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Hendricks Chapel, Chaplains Find Virtual Ways to Provide Spiritual Nourishment and Connection
Hendricks Chapel launched a new ministry, Music and Message, last year. The popular weekly gatherings feature musical performances and spoken reflections from a diversity of religious and spiritual perspectives.
When on-campus activities were suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hendricks Dean Brian Konkol and the chapel’s students, chaplains and staff worked together to bring the initiative online through Facebook Live on Sundays at 4 p.m. Student musicians and guest speakers are now engaging with and inspiring a wider audience spread across the country and the world.
“When we began the academic year, we could not have imagined all that would transpire. Instead of the hustle and bustle in and around the chapel, we are all located in various places and spaces around the country and world,” says Konkol. “Thankfully, the chapel has always been far more than a building, so while our context has changed our commitments have not, and to witness the impact has been very meaningful.”
“More than ever, we are all in need of reassurance, we are all in need of support, we are all in need of love,” says Benji Wittman ’20, a senior in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the Whitman School of Management who participates in Music and Message as a performer. “Whether in person or online, it is evident that Music and Message has provided that for so many individuals.”
Moving Music and Message online is just one example of how Hendricks Chapel is connecting with students in a changed world, helping to keep them spiritually nourished and connected with their University and their friends.
Evangelical chaplain Jay Koshy has been reaching out to students in various ways, both one-on-one and in small groups, to offer encouragement and build up a sense of community. Among the topics he is focusing on with students are how to handle uncertainty; finding peace and joy in the midst of challenges; and the lessons that can be learned from studying others who have faced great and sudden changes and challenges.
He has also arranged a new weekly Christian student gathering which students can join via Zoom. “During the meeting, we also have time to share prayer concerns and we spend some time in prayer,” Koshy says. “I am trying to focus on encouraging the students as they are going through changes and uncertainty. Some of them are lonely, especially if they are living alone and far from family. My goal is sharing messages in our weekly gathering that will encourage the students each week.” Koshy has also recorded short messages that can be posted or sent out to students.
Muslim Chaplain Amir Duric has been engaging with students individually and as a group. He started a weekly Spiritual Sit-Down experience, which takes place on Wednesday evenings.
“Spiritual Sit-downs bring together current students and recent graduates in a space where we are able to discuss our feelings, needs and the coping strategies that we all use,” he says. “It has become mutually beneficial and participants appreciate such a space.
Despite the changes in the semester, Baptist Campus Ministry Chaplains Kate and Devon Bartholomew were able to get a new mentorship group off the ground. Although initial plans were made to meet on campus, the first meeting was held online and brought together both students who had a foundation in Christianity and others who were exploring the faith. Regular discipleship and growth groups are held virtually for Bible study and discussion, as well as weekly worship services. And they have celebrated the Lord’s Supper together during a Campus Church live service.
Not having the one-on-one, in-person interactions with students is different, Kate says. But the Bartholomews have found new ways to stay connected. They are consistently in conversation with their students over text and video chat, both one-on-one and in groups—encouraging them, praying with them and brainstorming ways to continue to build campus community both now and in the future. They have mailed personal postcards, t-shirts, books and spiritual development resources as ways to encourage and support students, and helped a student move her belongings out of her residence hall when she could not return to campus to do it. Devon also works with the Christian Staff and Faculty Association, which has continued to gather for weekly prayer over video chat.
Students have had to deal with a sudden shift in their routine, where they have gone from campus life to living at home with parents and siblings who are also trying to work and study. Finding the right balance is challenging for students, Kate says, but she hopes they find more control of their schedules and that they have time for growth.
Catholic chaplain Father Gerry Waterman, OFM Conv., has been offering Masses on Instagram, which prompted a heartfelt response from the student of a parent: “I just wanted to send a quick note of thanks to you for offering Mass via Instagram,” she said. “We had been watching Mass on television the last couple of Sundays, and that was nice, but getting to watch with you presiding was so loving and touching to all of us.” Waterman and campus minister Jeremiah Deep also host weekly Zoom prayer meetings with students, and students come together weekly to pray the rosary.
Syracuse Hillel also worked quickly to move their in-person programming online, and created new virtual opportunities for students to stay connected almost daily. In addition to many small group discussions, workout sessions and a weekly movie club, the staff at Hillel are using social media to connect directly with students.
Daily posts on the Syracuse Hillel Instagram include Hebrew word-of-the-day lessons, helping students stay in touch with Jewish learning, a meditative painting session to promote creativity and mental wellness, and Torah lessons with Campus Rabbi Joel Goldstein. Students have also taken the lead in creating content to stay connected with one another, including “takeovers,” challenges and holiday celebrations on Instagram.
While the social distancing restrictions of the past few months have been challenging, technology, resourcefulness and out-of-the box thinking have helped to keep students, faculty and staff connected to the spiritual heart of the Syracuse University campus.
“Though there are so many changes that have happened in the last few months, I am grateful for the tools and technology that enable us to be there for students and continue to have a caring and encouraging community for them,” Koshy says. “Though we do not like to go through the situation of social distancing, a silver lining is that we are learning new ways to be in community effectively no matter how many miles separate us.”
“To witness the recent efforts of our chaplains has been one of the most inspiring experiences of my professional life. Adversity tends to reveal character, and through this time of struggle they have embodied the best of what Syracuse University is all about,” Konkol says. “To serve alongside such a dedicated collection of leaders is an honor, and as we continue to live into an assortment of unknowns, we can be confident that our chaplains will continue to build our community and provide comfort for us all.”