Religious Life at Stanford: Keeping in touch and keeping the faith

With holy days approaching for many religions and with Stanford’s faith communities unable to gather in person, Dean Tiffany Steinwert discusses the Office for Religious Life’s alternate approaches for worship and spiritual growth.

A few weeks ago, Stanford’s dean for religious life, The Rev. Dr. Tiffany Steinwert, and her colleagues were focusing on plans for campus holy days observances and ways to help faculty and students accommodate the sometimes-conflicting demands of religious observances and academic study.

Tiffany L. Steinwert

Tiffany L. Steinwert, dean for religious life at Stanford University. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

These days, they are reaching out and recalibrating. Like so many others across campus, they have adapted existing programs and have found ways to connect and protect against social isolation.

For instance, the new Spiritual Resources in a Time of Crisis offers a collection of daily blog posts from students, staff, faculty and alumni; podcasts and videos; and opportunities for virtual gatherings. People of many faiths and no faith backgrounds can sign up for virtual gatherings, from individual spiritual care to mindfulness meditation classes.

In this second of a two-part interview, Steinwert discusses how the Office for Religious Life is helping community members find support and fulfill religious obligations while navigating an urgent public health crisis.

 

As restrictions have been implemented, what kinds of adjustments have the Office for Religious Life made for the Stanford community?

Our first priority is to care for our community. When restrictions on gatherings began, we were particularly concerned about students and the impact it would have on their faith lives. Spirituality is a significant factor in student well-being and in a time of crisis we wanted to ensure all students could rely on their faith communities to see them through.

In religious communities, social distancing is quite challenging. Our traditions rely upon community gatherings for religious observance. Whether standing shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot for Jumu’ah prayers, or mindfulness meditation and yoga sessions next to the other, or partaking of communion in Christian traditions or sharing Shabbat meals with Jewish friends, requiring social distancing can inhibit one’s ability to practice their faith.

We wanted to balance both our commitment to providing religious access – enabling everyone to practice their particular faith traditions – and our commitment to the wellbeing of our campus community. In light of the restrictions on gatherings, we scrambled to resource our 30 student religious organizations to ensure they could still meet, pray and observe while maintaining increasingly more rigorous forms of social distancing.

In the early stages, we suspended gatherings where the community was most at risk, like University Public Worship, though after a few weeks we are livestreaming it again. For others, we tried re-imagining how we gathered, dividing large gatherings into a series of smaller ones. That worked for about the first five days, and then we had to rethink everything.

It is deeply disappointing we can’t observe Easter, Passover and Ramadan as we have done in years past. But we are able to have both Palm Sunday and Easter services online and on KZSU – we’re recording our parts from home and stitching them together. For Passover, we’re matching students with hosts so they can share seder via Zoom and Hillel at Stanford is producing a Haggadah supplement. And we’re working on plans for Ramadan.

Our mantra is to take the next best step that we can in light of all that we know, knowing that we may have to revisit it in five minutes or five days. And I think, quite frankly, that is a helpful framework for all of us as we weather the storm together. All we can do is take the next, most faithful step given what we know in the moment.

 

How do you balance religious obligation with an urgent public health crisis?

The answer is simply to adapt with the central commitment of compassion at the core: If you save one life, it is as if you save an entire world. Keeping this view has allowed us to expand our sense of what is good and right in religious practice. Would we like to share in communion, gather for meals and pray together? Yes, but not if it endangers our community.

The CIRCLE

The CIRCLE, located in the Old Union building, is a safe haven for diversity, worship, ritual, meditation, reflection, spiritual and intellectual growth. (Image credit: Colleen Hallagan Preuninger)

Rituals and meals became shared, virtual gatherings. Small groups met online instead of in dorm rooms. Services started streaming. Gradually we began to let go of what we thought were our traditional religious obligations in order to care for ourselves and each other.

The result has been a greater rate of participation across many of our communities. Our Sikh and Hindu students now hold weekly virtual gatherings to stay connected. Our Buddhist students do virtual sittings. Our Christian communities gather for prayer and text study online. Our Jewish students inspired a global movement and the creation of [email protected], a digital platform for community, connections and meaningful learning. Our religious advisors tell me their Zoom meetings are outnumbering their previous in-person meetings.

Rev. Colleen Hallagan Preuninger has been working with student groups and their leaders and advisors to keep them connected and empowered to continue their work of spiritual sustenance, Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann has been moving the curriculum for our Fellowship for Religious Encounter online in order to continue this yearlong interfaith fellowship, and Rev. Dr. Joanne Sanders has arranged online meditation and yoga sessions, as well as a five-week introduction to meditation course for students.

We are all working as hard as we can in this new landscape to ensure students, staff and faculty can receive continued spiritual nourishment in a time of crisis. We all need it now more than ever.

 

How do people who are accustomed to worshipping together find religious support and guidance, practice social distancing and avoid isolation?

Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation. This is extremely important in a time when anxiety is heightened, our social networks are dispersed and the future is uncertain. We need to foster a semblance of community amidst all the disruptions and disappointments.

In some ways, we have never been more prepared for this moment, at least technologically. With a click of a link, we can gather from all around the world in real time. We can worship together, pray together, observe sacred rituals together and simply be together.

The Office for Religious Life has moved spiritual care online. Anybody – students, staff or faculty – can drop in to our virtual office hours on Mondays and Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. or sign up for one-on-one spiritual care on a simple Google form. We hope that by being present in real time, we can provide a space for people to connect to us and to one another.

Our office also created a space called Wisdom For The Way with daily reflections from our Stanford community, and we are working on a new podcast series called Voices of Hope (see a preview here) that is designed to help make sense of this crisis in light of our most pressing existential and theological questions.

We encourage people to stretch what they think spiritual community and care can look like. Lean into virtual spaces and reach back to ancient practices that need no internet connection. Prayer, textual study, contemplative meditation and yoga are spiritual disciplines that can be done while sheltering in place. Read and write poetry, paint and make art, sing and dance, simply breathe. Create your own sacred spaces at home, maybe an altar, a comfy chair or a view that inspires. Develop daily rituals, time to pause and reflect.

Hope is indeed the central role of religious and spiritual life in this time of crisis. Religious and spiritual communities must offer people a space in the midst of their grief, in the midst of their anxiety and uncertainty, in the midst of experiencing trauma, to find hope.

We know this will end. Today is not that day. So we must develop rituals and practices not only to see us through, but more importantly to offer us hope.