A YEAR AGO THIS SPRING, AS we dedicated the new Julia Thompson Smith Chapel on our campus, one of the highlights was the multifaith blessing. It was an exciting occasion, the completion of the first freestanding chapel in the 120-year history of Agnes Scott College (Ga.). I reflected on months of watching from my office window as it went from nothing more than a hole in the ground to the beautiful building it is today.
But my major goal at that dedication was one of inclusion. As a Presbyterian minister, I serve this Presbyterian-related institution, but my call as a chaplain is to serve all members of the community. So I am called upon to pastor and be present to Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Jews, Baptists, Muslims, nondenominational Christians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, those investigating Earth religions, Hindus, Methodists, and Christians from around the world, as well as others whose religious group may not be represented by a student organization at this time.
Designed by Maurice Jennings + David McKee Architects of Fayetteville, Ark., the facility serves as a Christian chapel welcoming people of all faiths, with its design philosophy descending from Frank Lloyd Wright and his protégé, Fay Jones. I felt strongly during the blessing, as I do now, that this chapel could be a gathering place, a space for the many traditions of Agnes Scott to come together in dialogue and celebration.
As I watched from my office as the chapel was being built, one day I noticed something that seemed remarkable at the time. The roof was covered in tar paper etched with the name of the manufacturer: Grace.
It felt fitting that “grace” would cover this chapel that would welcome so many from the broad array of traditions that are a part of the Agnes Scott College community.
Last spring when we held that multifaith blessing of the chapel during its dedication weekend, I felt secure in knowing it would be grace that would see us through as we strove, like many colleges, to remain authentically true to our religious heritage while embracing the diversity of our campus.
The first event we held in the chapel after the dedication was a seder for our Jewish Students Association as well as for interested faculty, staff, and alumnae.
The chapel’s multifaith room was the location. It accommodates diversity of faith wonderfully as it welcomes in the outside world with three walls made of glass. These walls, while providing an enclosure, create the feeling that one is outside in a natural, worshipful space no matter one’s religious tradition.
Students who represent the many groups that comprise Agnes Scott’s religious life and I had high hopes for the chapel, but nothing more than faith to guide us as to how to make those hopes real. As I considered how we might live in this chapel and make it a home for our many and varied religious traditions, I began to think about hearing the stories of the people of faith who are a part of the Agnes Scott community.
Each week, during a long break in the class schedule, we provide an opportunity for members of the community to share their stories of faith in a series we call “Agnes Scott Believes.” Based on the “This I Believe” segments on National Public Radio, the series features a student and faculty or staff member who share a story of what they hold most dear, what it is they believe in the most.
Thus far, these chapel programs have run the gamut from conversations about nature and the power of being connected to nature in a variety of ways, to particular stories about life experiences, faith epiphanies, and moments when the divine felt far away. Members of the community who have participated have shared a piece of themselves in a forum unlike any other at Agnes Scott.
Over the last year, the chapel has become the spiritual center of Agnes Scott’s campus. I continue to learn a great deal from this community about balancing my role as a Presbyterian minister and my responsibility to affirm the importance of faith in our community and the implications of such affirmation for the chapel as a place of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and worship.
Kate Colussy-Estes is the Julia Thompson Smith Chaplain at Agnes Scott College near Atlanta.