationship to their own, as they explored professional interests, and as they befriended refugees and their advocates. The experience of volunteering often led to an internship or to continued work with our program, and while career development is a hallmark of any good college education, this type of engaged chaplaincy offers a unique location from which to reflect on vocation.
Chaplaincy is usually understood as a formal activity, but often I find it happens by accident, in stairwells and hallways, and when working together on service projects.6 When chaplaincy is decentered in this way, it happens differently in terms of its tenor, topic, and audience. A student athlete named Melia Chittenden never sought me out as a chaplain, but after she served as a rapporteur for our first workshop, she accepted a summer internship we funded. Another student, Emma Coley, was a rapporteur for our first conference, and this led to her involvement in our asylum project. Before she accepted her offer to attend Princeton, she had sought me out to share concerns that she would be unable to fully pursue her spiritual and activist life at a school that so emphasized academic excellence and career development. I assured her otherwise, and this program was just one way in which we reflected together informally and worked together to combine the rich range of practices that run through university life for someone like her.7
Looking back, I can see that we ran a kind of educational service program with and for students out of a shared care for the world. One of our themes was drawing attention to religion as a resource, as it tends to be missing from professionalized secular knowledge and is something that we as chaplains have some experience with. We convened as a strategy of religious leadership. And throughout, we conducted chaplaincy in ways that were often enhanced by the work at hand.
As we developed the symposia, conversations with refugees inspired us to develop an oral history project. Our plan was to create an archive for and about resettled refugees in the United States that gathered stories focusing on their journeys, resettlement, and adjustment, as well as the role religion played in their lives.8 The literature on American refugees is extensive, but little of it makes refugee voices central, and even less addresses their religious experiences and identities. When we conceived this project, we imagined resettlement officers would conduct the interviews, but by the time the project got underway, the national resettlement agencies had shrunk drastically, and the staff that remained were unable to serve as planned. Before we knew it, students had taken their place. The result is that, to date, we have trained and dispatched some 70 students to find refugee narrators both through refugee-related internships and in their hometowns during school breaks.
Each student who shared their story taught us something new. Simone Wallk interviewed a number of Muslim Special Immigrant Visa holders from Afghanistan who had been resettled by Christ Church in Alexandria. She wrote: “I was struck by how little they had, and yet how they radiated gratitude. They offered me such hospitality even though their situation was fraught. It drew me to prepare carefully and listen with all my attention and with humility.”
After another student, Amna Amin, conducted a series of oral histories, she decided to apply to graduate programs in refugee studies. A successful student, she astutely noticed that her Muslim identity likely created a more confessional space between her and the Muslim refugees she met with. It also encouraged her to be less cynical about faith. One of the narrators she encountered was a paraplegic Syrian refugee who had been imprisoned for distributing food under the Assad regime. He shared with her how hard he found it to be just a recipient of help, how it was a privilege to help others, and how he was optimistic about being able to help again in the future. Amna later reflected: “Faith was the thing that allowed him and others to navigate these uncertain times, these situations outside of their control. I went from thinking that having faith might be naive to thinking it was wise. Listening to them changed my own orientation.”
There are certainly limits to this student-as-oral-historian model. Still, it has transformed how we approach our work in crucial ways. First, it helped clarify our project’s model as reciprocally educational: both an oral history archive with and for refugees and a training ground for students to become public historians and good listeners. Taking oral histories encouraged self-reflection, relationship building, and community-organizing skills, fostering the kinds of conversations we wish for among students that foreground one’s inner life as it relates to religious difference and the social good. When students sought out refugees in their hometowns, they learned about the refugee communities they had been living among, often without realizing it. Finding and befriending refugee communities changed their sense of community, as well as their sense of self.
And this project also engaged students who were children of refugees who reminded us that refugees are successful citizens in our country. We witnessed that when a student’s life experience suddenly begins to relate to their schoolwork, they can find a heightened sense of purpose and belonging in the community. Marayam Kamal is a Coptic Christian who found it easy to gather oral histories from her own community, but also encountered the unexpected. “When people told me their stories, it was the first time I was no longer a kid they were talking to,” she said. But as she listened, she identified patterns that, however common they may be in a refugee community, were difficult for her to hear. Her experiences led us to reflect on questions of responsibility and how she might respond in ways that maintain the dignity of those who suffer. Being in dialogue with Marayam, as I was with Simone, Amna, and others, led me to see another way chaplaincy arises, and inviting them to be in conversation about their experience led me to yet another.
