When I tell people I work in the chaplains' office, their responses mostly tend to be, "What is the chaplains' office anyway?" It's unfortunate that not many Brown students know what the chaplains' office does or how they can use it.
The office is much more than a multi-faith team of chaplains advising campus religious organizations. The Guide to Brown 2010, a packet for first-year students, says the work of the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life "involves caring for all members of the Brown family, encouraging the University's multicultural richness, contributing to the intellectual enterprise on campus and advocating for matters of conscience in all facets of the University's life and beyond." I like this description, but it's too vague to communicate all the essential services the office provides.
Let's begin with "caring for all members of the Brown family," the aspect of the office that I experience most often. Freshman year, I found myself pulled into the OCRL because of the Chaplains' gifts for personal attention, support and recognition of students' struggles, from breakups to family illnesses to lack of financial aid. I have seen the office lend money to a student who has not been able to afford food in two weeks. I have seen them help a student rearrange midterms around a little-known religious holiday. I have seen them counsel a family over a situation that caused a student to leave school after freshman year. What other department handles these crises and meltdowns, the ones that often trouble us the most as students but tend to fall through the institutional cracks?
To many, it might seem strange to recommend the OCRL for personal matters unrelated to religion. Yet the chaplains' office, as the Guide to Brown dutifully states but fails to elaborate, serves as support for our whole beings — mind, body and spirit. Is the death of a friend not a crisis of the entire being? Does the inability to buy food not simultaneously affect mind, body and spirit?
I'm not saying the chaplains' office can substitute equally well for health services or psych services, but it has an essential complementary function. Matters of the spirit do not have to pertain to the religious, but rather are issues that we face beyond the physical (a broken foot) or the mental (a particularly difficult problem set).
Beyond the role the chaplains' office plays in caring for Brown students, it also encourages "multicultural richness" and contributes to the "intellectual enterprise." Religious identities are an essential if sometimes unrecognized part of diversity at Brown. In an Admission Office pamphlet titled "Diversity: Perspectives from the Community of Color," one student cites her involvement with the Catholic community as bringing her ethnic heritage into her life. As such it seems obvious, to me at least, that the OCRL should be listed as a resource for students interested in diversity on campus.
Yet the "useful websites" section of the pamphlet lists offices from the Third World Center to the Office of Residential Life — but not the OCRL. If the University truly thinks of the OCRL as supporting multiculturalism and religious identity as an element of diversity, it should begin engaging it as such.
Furthermore, the chaplains have extensive academic expertise and knowledge, and the office contributes greatly to intellectual discourse at Brown. OCRL initiatives recently brought to campus Ada María Isasi-Díaz, world-renowned theologian and ethicist, and Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and advisor to President Obama. Thursday Night Supper, a weekly dinner and discussion open to all students, invites speakers to talk about issues from hospice care to the practice of nonviolence.
Yet my sense is that at Brown we have work to do to give to religion the same attention to detail and nuance that we give other issues like race, gender or politics. We analyze religion as a monolithic phenomenon somehow removed from us. The history of religion, its diversity and the lived experience of it are not concepts to be glossed over or simplified. The chaplains, not to mention members of the Department of Religious Studies, can help provide more subtlety to these questions.
Finally, and perhaps most vaguely, the office "advocates for matters of conscience" at Brown and beyond. I am not claiming that ethical living must stem from religious roots. Even so, the chaplains' office is a place that not only encourages, but engages and exemplifies, integrity and social responsibility. Janet Cooper Nelson, the chaplain of the University, appeared at the Brown vigil held for the recent highly publicized suicides of five gay students. As the face of the religious community at this University, she encouraged those gathered to act from kindness.
Last week while I was at work, she wondered aloud if Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman, had anyone to help him work through his reaction to his roommate's humiliating video ploy. As students, we need people to remind us that we are "precious," Nelson said. Part of the mission of the chaplains' office is to provide that reminder.
Chelsea Waite '11 works on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and will be happy