In the eyes of College Chaplain Rob Spach ‘84, Davidson may soon see “a blossoming in the interfaith community” with the hiring of Reverend Grace Burford as the Buddhist Chaplain. With her arrival, Buddhism is now the first non-Abrahamic religion represented by the Davidson chaplaincy, and its inclusion is an important step in expanding Davidson’s religious diversity.
In the past, Davidson has had issues with properly fostering Buddhist practices. According to Spach, “The Buddhist community has not had direct support for their tradition. There were limits in the past of what I could do for Buddhist students.” This lack of administrative representation was only bolstered by the theological differences between the God-centric nature of the established Abrahamic religions on campus and the non-theistic beliefs of Buddhism.
Burford understands both traditionalist and westernized perspectives of her religion. After a Christian upbringing in southern Kentucky, she first experienced Buddhism through an Asian religions course in college. From there, she became active in the Buddhist community, traveling to Thailand and Sri Lanka for spiritual studies, and eventually took on teaching positions at academic institutions, including Georgetown University and James Madison University.
So why come to Davidson? Burford said she wants a position in which she can “foster personal and spiritual growth in students.” Her new role has distinct responsibilities aimed not just at the Buddhist community, but also the student body as a whole. The most important of these include promoting meditation practices on campus and coordinating interfaith activities.
The value of interfaith dialogue at Davidson is in one sense historical. “As a part of Davidson’s Presbyterian tradition, we value the life of the spirit broadly defined,” explained Spach. “We want to help students practice their own religions and find contexts for fellowship, worship, or meditation.”
Perhaps more applicable to students, there is an important educational aspect to interfaith that promotes social and personal growth. This is best exemplified in student groups like Better Together and Interfaith Dinner Club, both of which Burford is involved in.
Better Together is a broad activist group aimed at creating discussion between student groups of different faiths and philosophies. Julia Burkley ‘18, one of the organization’s leaders, promotes it as “creating the space to allow [minority groups] to craft their own voice.” Burkley, who has quickly befriended Burford through her work in interfaith and casual conversation, lauds her addition as adding “deeper administrative legitimacy to interfaith dialogue on campus.”
Similarly, Interfaith Dinner Club provides a forum for spiritual discussion through communal meals that Spach and Burford help plan. Sarah Mayer ‘20, a participant in the club, emphasizes the need to publicize interfaith discussion for the sake of minority groups. “Our campus tends to be very Christian, so it is important to let minority faith traditions know that this is a safe place for them and people want to have discussions with them,” she stated.
Burford’s vast experience in meditation may be one of the most important contributions to the expansion of interfaith discussion on campus. Many hope having a professional like Burford, who teaches stress-relieving and focusing techniques, will attract students, even non-religious ones, into the Chaplain’s Office.
Students like Nathan Little ‘21 are vital in raising attention for meditation amongst students of all religious backgrounds. Similarly to Burford, Little grew up in a predominantly Christian community and made his connection to Buddhism through a high school religions course. In his short time at Davidson, he has already made his mark on the spiritual community on campus and attended a spiritual retreat with Burford earlier in the school year.
Little, who regularly practices meditation, attests that it is difficult to learn individually as meditations are goal-based. “You need a guide to help you through the process,” he explained. “Meditations are very intentionally designed. The hour is an integrated experience.”
Burford’s meditations usually focus on mindfulness or love, with both styles working together in combination for a greater spiritual benefit. In mindfulness sessions, the goal is to clear one’s mind in order to notice what thoughts and feelings arise internally; conversely, love meditations are aimed at putting good thoughts and feelings in one’s mind through focus and chants.
“I want to help people sort out the chaotic mess known as meditation. The term is often loosely applied,” said Burford. “The effectiveness of meditation relies on intent.”
With a personality often described as “zen,” Burford makes for an approachable resource. According to Little, “[Burford] is very engaging and accepting, and she strikes a tone of pluralism.” Her pluralism and openness specifically were major factors in her hiring, according to Spach, who also assures the student body that “Reverend Burford does not carry heavy theological baggage and is used to working with non-religious students.”
Burford is regularly available and open to discussion in the Chaplain’s Office, located on the top floor of the Union. On Wednesday nights at 8:00 p.m., she hosts Davidson Dharma, a discussion for students interested in Buddhism, and at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoons, she hosts mindfulness sessions.