Attention to the embedded learning outcomes I’ve described here is an important part of what might distinguish oral history as overseen by a chaplain’s office from a similar project run by an academic department. It is perhaps a radical departure from the typical stance of an academic department to say that we understand the act of sharing stories to be sacred. Put another way, there is an intimacy and uncertainty created around the authentic and spontaneous sharing of anyone’s story, especially one that revolves around a religious life, suffering, and identity reconfiguration, as a refugee story often does.
Oral historians are understandably concerned with learning how to listen in ways accountable to professionalism, knowledge production, and ethical standards. In comparison to ethnography or journalism, oral history centers the narrator’s ability to share on their own terms without a tightly fixed agenda. But I think this is different from sensitizing oneself to what one might call the mystery of encounter, so my concerns always include how to listen with one’s heart, and how to care for oneself and another in the process. What happens to me when I hear someone’s story? When the story is a religious one? With our refugee project in particular, what is learned about the act of sharing stories and the experience of encounter by everyone involved?
It makes sense for a project-oriented chaplain like myself to initiate an oral history project about the religious stories of a community: religious life, broadly understood, is important to many, and yet it is often dramatically ignored by secular institutional understandings of social problems or cultural phenomena. What was unexpected was how the methods and discipline of oral history could deepen our own practices of chaplaincy and how our practices in turn had the potential to inform the discipline of oral history itself.9
Over time, our symposia catalyzed the creation of the Princeton Asylum Project, which matches scholars with asylum seekers in need of an expert witness. We were able to launch such a program by collaborating with a team of student workers and developing a partnership with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. The process is straightforward: Catholic Charities provides us with a case; the student team identifies and recruits a scholar capable and willing to serve as an expert witness and then connects the scholar back to the lawyer at Catholic Charities. Students also offer assistance as junior researchers to the scholars. The project has been successful on a practical and moral level (matches have been made for cases from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti, Angola, and Cameroon), and we plan to host a dinner for everyone involved when such gatherings are again possible.
The backstory is important because it shows how cultivating relationships with multiple communities is a crucial element to project-based chaplaincy. During our first workshop, one of the participants—Kelly Agnew-Barajas at the New York archdiocese—asked a favor. She explained that her agency worked for asylum seekers, and while they had good lawyers, they lacked access to expert witnesses. She told us of an upcoming case in which a woman from a particular ethnic group in Congo could not return home out of fear of violence from another ethnic group. The judge who would decide the case would likely not be persuaded by this argument if it was made by her lawyer but would be much more likely to be convinced if a Princeton professor with expertise in Congolese politics submitted an affidavit.
Helping seemed easy enough, so I asked Professor Stanley Katz and Emma Coley, introduced above, to meet with Kelly and me. After a few conversations, Emma invited 10 of her friends to create a student team, and the archdiocese began sending asylum cases. Students were assigned to locate and secure scholars whose expertise matched each particular case, and once a “match” was made, the lawyer, client, and expert witness were put in contact with one another.
Students were eager to be involved, and scholars around the country responded quickly. Besides the profound act of possibly helping to save another’s life, we were stirred to reflect on how bringing the resources of academic institutions to real-world situations changed our sense of public responsibility. I didn’t know Kelly when she informally asked for help, but when she did, I realized that by connecting her to others, I could likely be of help. I also realized that answering her was outside of my official mandate as chaplain. Both of these observations say something about my evolving understanding of chaplaincy as institutionally embedded: First, I can often help simply by being sensitive to where I am placed (and who I am near). Second, saying “yes” to unexpected tasks or opportunities is a requirement of chaplaincy in ways that might be similar to other professions of caregiving.
