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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

My complicated relationship with the chapel

I spend a lot of time in the chapel. I do most of my homework there, and when I was studying for my geology midterm, it got to the point where I had to clarify to the chaplain that I did, in fact, leave the chapel between the time that he left campus in the afternoon and came back the next morning. And as a study space, I love the chapel because it is almost completely silent for most of the day and there are few interruptions.

But when I view the chapel as more than just a study environment, my feelings become a little more complex. While the chapel as an office and as an entity on campus strives to be inclusive and mulifaith, the building itself was originally intended to be a Christian church. There are crosses carved into the pews, the stained-glass windows have cross designs, even the building itself is built in the shape of a cross. 

I’m not Christian, and Carleton’s chapel was the first time I had ever been into a church. Having grown up going to synagogue my entire childhood, when I sat in the pews for the first time during New Student Week, I immediately started to look around and find similarities to my congregation back home. As I looked ahead, I saw the pride flag hanging at the front of the room. My groupmates and I started to leaf through the hymn books that were in front of us, and I was surprised to see sheet music on each page. My first time in the chapel was an eye-opening experience, but I couldn’t help but feel a little weird. 

I have grown much more fond of the chapel since New Student Week, and whenever I go to an event in the chapel I can’t help marveling at the building itself — the high ceilings, all the podiums, the picture of corn and the organ — but if I look for too long I get a sinking feeling that I don’t really belong there. 

I often do readings for my religion class at the tables in the back of the building, or sometimes even in the back rows of the pews. As I’m reading about lived religion and how people interact with the divine in different environments, I wonder what it would be like for me to pray in the chapel. I pray alone every night before bed and with others every Friday on Shabbat, and switching from my room and synagogue at home to my dorm room and Page East at Carleton has changed the way that I interact with prayer and spirituality. 

So, one night I decided to see how the environment of the chapel would affect my experience. I brought my prayer book with me and started to go through my normal sequence of prayers, but something seemed off. I couldn’t concentrate, I kept messing up the words, I couldn’t think straight and I didn’t feel the same spiritual or mystical connection that I usually feel when I pray. There was a little voice in the back of my head telling me “This is a church. This is a church. This is a church.” over and over again. 

This is not to say that I don’t like the chapel. I love the events that the chapel puts on, and I’ve even participated in some of them. I love the chaplains, I want to be a chaplain’s associate and I am still in the building almost every day. I appreciate the significant presence that religious and spiritual life has at Carleton compared to other schools, and I love how passionately queer-affirming the chapel is. The chapel as an office does so much to make people like me feel included in religious and spiritual life on campus, but it is the chapel as a building that puts me off. 

I know that Carleton’s chapel setup is not unique to our college. Many liberal arts colleges were founded by church leaders with a chapel building being a central part of oft-required religious observance on campus, and after shedding their religious affiliations, the colleges turned the chapels into a multifaith space without changing much of the building itself. I have other non-Christian friends who go to colleges with these chapels, and they feel similar to me: they can appreciate the community the chapel provides, but the building itself can be a little bit intimidating, and the thought of having to go to events in a church can feel strange sometimes. 

I am not saying that we should tear down or completely remodel a historic building. The chapel is beautiful. I know that, for Christian students, it is a really great place to pray and find fellowship, and I don’t desire to take that away. I am simply saying that if we as a campus community want to truly promote religious diversity and encourage members of different faith groups on campus to get involved, we need to recognize the inherent biases that come with things as simple as the buildings on campus. The chapel was meant to be a Christian space, and while that shouldn’t be something that we are ashamed of, we need to recognize that people who aren’t Christian may not feel included in the space. And from there we can begin to address some of the more subtle and less visible forces of exclusion that exist on campus, even despite our best intentions.


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About the Contributor
Isaac Kofsky
Isaac Kofsky, Viewpoint Editor
Hi there! I’m Isaac (he/him) and I’m a first-year prospective religion or geology major. I’ve been described as “the chapel’s press liaison” and I love eating dinner at 4:45pm, reading non-fiction, wearing sweaters, and drinking two cups of black coffee at every meal. When I’m not in Carletonian pitch meetings or in religion class, you can normally find me doing homework in the chapel or drinking tea in the religion lounge.   Isaac Kofsky '27 was previously a Beat Writer.  

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