Emory community invited to shape spiritual life
By Michelle Hiskey | Emory Report | Feb. 17, 2021
Religious and spiritual life at Emory encompasses a diverse range of faiths, communities and organizations. Input from students and other stakeholders will be vital as the university undertakes a comprehensive interfaith strategic plan.
Opportunities for spiritual growth have been part of the Emory experience since the Methodist Church founded Emory College in 1836, and today students and other stakeholders are invited to help shape an inclusive way forward for religious, spiritual and interfaith life. Emory is among the first U.S. research universities to undertake such a comprehensive interfaith strategic plan.
“We want to listen to and engage with a broad diversity of voices about where we are in our spiritual life at Emory — where we excel, what’s challenging, where the gaps are, and what will help meet people’s needs and interests at this time,” says the Rev. Greg McGonigle, dean of religious life and university chaplain. “Our resulting plan will help add life and vibrancy to our community, and reduce biases and prejudice. Like every institution, Emory has both strengths and opportunities in our religious life.”
McGonigle joined Emory in 2019 to lead Emory’s Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL), the university-wide office that supports Emory’s religious and philosophical diversity. In recent years, incidents across college campuses, as well as nationally and globally, involved individuals targeted because of their religious identities. OSRL is one hub for Emory’s response, and part of its role is to support religious diversity on campus and offer programs to increase interfaith understanding.
Expanding Emory’s lens of diversity
The goal of this strategic planning process is to build on Emory’s Methodist heritage — and the university’s interfaith engagement over the past 30 years — to chart Emory’s diverse spiritual life and interfaith engagement for the next five years.
This strategic planning is distinct from but complementary to a strategic planning process beginning in Emory’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“[ORSL’s] strategic planning process is more intimate and expands the lens of diversity specifically to create a more holistic look at our spiritual and religious lives,” says Carol E. Henderson, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and adviser to the Emory president. “When you think of Atlanta and its role in civil rights, that was rooted within the spiritual space. Emory has individuals who practice different religions and express different spiritual practices, and philosophical beliefs. That is what the academic community should be, a place where we discover the essence of who we are, and we want to create a campus dialogue to explore that. Religious and spiritual life is an important dimension of the diversity work at Emory.”
The strategic planning process is expected to gain momentum this year, beginning with a working group phase this semester, followed by blueprinting in the summer and new programmatic initiatives beginning in the fall semester.
“This planning is exceedingly important for us,” says Enku Gelaye, vice president and dean of campus life. “It gives us insights to what the needs are of everyone on campus, and how to adjust our priorities to meet the ongoing challenges that are very present in the world. It’s especially important now as demographics of our university are shifting every year, and our model of service delivery needs to recalibrate every year — for first-generation students, for example, and also students with various religious or spiritual, or non-spiritual, backgrounds. We want to keep pace with the sensibilities our students bring, especially about something as personal, intimate and so critical for community building as religion.”
Developing Emory’s multifaith model
The strategic planning came out of Emory’s shift to a multifaith approach to religious life under McGonigle, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who is Emory’s first non-Methodist university chaplain. As dean, he leads Emory’s vision for spiritual life and interfaith engagement, and has hired chaplains in the Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist traditions to help serve the major religious communities on campus and foster understanding among all.
Chaplains for Emory’s Christian and Muslim traditions will be joining OSRL soon, McGonigle says, and the added staff also are expected to create stronger spiritual life offerings for Emory’s professional schools, faculty and staff. With this new structure, Emory joins many similar institutions that have added multifaith chaplains since the 1990s.
In the planning process, the chaplains will co-lead working groups to explore the experiences of traditions at Emory by students, faculty and staff. These groups, co-chaired by McGonigle, will assess the past experiences of these communities, what is happening now and what the best future might look like for everyone.
Going forward, OSRL surveys and assessments will help benchmark spiritual life on campus and track future progress, McGonigle says.
Expert partner for respectful relationship-building
Similar reimagining has been going on at public universities, which want to address and support their spiritually diverse stakeholders, and at Christian colleges and universities, to interpret their core traditions and better engage with other faiths.
A Chicago organization will be advising Emory’s process: Interfaith Youth Core, whose founder and president Eboo Patel is a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University. He authored the memoir, “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.”
Threaded through Emory’s strategic planning is the concept of religious pluralism offered by Harvard professor Diana L. Eck, a United Methodist scholar. Eck describes pluralism as creating positive relationships between diverse groups and individuals; actively seeking understanding and joining dialogues; and holding our deepest commitments in relationship instead of in isolation. Importantly, pluralism does not imply relativism but rather an encounter of beliefs. As part of the process and through educational opportunities, Emory students, faculty and staff will have opportunities to learn about religious pluralism as a positive way to embrace diverse people and ideas.
“Religious pluralism is knowledgeable, respectful and real engagement, and it can build important relationships across campus, in our city and beyond,” says McGonigle, who came to Emory from Tufts University, where he helped create an award-winning pre-orientation program for incoming students across many faiths, with a focus on social justice.
At Oberlin College, McGonigle and faculty partners drew on theology and philosophy to explore the power of friendship to overcome religious differences and build solidarity. Similar initiatives, and perhaps courses, may spring from Emory’s strategic planning process, says McGonigle.