This of course does not mean agreeing to take on every new “ask,” but it does get at something important about how a professional or vocational identity can shape one’s sense of agency. It also made me wonder about the role of chaplaincy within any institution that is robustly engaged in public service, such as a university. Put another way, scholars, students, and chaplains are not trained to help asylum seekers, and yet a call for help triggered us to look at one another and agree that we could easily do so and were in some way responsible.
Engaging in this work offered clear benefits for students, as locating professors and helping to write affidavits offered them the opportunity to participate in meaningful work and develop research skills. In addition, they have come to learn that asking for help is not a weakness but instead can lead to positive results on many levels. Professors have also experienced an unexpected opportunity to have their intellectual expertise affect the life of another. And the invitation to do so comes by way of a student, someone they might ordinarily teach and evaluate but who, in this situation, is facilitating their moral action. Students and professors have learned together that their lives on campus can have an impact on the world through their shared work. The project has created opportunities for relationships and even friendships between students, scholars, lawyers, and asylum seekers.
How does the university allow for engagement and compassion, and how is it reciprocally shaped by the work we do? What does this say about the nature of an engaged university and of compassion?
While the individuals involved are to be praised, and it is a chaplain’s duty to encourage and appreciate kindness, the initiative has also urged me to reflect on the nature of a university and its possibility to act as a moral force. How does the university as an institution allow for engagement and compassion, and how is it reciprocally shaped by the work we do? What does this say about the nature of an engaged university and of compassion? Answering these questions from the location of chaplaincy can lead to an essay like this one. But asking these questions of others doing similar work, be they students, scholars, administrators, or outside advocates, not only led to an expanding sense of the university as a social force but was itself a part of chaplaincy.
These are a few of many stories, and they leave me with quandaries that I find worthy of further exploration. What happens to us when you ask me for help? Kelly’s story above shows how asking can lead to practical results, but chaplaincy also includes the broader aspiration to change how we relate to one another, including the opportunity to be kind. Kindness can come by my asking or being asked, or by suggestions that run any which way. When organizing our original conference, we invited the poet Tracy K. Smith to take part. She offered to read a poem. In return I suggested that she come join the conversations and then reflect on them in the closing to the conference. She did, weaving quotes she overheard into a found poem and then reading a poem she had written that morning, the opening line of which reflected on how to understand another’s suffering.10 An invitation led to an offer, which triggered a new suggestion that led to a poet listening as she likely always does. Her reflection then helped make a community.
As this project developed, there were a number of similar small coincidences and almost accidental invitations that led to social change and reflection, enough so, perhaps, to give credence to the phenomenology of chaplaincy as apparent accidents. This may be important for chaplains to consider, especially in institutions that understand accidents differently. Friendship, too, plays a critical role in my chaplaincy as an orientation to draw from, a strategy that can drive partnership and project development, and a doctrinal resource. Friendship led to our original project on refugees as much as the issue itself, and while “friend” is not a professional identity, both chaplaincy and friendship are undoubtedly ethical frameworks that are potentially theological by nature. Finally, this project raises interesting theoretical questions around chaplaincy as a multifaceted form of public religion, and public scholarship, when housed in the secular academy.
On this last note, institutional thinking and thinking as a chaplain might appear to be like apples and oranges when it comes to ways of approaching the world, and yet a good chaplain holds both in mind. A chaplain must respond from the heart, but the same chaplain must be sensitive to the institution that grants them agency and which, by their agency, they participate in making.11 Doing this can and should lead to examples of responses as structurally and pedagogically diverse as those described here.
I have come to believe that the practice of chaplaincy, as well as the continual reflection upon it, is as much an orientation as it is a discrete profession. The story of chaplaincy is always one of response. With this in mind, it is always unexpected, as we cannot know the heart of another, nor can we predict how we might respond authentically, until the moment of encounter occurs. This principle holds true when programs are understood as a form of pastoral care, or when pastoral care becomes programmatic through improvisational response. What I describe here is nothing new, and the example of the antiwar chaplain at Yale University, William Sloane Coffin, still looms large in the collective imagination. But there are endless examples just as interesting for us if we look at any institution’s history. Twenty years before my arrival at Princeton, my predecessor, Sue Anne Steffey Morrow, found herself meeting with LGBTQ students in need of confidential support, and over time, this led to the best-resourced LGBTQ center in the country.
