This profile was last updated in 2014
The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Wellesley College is inspired by the College’s belief that education is both an intellectual and a spiritual pursuit. Through its programs on moral, ethical, and spiritual issues, it seeks to encourage pluralistic dialogue among different faiths as well as provide support for student adherents of each faith; commonality among religions is emphasized. The primary aim of the Office is to enhance the quality of education at Wellesley by recognizing that religious identity, like its racial and cultural counterparts, is essential for a complete understanding of students’ intellectual – and thus educational – journeys and their perspectives on the world around them.
Prior to 1993, Wellesley College’s religious life was headed by a Protestant Christian College Chaplain, whose responsibilities were geared towards the campus’ Protestant student majority. This structure hearkened back to Wellesley’s early history as an expressly Christian institution. There were, additionally, a Roman Catholic priest and a part-time rabbi (who directed Wellesley’s Hillel) to serve their respective communities. However, the rest of the College’s population did not have similar resources. Recent College Chaplains, recognizing the outmoded structure of their office, had been taking on the unofficial role of providing spiritual support to non-Christian students as well as serving their own communities. In 1992, recognizing the importance of – and need for – a multi-faith structure for its student population, Wellesley’s administration decided to examine the part played by faith and spirituality in students’ lives and educations. The College hired Victor Kazanjian, previously Director of Program Development at Episcopal City Mission in Boston, in early 1993 for a new position: Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life. He helped develop both the position, which had been created as a tentative starting-point for a multi-faith model, and the model itself, looking to Wellesley’s history for material. Wellesley College was founded in 1875 by evangelical Christians, who nonetheless declared their new school nondenominational, an act that paved the way for religious inclusivism – and, later, pluralism. Additionally, Wellesley was created as an embodiment of the spirit of equality, challenging the male-dominated society of its day. These two factors were instrumental in condemning the idea of privileging one tradition over. The College responded favorably, creating the position of Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life to spearhead the project of implementing a new system for supervising the religious and spiritual needs of the College community. In May 2008, the College will open its newly constructed Multi-Faith Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, designed specifically for students. A detailed history of these transitions can be found in this report, Wellesley College Office of Religious and Spiritual Life: Purpose, Philosophy, Goals, History, and Principles (pdf), by Dean Victor Kazanjian.
The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life guides the Religious Life Team, the Multi-faith Student Council, and the Multi-faith Living and Learning Community; directs multi-faith educational and worship programs; and sponsors three initiatives: Deepening Our Roots, Beyond Tolerance, and Spirituality and Education.
The College’s Multi-faith Center for Religious and Spiritual Life at Wellesley will be completed along with renovations of Houghton Chapel – an important site for musical, art, and religious programs for over a century – on May 7, 2008. The lower level will become the Multi-faith Center, designed as a chapel of translucent glass that will be, in the words of the architects, “a new lantern set within the one-hundred-year-old brick and stone walls [celebrating] light and discovery where, in physical terms, one expects only darkness.” Around this space will be three smaller rooms devoted to prayer, meditation, and study, and a fellowship hall and kitchen have been added to facilitate informal student gatherings. For more information, see The Restoration of Houghton Chapel and the Creation of the Multi-faith Center for Religious and Spiritual Life at Wellesley College (pdf), produced by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
The Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, as the Office’s administrative head, oversees the Religious Life Team, the Multi-faith Student Council, and the Multi-faith Living and Learning Community, acting as de facto director of their activities. The Dean functions as a liaison with those religious groups in both Wellesley and the Greater Boston area that serve the campus (including the Asian Baptist Student Koinonia, Chabad, Chi Alpha, Christian Science Association of Boston, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, New Hope Ministries, Real Life, Victory Campus Ministries, Park Street Church, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Islamic Society of New England, Unitarian Universalist Association of New England, the Baha’i Association of Boston, the Zoroastrian Association of Greater Boston, and the Vedanta Society of Boston). A list of Wellesley-specific student organizations can be found here. Religious Life Team A result of the Beyond Tolerance initiative (introduced below), the Religious Life Team is a group of chaplains and advisors, all professionals, who serve their respective religious communities and organizations on campus; they advise the Dean and participate in many of the multi-faith activities at the College. Currently represented on the Team are the Buddhist, Catholic Christian, Protestant Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian Universalist traditions. Multi-faith Student Council Also a result of Beyond Tolerance, the Multi-faith Student Council is composed of representatives from the College’s religious communities. It acts in an advisory capacity to the Dean, especially on relating to campus religious activities, and is responsible for many of Wellesley’s multi-faith events, which generally relate to any religious, ethical, and spiritual issues brought to their attention by the community. The Council, which is directly supervised by the Dean, is designed to develop leadership skills among each year’s members, as well as to examine the potential for pluralism on Wellesley’s campus. In the interest of furthering this goal, Wellesley is a recipient of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security’s Campus Dialogues Program (also given to Tufts University, Brandeis University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Maryland); the grant promotes interfaith work on college campuses, as well as provides ways for the recipients to collaborate via conferences and other cross-campus initiatives. The Council is unlike traditional campus interfaith councils in that it is not merely composed of one representative from each campus student organization (which would result in 12 Christians out of 14 total members). Instead, the Council is based on the principle of “equity of voice”, which involves two representatives from each religious tradition regardless of their respective proportion of the student body. To ease the transition from majority to equal voice, and to help multi-denominational Christians decide how to best represent their faith through their two Council representatives, a Christian Ecumenical Council was also created as a supplementary body. This measure has proven highly successful. Multi-faith Living and Learning Community Known as “the corridor”, the Multi-faith Living and Learning Community was created in 2005 by Dean Victor Kazanjian to encourage dialogue among students from different faith backgrounds. Each semester, ten student applicants are accepted to live and participate in community activities, which include weekly discussions of religious diversity and members’ spiritual paths, as well as to act as moderators for informational programs for both the entire “corridor”, a dorm hallway located on the ground floor of Munger Hall, and the campus. Residents may live in the community for more than one semester, though some leave at the end of term. Overall, the community functions as an exemplar of inter-religious coexistence and has been a center for creating strong friendships.
Multi-faith Educational and Worship Programs
The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life has developed a number of educational programs. One example is the monthly Dinner and Dialogue, which brings together representatives from 22 campus religious groups for an evening presentation on a particular topic, which leads into a dialogue among participants. Other programs include public lectures on both faith and multi-faith topics. In addition to the student religious organizations, which host their own worship services, there are community multi-faith celebrations – including worship – held during the academic year, such as Flower Sunday and Baccalaureate. The former is open to the entire campus.
Programming and Initiatives
The three initiatives directly maintained and implemented by the Office include Deepening Our Roots, an initiative with the aim of supporting and honoring each particular faith tradition and religious or spiritual practice in the Wellesley College community; Beyond Tolerance, a nationally-recognized program that emphasizes both inter-religious and intercultural dialogue – expressed through drama – for the purpose of creating a deeper understanding of religious pluralism in the community and the world; and Spirituality and Education, where faculty and staff work with the Dean and the Religious Life Team to examine how connections can be drawn between spirituality/religion and academic learning, as well as more general applications of the former. These three initiatives captain events, such as the start-of-term Flower Sunday multi-faith celebration of “Learning and Love”, designed for the entire college population. For more information on Beyond Tolerance, see Beyond Tolerance: From Mono-religious to Multi-religious Life at Wellesley College (pdf) by Dean Victor Kazanjian.