Before classes began this fall, The Knox Student received two Letters to the Editor about the new addition of Lisa Seiwert as the college’s first Director of Spiritual Life.
On Sept. 1, TKS received its first Letter to the Editor from a recent alum, who identified herself as atheist, and raised a few questions that other students later echoed:
“How can a place promise spiritual support if all spirits are not being represented? How can a person without religion feel comfortable being guided and supported by someone with a specific religious bias?” Julia Shenkar ‘12 wrote, referring to Seiwert’s affiliation with the United Church of Christ.
Other Knox students, like senior Rachel Horne, voiced similar sentiments.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a Jewish faith leader or a Muslim faith leader, or somebody from a non-privileged faith,” Horne said. “It just made my heart sink. Which is not to say that she’s [not] a great spiritual leader or someone who can do a lot on our campus, but it was just another opportunity to see myself represented that was not met.”
Another point addressed in Shenkar’s Letter to the Editor was the fact that Knox is a secular school, and therefore has no obligation to “cater to the religious and spiritual needs of its students,” according to its mission statement.
A second Letter to the Editor from senior JC Stokes countered that point.
“Providing these supports is part of Knox College’s mission statement. In promising to ‘extend [Knox’s] ongoing commitment to a diverse community of students, faculty and staff with each new hiring’ our college has promised to provide supports for religious students who are struggling with their faith,” Stokes wrote.
Seniors Rebecca Katz and Diandra Soemardi, two students who worked with faculty to interview potential candidates for the position, spoke on the struggles that religious students have had in the past on campus and how they hope Seiwert can help act as an advocate for these students.
“I think it’s important just like a diversity chair would be É to really reach out and be an advocate for a very important part of student’s identity, which is spirituality,” Katz said. “But also, as many of our students identify as spiritual or religious I think it’s important that she can act as a mediator between those different groups, just kind of help students answer those essential questions which religion and spirituality do seek out.”
Senior Micah Wilger, who represents the Orthodox Christian Fellowship on Interfaith Council, said, “I think sometimes in the past the administration has sort of been wary of dialogue and working with students, particularly students who have a strong religious affiliation. And admittedly, sometimes the student groups haven’t been helpful in that either; I mean, it takes two to tango.”
Students with strong religious identities have expressed that they do not have a way to communicate with the administration about what they need. Soemardi has been told by fellow students that they have trouble getting permission from their professors to take time off for a religious holiday, since the standard school calendar holidays fall around Christmas.
Islamic Club has never secured their own prayer space, praying anywhere from the basement of Seymour Library to the Carl Sandburg Lounge to Old Main classrooms to members’ dorm rooms. They have also addressed the mislabeling of Halal food in the cafeteria, but are still experiencing problems this year, with food including pork and alcohol being labeled Halal.
Making a step forward, Interfaith recently acquired a shared space for religious practice and the religious clubs hope to use it as a prayer space, along with a space for events, talks and more. Seiwert has already met with the students regarding their concerns about the space, including it constantly being locked, the possibility of burning incense and candles and the ability to move objects and decorations around the room. Interfaith Council has just started to have these conversations with Seiwert in the last couple of weeks.
This is the first faculty member who has been hired regarding spiritual life. Statistically, before the hire, Knox was an outlier in its lack of religious resources available to students. There is no person on the faculty who Knox students could approach with problems they were having on campus, whose job specifically concerns religious students and their organizations.
However, Knox is not unique in bringing a spiritual life director to its campus. Of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, only two schools (excluding Knox) do not have a single faculty member dedicated to religious life: Ripon College and Lake Forest College.
Some schools in the ACM are affiliated with religion, such as Luther College or Monmouth College, the later a Presbyterian school. These schools have Chaplains that represent the religion the school is affiliated with, but nothing more to offer. Yet, the other 10 schools have staff members who are specifically on campus to work with religious life.
At Beloit College, a practicer of Tibetan Buddhism holds a similar role to Seiwert. Carleton College’s Office of Chaplains meets with students from religious clubs on a weekly basis. Some colleges, like Macalester College, have several different chaplains representing separate faiths, along with one overarching chaplain for the college. A few, like Lawrence University, have just one Director or Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life. Grinnell College also has a Center for Religious, Spirituality and Social Justice and holds weekly Christian, Jewish and Muslim worships. At their Herrick Chapel, students can use prayer rooms, meditation spaces, a foot bath, a kosher kitchen, amongst other resources.
Knox’s hire is one step toward the patterns that other small liberal arts colleges are showing, but the fact that she is of one faith is concerning to some students.
On Seiwert’s ability to communicate with students of all faiths, Soemardi said, “Her religious identity is her religious identity. É Her main goal is to be an advocate for the students of faith, so if they have trouble talking to professors, talking to the administration, stuff like that, Lisa can amplify our voices. I trust her.”
Both Katz and Soemardi spoke to their hopes for more Interfaith dialogue taking place on campus within the next year. In the past, Interfaith Council has tried to hold their own dialogues, but have been unsure about how to conduct them successfully. They hope that Seiwert can help initiate these dialogues on campus.
A dialogue between students and professors has also been sought out in the past about the way that religion is discussed in class, and making sure that students are not just treating it like a historical identity and instead one that students in the class share and hold as an integral part of their lives.
Horne agrees that a dialogue is necessary on Knox’s campus.
“In the same way that I think … anti-racist education is important, actually taking steps to combat a form of oppression and of erasure, in much the same way I think that would be necessary for religious identities, especially religious identities like Islam and Judaism,” Horne said.
While there are six different religious organizations on campus, Wilger, Soemardi and Katz all agreed that gaining more accessibility and visibility for these groups is a goal for the upcoming year.
“Knox kids, we talk about diversity a lot, we talk about sexuality, we talk about gender, we talk about race, we don’t talk about religion,” Soemardi said. “I don’t know why. It’s part of diversity, it’s part of identity, because religious identity is also diverse. É Just because you’re not religious, you can’t just take it away from people who need it, because that’s a resource for us, and for some of us, it’s important. We just want to exist. We just want to have a voice.”