Interfaith Chaplains Revitalize An Old Role On College Campuses
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A third of young Americans report no religious affiliation. Given the odds, you might expect life around a college chaplain's office to be pretty dull these days. But as Monique Parsons found out, new interfaith chaplains are transforming and revitalizing this old role.
ENGIE SALAMA: Awesome, please have some pizza, welcome. And also, if you speak, please just share your name with us, your major, your year...
MONIQUE PARSONS, BYLINE: It's a Tuesday night at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Students wander into a meeting room and find a spot on the circle of couches.
SALAMA: Hi, welcome. Are you here for interfaith council?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.
SALAMA: Yay, what's your name?
PARSONS: This is USC's interfaith council. This evening, there are Muslim students, Catholics, a Sikh, an agnostic and a few that are hard to pin down.
JOSEPH ROSS: I do a Bible study pretty consistently every year with the Navigators, which is an Evangelical Christian group on campus.
PARSONS: Joseph Ross is a junior from El Segundo.
ROSS: I have also done a Torah study my freshman year. I do atheist club and I've done a Muslim halaqa, which is kind of a teaching. It was a...
PARSONS: Ross is a religion major and - while you might not guess it - a lifelong Methodist. USC Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, says this complexity is common.
VARUN SONI: Some just come up with these hybridized identities - I'm a Zen Christian, I'm sushi. I was like, what's sushi? Oh, my mom is Sunni and my father is Shia, so I'm sushi. I'm a Hin-Jew, I'm a Jew-Bu.
PARSONS: Campus chaplain offices are scrambling to reach students like these. At USC, hundreds show up when Soni invites star athletes to talk about spirituality or actor Rainn Wilson to give a lecture on his Bahai faith. There's a popular lunch series with professors called "What Matters To Me And Why?"
SONI: Our office is not oriented around God. Our office is oriented around the big questions of meaning and purpose, of significance and authenticity.
PARSONS: Soni's not the stereotypical chaplain. He's not even a clergyman. He's a Hindu with a law degree and a PhD in religious studies.
SONI: It was a really out-of-the-box hire. It really was.
PARSONS: In a way, chaplains like Soni are more like interfaith cruise directors than traditional pastors. Soni oversees 100 student religious groups and 50 chaplains of different faiths, including a new atheist chaplain to serve secular students. At Yale, a Catholic laywoman runs the religious life office. At Emory, in Atlanta, a school affiliated with the Methodist Church, an Imam recently made the shortlist for chaplain. Seminaries are taking note. At the Claremont School of Theology in Southern California, a student practices piano inside the chapel. There's a big cross up front, but also symbols from other faiths. The school has partnered with local Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish seminaries. It's also created new degree programs to reach millennial's interested in ministry.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDHIST BELL)
PARSONS: Nat DeLuca taps the meditation bell in his Claremont dorm room. He's in his second year of a new interfaith chaplaincy track at Claremont. He grew up Lutheran, practiced yoga in college and now identifies as Buddhist.
NAT DELUCA: I had been waiting for this program for a long time.
PARSONS: He believes his experience practicing different religions is a plus, even if those religions sometimes contradict each other.
DELUCA: The comfort with paradox is something that my generation is adept at. It's like I'm able to hold opposing viewpoints in my mind and see both sides. And there is immense value in that.
PARSONS: It's also a marketable skill. Graduates of Claremont's new interfaith programs are getting jobs - at colleges with denominations and nonprofits. DeLuca dreams of becoming a wilderness chaplain, pastoring outdoor adventurers open to life's big questions. For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons.
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