To Inform Our Community:
After Reverend Laura Engelken was fired over the summer, the student clubs affiliated with Spiritual and Religious Life at Mills—the Jewish Student Collective, the Muslim Student Association, the Mills Pagan Alliance, and the Workers of Faith—organized. The officers and active members kept aware of the situation on campus as best we could, and used the written word to express our displeasure to the College.
Over the summer, we learned that this firing decision was made without a plan for how the College would continue to provide resources for our community’s spiritual needs. We learned that the College was intending to restructure the Department of Spiritual and Religious Life, and that the steward for and terms of the Leavens Chaplaincy Endowment—established a long time ago with the intent of ensuring students’ spiritual needs would always be met—played an unknown role in said restructure.
Students received an e-mail from President DeCoudreaux on the evening of our first day of classes with two sentences imparted to students: “soon” the College would search for a new “Multifaith Chaplain and Director of Spiritual and Religious Life.” This e-mail did not address what that restructuring would be, how a new chaplain/director would be selected, or what we were to do in the meantime. Neither did it clarify what “multifaith” meant, nor the difference it may or may not have to “interfaith.”
This communication did not address other present concerns. Namely, we started the year without a chaplain/director to provide “pastoral care, counseling, and community support.” Wellspring and Meditation, our weekly interfaith gatherings, and the Festival of Light and Dark, a traditional celebration held in December, are not to be held or continued without a chaplain/director. According to the College, in unofficial and not widespread terms, Spiritual and Religious Life “does not exist” as a department.
To which our response is: yes, it does, because we do.
The College’s attitude played out in ironically symbolic terms on Sunday morning of the Orientation days for new students. I attended the meeting as a technically-first-year graduate student, and as a volunteer to clean up the space—because before Sunday, one of our Peer Educators for Spiritual and Religious Life found wrapped tampons left on religious literature in the study room and trash on the floor. We were reasonably concerned. And on Sunday morning, I witnessed and cleaned up leftover flower petals, cobwebs in every corner, dead insects on the floor, bricks upon which were written questionable statements on display near the labyrinth, and semen on the wall of one of the bathrooms. Approximately twenty-five first-year students attended that morning, and they started arriving before we could finish cleaning.
(A note: in a response to my e-mail complaint, Facilities assured me that they care deeply about our Chapel. I do not believe the blame can be displaced upon janitorial staff, many of whom we lost over the summer, and who are told by their supervisors where to clean and when to clean it.)
The gut-punch of seeing our spiritual sanctuary essentially desecrated makes reassurances ring false. Caring for a space means taking care of it; doubly so when the place is to be used for a welcoming event for first-year students. Apologies do not erase the indignity. Declarations of nonexistence make us feel like split people, with a part of our selves left unwelcome: the transgression is not a failure to clean. The state of the chapel is the embodiment of the school’s new indifference to supporting spiritual needs.
Right now, our two student Peer Educators for Spiritual and Religious Life are supervised by the phenomenal Sabrina Kwist of our Diversity and Social Justice Resource Center. While we could not have a better ally, we need an interfaith chaplain/minister, which is a position that Sabrina Kwist cannot hold. I also consider adding to her duties in this manner unjust on the part of the College: her work is valuable, but despite all the intersections between social justice and spirituality that Reverend Engelken illuminated for us throughout her time at Mills, there still needs to be a space made for spirituality in itself.
For all the questions that our student employees cannot answer due to not having interfaith training; for the spiritual guidance neither they nor Sabrina Kwist can give for the same reason; for the responsibilities and roles that a chaplain/minister fulfills in everyday capacities, such as having a candle in one’s residential housing for spiritual purposes; and in special ceremony, such as Convocation and Commencement; what does the College intend? To keep hiring guest speakers for each, as they have done for Convocation? Individuals who may have fantastic qualifications, yet are not valued and trusted members of our community?
Additionally, as of now the College has ignored an offer made by Ms. Jasmine Herrick, a previous graduate student intern at the Chapel, who contacted Dean Stiglitz over the summer to offer her services as an interim candidate for the purposes of providing our community with support while the College is in transition. She holds a sincere love of Mills and made her offer with the intent and knowledge of being an interim support to our community—and also has precisely the skills the College purports to be searching for in a new chaplain/director. Refusing her, without another candidate in mind or search imminent, shows a lack of concern for the spiritual needs of our community.
Wherever you stand on the matter of your spiritual path, do not leave this out of the conversation about the College’s restructuring. We, the four student organizations affiliated with spiritual and religious life, are dedicated
to ensuring our soul’s needs have a place and are intent on making sure the generations of Mills to come are also valued in their entirety.
In response to these matters, we have formed a student organization: Mills Interfaith Alliance. Our groups have always welcomed anyone in the Mills community to join us in conversation or ritual; however, many more paths than ours exist on this campus. Your voices in particular are enthusiastically welcomed to help shape the look and continuation of our spiritual community. Queries of interest can be directed to email@example.com. Also welcome are staff and faculty interested in keeping interfaith dialogue and practice alive on this campus.
Rose Lopez ’14, MA ‘15
Class Agent of the Class of 2014
Member of the Indigenous Women’s Alliance
Member of the Mills Pagan Alliance
Member of the Mills Interfaith Alliance
Member of the Alumnae-Student Relations Committee
Member of the Alumnae of Color Committee
Accelerated Education Program—MA in Education, Single Subject Credential in English