Office of Spirituality and Dialogue Implements Changes to Religious Life in Oberlin


Abe Frato

The Office of Spirituality and Dialogue has undergone transformations in the way it facilitates student engagement with religion.

The Office of Spirituality and Dialogue creates space for Oberlin students and staff to have conversations around topics of religion, spirituality, and ethics, and acts as a space for sustained learning and concrete action within the community. Recently, OSD has been moving away from community religious leadership and chaplains to focus on highlighting student voices and religious perspectives.

“There was a period of time where [Oberlin] had several different groups of folk who were on campus, and they had emails that allowed them to gain access to the library as well as an ID card that identified them and gave them sanction to be on the campus and to work with students,” A.G. Miller, pastor of the Oberlin House of the Lord Fellowship and former professor of Religion and Africana Studies, said. “But in the last several years, that has shifted.”

Before this shift, the College had developed relationships with different community religious institutions, and students were directed to them for religious resources. The OSD has since started to move toward making students the primary leaders of religious life on campus and aims to listen to and act on what students envision.

“[The goal] is really to support a student around their most particular beliefs and practices, whether that’s a particular observance or ritual, whether that’s dining, whether that’s housing,” Multifaith Chaplain and OSD Director David Dorsey said. “Whatever it is, what’s important is to believe the student and to chase that down with fierceness — and also, at every point, invite hospitality across those who may see, observe, and believe differently.”

OSD also refrains from defining religions and what is deemed a religious space. This is in part because of the cultural and religious differences that can be found among individual students. By promoting student voices, OSD hopes to begin the process of gaining resources that can target and support a wider range of students.

College second-year Abby Rickin-Marks, the current residential assistant of Johnson House, or Hebrew Heritage House, elaborated on the unique need for loosely-defined religious spaces within Oberlin.

“The majority of Jews on this campus would likely describe themselves as secular or cultural,” Rickin-Marks said. “Because of this, holiday events and secular programming have super high turnout rates. However, religious spaces themselves are not necessarily what is necessary, given that multiple organizations on campus offer Shabbat services.”

The College’s relationships with local religious institutions formerly allowed students easy access to religious leaders, who in turn offered faith-based guidance and support.

Dorsey explained certain challenges of catering to each student’s needs using the previous approach.

“Students report to us that it’s challenging for [them] because [they] feel some religions have been skipped over, or are not as visible, and then [we] sometimes almost feel like we are being pulled in multiple directions and suddenly [are] in sort of a competitive environment,” Dorsey said. “So, one of our goals is to be truly multi-partial: to follow each student to the most particular belief they hold while inviting hospitality across the many. That’s our calling.”

This model is slowly being implemented by the College, with the goal of establishing student clubs and organizations as the primary leaders of religious life on campus. The OSD will work with students on events and plans — for example, luncheons are being brought back to provide religiously affiliated students with an opportunity to talk about what structure they would like to see.

College first-year Juwayria Zahurullah offered perspective on the importance of propping up existing student-led affinity groups.

“I absolutely love [the Muslim Student Association] and the Muslim community I’ve found at Oberlin,” Zahurullah wrote in an email to the Review. “It was one of the first spaces I was introduced to as a first-year, and it brought me such a strong sense of comfort and belonging in a really strange period of adjustment to being a college student. I consider it more of an affinity group of people with similar religious/cultural background especially because I feel like there are so few Muslims on campus, there’s not a lot of opportunities for our voices to be heard.”

According to Dorsey, the emphasis on allowing students to take the lead on supporting their peers is rarely practiced outside of Oberlin. The College is still working on building these policies from the ground up — meanwhile, other institutions are already looking to Oberlin for guidance in implementing a student-centric model.

“There are colleges that have reached out [to express interest in] learning about what we’re trying to do, … but right now, in most campus ministry models, the structure is still sending students to religious agencies and through leaders of those agencies,” Dorsey said. “I know that model really well. That’s one that my generation helped create and put in place. But I think in this really precarious time, we really need to be listening to students first.”

While the OSD is moving away from enacting its own policies, the College still maintains certain spaces dedicated to religious and spiritual life, such as Johnson House, which serves as the Hebrew Heritage House. Rickin-Marks shed light on Jewish organizations on campus which are institution-led, but nevertheless fill an important niche and will continue to exist after the overhaul.

“Chabad offers a multitude of religious opportunities, but [they] are not necessarily student-led,” Rickin-Marks said. “Hillel offers primarily board-led Shabbats with the options for any student to lead any part of service at any given week. J-House residents, who are absolutely phenomenal, have taken it upon themselves to lead Havdalah, marking the end of Shabbat, each week. Religious holiday programming is also available from both Chabad and Hillel, but much of the time it is not student-led. Regardless, student-led religious spaces are not what most Jews are looking for on campus. Many either don’t identify with religious spaces, or enjoy Rabbi Shlomo [of Chabad] or Rabba Amalia [of Hillel]’s religious experiences.”