Pop-up Chaplaincy Placement

 

The following was delivered as part of the University of the Arts Equality and Diversity Forum: ‘Is there room for religion at UAL?

The Pop Up Chaplaincy was planned as part of my post-ordination training, when I was on placement at UAL. When I first visited to plan my placement, I learned that there was no dedicated chaplaincy accommodation. I also heard how, in certain colleges, when students asked where the prayer space was, they were directed to the toilets. In this sense, at least, there was explicitly no room for religion.

So that was how the Pop-Up Chaplaincy came about. Basically, if there was no room for me as a chaplain on placement, I would make room, by pitching a tent in one of the public areas. It was a practical solution to a specific problem, but it also had resonances with other situations: firstly, we read in John’s gospel that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” but this can be literally translated as “he pitched his tent among us”.

The idea also had a contemporary resonance, in that the Occupy London protesters were still camped outside St Paul’s at the time. In this sense, the tent maintained a healthy critical distance from certain perceptions of established religion, and that might be useful in the University context.

In the end permission was gained from two colleges, LCF and LCC. I met many students during the two days I camped there, and I’d like to tell you about what I learned from just a few of them. Then I’ll draw a few conclusions.

But first I should explain that I was on my own for most of the time – William (the lead Chaplain) had to go and minister to a group of students grieving their friend who had just died. It may be possible to exclude religion from the University, but the reality of death will not go away so easily. It’s a dirty job sometimes, but somebody has to do it. Secondly, I should tell you what I told the students when they asked what I was there for – I was on a placement to learn about what being a chaplain might be like, and also to find out what they might want from a chaplaincy. They could write their thoughts about this on the tent.

So the first person I met was Angela. Angela is a first year fashion student, and she told me that she had been involved in a kind of lay chaplaincy in her 6th form college. She told me that the way to do it was to “tell people about your experience of God, in language they can understand”. I couldn’t have put it better myself. In fact, I couldn’t have put it as well as that. Angela wrote that she wanted Dynamic Movement from the chaplaincy.

The second person I met was Aliya. Aliya is a Beauty Therapy student, and when I asked her what that was about, she told me people come to her with all sorts of self-image problems, but that she has found that 90% of these are really due to stress, and her job as a Beauty Therapist is to help them turn this negative energy into positive energy, and I thought that maybe this isn’t so different to what Chaplains do. Aliya said that it takes a lot of her own energy to work with others like this, and she wrote that she wanted reassurance and guidance from the Chaplaincy.

Another person I met at LCF was Abiodun, a first year Fashion Design and Development student, who told me that when she was in Nigeria, she used to go out with her school chaplaincy to help people who were homeless and hungry on the streets. She said she had noticed there are people like this in London, and was wondering what she could do about it. So I learned from Abiodun that chaplaincy isn’t just about helping people within the University, it can be about helping people to go out from the university to help others. Abiodun wrote that she wanted God to grant us the grace to survive in this cold and hateful world.

At LCC, I met Andy, who is a mature student studying photojournalism. Andy looked like he’d been around the block a bit, and I would guess that he might once been one of those people on the street that Abiodun talked about. Andy said he wasn’t religious, but he was spiritual, and he thought that spirituality was about seeing the world differently. He said he wanted the chaplaincy to be a place where social and political questions could be discussed, in spiritual terms, and it made me think that if we only understand spirituality individualistically, we might exclude people like Andy, whose impetus is political. Actually, this collective emphasis might be closer to a religious understanding.

I met another photojournalism student, Gian Carlo, and at first, it seemed that he was contradicting Andy’s outward focus – he believed the spiritual space that a chaplaincy might be about is already inside him – he described it as a personal space, where he talks with God. But then he said that, in order to connect with that Spirit within, he sometimes needed to find a peaceful space outside himself.

George, Donnie and Keeley are interior design students. They said a chaplaincy should be open to all, ie not exclusively for one or other religion, but at the same time, they wanted it to be clearly recognised as a faith space. As we spoke, they came up with a hub idea, which would have different spaces for different faiths, but which were all linked, with a shared space in the centre. This way each could learn from the other. They drew a diagram of this, and were keen to be involved with realising such a space for the Chaplaincy. Other people liked the drawing, and wrote that they too wanted to be involved.

James, another first year, also thought the Chaplaincy should be for all. He said he was an atheist, but said he was interested in the Chaplaincy being a place where people could meet to discuss their beliefs, including atheism, in a personal and open way. He wrote that he wanted a space not for working, but for thinking.

These are just a few of the people I spoke to over my two days in the tent, but I think it is clear that there is a demand for some kind of chaplaincy-shaped space in the University. Whether that is a religious space per se I’m not sure – but one thing I do know is that people are not just looking for a place in which to pray on their own, or to have a one-to-one conversation with a chaplain – although both of these things are important. All of the people I met – the religious, the atheists, and the unaligned – spoke in terms of a space where diversity and dialogue can take place – that is, a social space, but one distinct from the function of either the union bar or the seminar room.

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