By: Rob Spach ’84
If you’re walking by the sculpture garden in front of the library on the next couple of Thursdays during Common Hour, you may notice signs for something called the Chaplains’ Café. This outdoor set-up with coffee and home-baked treats for passers-by was prompted by questions we’ve heard from students this year: What is a college chaplain? What do chaplains do? Do you have to be religious to talk to a chaplain? The Chaplains’ Café gives everyone an easy opportunity to get to know this offbeat kind of spiritual leader called a chaplain. And we hope it will give us, your chaplains, a chance to meet students who might not drop by our space on the top floor of the College Union.
Although Davidson’s chaplains come from four distinct traditions – Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, and Presbyterian – we’re all interested in connecting with people of any and every worldview and tradition. That’s part of the point of being a chaplain. Unlike some clergy, we’re not as concerned with telling people about our own beliefs and practices as with learning about theirs. Our role is more about listening than preaching; it’s centered in caring about people wherever they are in life; it’s as much about probing questions as clear-cut answers.
We connect with students in all kinds of ways. Some are formal, like teaching meditation, leading worship, discussing scripture with small groups, or organizing events for diverse holy days. Others are more casual: talking about life over a cup of coffee, or reflecting on big questions about sexuality or grief or God or what in the world to do with your life. Still others are rooted in experiences like taking part in a Black Lives Matter die-in, organizing trips abroad that connect identity, social justice, and spirituality, or fostering conversations between people of various religious and secular worldviews. We’re not about pegging people as conservative or progressive, as red, blue, or purple. Instead, we’re about human flourishing for everyone.
Chaplains nurture a wide range of activities on campus. As Davidson becomes ever more diverse, we’ve enjoyed helping students figure out how they want to make this part of their college experience more inclusive. Historically, we’ve had many Christian organizations and events on campus; while those continue to thrive, now we’ve also got Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and interfaith opportunities. And mindfulness meditation on Tuesdays is as easy for an agnostic or atheist to connect with as it is for someone from a traditional religious background.
Often we meet one-on-one with students to help them think things through. We’re not therapists, but we are trained in what’s called pastoral counseling. Every person has dignity, worth, and a unique story. As chaplains we want to pay attention, appreciate, and be present to each person and what matters to them. We offer a stable, peaceful space where anyone can be authentic about what’s going on in life, draw on their own spirituality or learn new practices for dealing with hard things, and figure out for themselves what it means to live with integrity. (So to answer one of the questions above, you definitely don’t need to be religious to talk to a chaplain.)
On the coming Thursdays we’ll be in the sculpture garden. On a permanent basis, though, we have a great space on the top floor of the Union called the Oasis. For five years now, it has been a haven from the busy pace of Davidson. It is quiet, peaceful, and has lots of light. Open to anyone as a place to find some peace, to meditate, to pray, to just sit and breathe, we call it a sacred space, but it doesn’t have any religious symbols. It’s a place to be yourself, whoever you are. Whether you swing by the Chaplains’ Café or make your way to the Oasis sometime, know that from the perspective of the chaplains, you belong-and we wish you the best on your journey.
Rob Spach ’84 is the Davidson College Chaplain. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org