The majority of my time as a chaplain is spent with individuals or in small group discussions around religious life. This is a most precious end in itself. Yet working with and for refugees is another way a chaplain can respond with and for students, the university community, those in need, and the wider public.
- Our conference was developed with Maya Wahrman. Katherine Clifton oversees the Religion and Forced Migration Initiative, which is funded in part by the Henry Luce Foundation, and Stanley N. Katz and I are co–principle investigators. Our central institutional partner is Todd Scribner of the Department of Migration and Refugee Services in the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference. Melissa Borja is our senior advisor for our oral history project. Because this essay focuses on chaplaincy, I am its sole author, but their role in the work has been essential and central.
- Our alternative and complementary approach was developed at the Interfaith Center of New York and argues for teaching secular agencies about religion through discussion with religious community members as they share the role religion plays in their lives. While there is a great deal of literature on the role of religion in refugee studies, there is very little material on refugee resettlement in the United States.
- There are nine resettlement agencies that help resettle all refugees into the United States. The Refugee Act of 1980, signed into law by Jimmy Carter after being passed unanimously by the Senate, established the framework that continues to guide the refugee resettlement process today. Most of the agencies are faith based, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and Church World Service. Although they are religiously oriented, these agencies operate as part of a public/private partnership that is more secular in scope. The distinction between a religious or secular organization being or behaving in a way that is religious is of course distinct from understanding religion and engaging with religious actors, but the distinction can be missed or misunderstood.
- For more information on the decimation of the resettlement program, see Refugee Council USA, “Where Are the Refugees? Drastic Cuts to Refugee Resettlement Harming Refugees, Communities, and American Leadership” (2019). From Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 through June 2019, resettlement agencies had to close 51 resettlement programs and suspend resettlement services in 41 offices across 23 states. More have closed since then. The first half of 2019 saw a 70 percent decline in refugee arrivals, as compared with the first half of 2017. For a better understanding of the worldview that helped to shape the Trump administration’s response to refugee resettlement, particularly during the early part of the administration, see Todd Scribner, “You Are Not Welcome Here Anymore: Restoring Support for Refugee Resettlement in the Age of Trump,” Journal of Migration and Human Security 5, no. 2 (2017): 263–84.
- Chaplaincy as the invisible work is a phrase I first heard in conversation with Rabbi David Leipziger Teva.
- Bakhtin’s observation that for Dostoevsky all essential events happen apparently by accident in stairwells and corridors is a helpful way of identifying the role of informal and chance encounters in chaplaincy; Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 149.
- Emma Coley reflected on her work in her acceptance speech for Princeton’s Pyne Prize.
- We have trained over 70 students in our oral history methodology and have collected over 150 oral histories. The archive will be made public on our digital humanities site in fall 2021. A central model for our project is the Hmong Women’s Action Team Oral History Project at the Minnesota Historical Society. Led by refugees, this project particularly centered the experiences of women, who are often overlooked. Moreover, the interviews were conducted with attention to the internal diversity of Hmong people, and the narrators were of different generations, classes, and religions. For an explanation of the significance of oral history methods in studying religious life, see Melissa May Borja, “Speaking of Spirits: Oral History, Religious Change, and the Seen and Unseen Worlds of Hmong Americans,” Oral History Review 44, no. 1 (November 2019): 1–18.
- Our project is overseen by a professional oral historian familiar with refugee trauma, and this partnership has provided an opportunity to think between professional identities in a fresh way that we hope to publicly reflect upon in the future. Part of our practice includes reflecting with student oral historians before and after their interviews about their experiences.
- Tracy K. Smith, “Refuge,” in Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2019), 73.
- This is not so distant from Ricoeur’s understanding of ethics as “aiming at a good life lived with and for others in just institutions”; Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 172.
Matthew Weiner, MTS ’99, is an associate dean in the Office of Religious Life at Princeton University. He is the principle investigator (with Stanley N. Katz) of the Religion and Forced Migration Initiative.