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Spiritual Life Program ready to offer new opportunities for growth, exploration in renovated space

Students walking past the Spirituality Room may notice some changes – apart from the new signage and mugs, the energy of the program is evolving. After months of brainstorming — and years of trying things out — the Spiritual Life Program is ready to embark in a new direction.

Spiritual Life Program director Bill Conover says religion is often treated as a “red flag,” or “problem” on campus — and elsewhere. He encourages people to think of it as a wisdom tradition and acknowledge everyone has one. “What if we flip it, and it’s actually a resource, an identity,” he said.

Key to the new program is moving towards “multifaith pluralism,” which means “all worldviews and wisdom traditions – including secular, humanist and atheistic ones – are included” and relationships based on   “curiosity, compassion, respect and nonviolence” are valued, according to the program website. For Conover, this means “making space for people to interact” and having “dialogue as opposed to making shorthand assumptions.”

SLAs Christopher Allen'18, Abby McCullen'18 and Tyler Kee'18 meet with director Bill Conover in the renovated Spirituality Room. Amelia Diehl/The Round Table

SLAs Christopher Allen’18, Abby McCullen’18 and Tyler Kee’18 meet with director Bill Conover in the renovated Spirituality Room. Amelia Diehl/The Round Table

Abby McCully’18, who is leading the Christian Life community as one of the seven Spiritual Life Assistants, put it this way. “Everyone believes something. And those beliefs determine how you act and the decisions you make. If you do not feel like you have a safe environment to explore what it is you believe in, you lose a lot of the stable ground you need in your life.” For instance, Conover “would like to see students getting involved in talking about secularity as a worldview that has its own biases, that is privileged in this society,” he said.

In the past, the Spiritual Life Assistants would work on individual “passion projects,” as Conover described them, working towards a big vision. McCully described it, saying “Our projects were so separate, no one had any idea what was going on with other SLAs. This year, we are working to be a more unified team. We want to be a group that supports each other so we can better support our campus.” The Program hopes to “meet people where they are,” Conover added.

When Conover, then a Christian minister who is now a practicing Buddhist, was hired at the College in 2003 to start the Spiritual Life Program, no one knew what that would look like. While Max Brumberg-Kraus’15 benefitted from the project-based model, through which he created spaces to explore spirituality and identity through theatre, he admitted it was “draining.” He worked closely with Conover to develop the program. “We did not have a common language to discuss our campus religious/non religious climate. We did not read on theory of interfaith dialogue or about similar programs at other schools. And we were not practicing how to talk earnestly and passionately about our own experiences of faith or doubt as Jews or Atheists or Christians or Buddhists together,” he said. “I’d often ask Bill ‘how can we as the SLP foster multi-faith dialogue on campus if we are not having those conversations ourselves?’”

Last spring, Conover made a step in a new direction. He invited students with some interest or relationship to the program to give feedback and brainstorm new directions. Most people seemed to associate the program with mindfulness, a practice of meditation and awareness. In addition to open sessions, Conover started teaching mindfulness classes around 2011.

Meg Kowta’18 has been the Mindfulness SLA since last fall. She and Conover see mindfulness as an important part of fighting for social justice, and hope to make more explicit connections with efforts like the #GetWoke sessions, or collaborate with groups like Beloit Cross-Disability Coalition and Students for an Inclusive Campus. “Mindfulness is about waking up,” Conover said.

“I have a lot of sometimes difficult inner dialogue about mindfulness, whiteness, eastern religious adaptations in the west, and all the power dynamics behind all of that,” Kowta said. “Mindfulness has evolved into a deeper investigation of social realities relating to environmental and social justice, compassion and loving kindness practices, and overall becoming a more open-hearted, open-minded person on a day to day basis.”

Clare Lanaghan’19 is also focusing on intersections between wisdom traditions and social justice, planning a speaking series to explore and engage these connections. “Though Beloit campus is very engaged with social justice issues, what motivates people to address these issues is not usually focused on,” she said. “For me that motivation comes from being a Unitarian Universalist, so getting people to talk about issues from a different angle benefits the campus.”

Another effort is celebrating more religious holidays. Students organized an Eid celebration open to all, and Conover saw it as a big success. There are many opportunities off-campus as well: a sign outside the Spirituality Room displays nearby faith communities.

Now part of the Office of Inclusive Living and Learning on the third floor of Pearsons, the Spirituality Life Program has more of a physical presence. Conover hopes the Spirituality Room, which he didn’t know what to do with for years, can become “home base.” He hosts open hours there Fridays 11:30 a.m. -1:30 p.m., and the other SLAs will host their own as well.

The room now welcomes students with new armchairs, mugs, tea and honey, and a bookshelf Conover hopes to fill with books representing many religions, along with a cabinet he hopes to fill with religious supplies. A painting by Lola Davis’17, who won the art submission contest last spring, hangs prominently below the window.

“We want students — any and every student — to have the opportunity to be affirmed in their worldview, to be challenged by relation with others of different worldviews and by doing that, create neighborliness,” Conover said. “The Spiritual Life Program is basically the neighborhood. We want to make a neighborhood.”

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