Most every place we’ve seen so far for the purposes of this blog have been a space or site dedicated to a single faith. There are certainly places that house more than one, like Christ Church on East Avenue that is Episcopal, but rents some space to The Father’s House so that the westside suburban church can have a city presence without having to own their own. The two groups are certainly very friendly and even engage one another regularly but Christ Church still couldn’t be considered ‘interfaith’. The UUA with its wide open membership to all beliefs might be the closest, but you don’t find different groups meeting in the same place, just different individuals meeting together as UUAs. The term ‘chapel’ itself typically is affiliated with interfaith worship, but historically it was also just ‘another place’ that the church may have owned that was dedicated to worship. Often times chapels were even owned by individuals. The earliest chapels aren’t referred to as churches because they aren’t standalone facilities, but rather a chamber or room that was ultimately part of a larger structure (ie. synagogue, church, Naval ship, hospital). Most of the interfaith chapels that you’ll find today will be college campuses, hospitals, airports, military bases, retirement communities–places where many different people from different walks of life reside but only for a short time. Some of these interfaith chapels are pretty incredible, and the University of Rochester’s chapel was one I had always heard of as being really cool but had never been. I reached out to the Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at the U of R and set up a time to visit.
Much to the dismay of a few people, I had never actually been on the University of Rochester’s campus. However, I believe I was there once for something but it was so fast and so unimportant that for the purposes of exploring and learning I will say I have never been there. I’ve just never really had a reason to go exploring a college campus that I could never be accepted in to or afford. So, when I arrived and figured out where public parking was I began my walk to the chapel. Right around 5pm is apparently when people are in a mad rush to leave the campus, because I don’t believe even one of the vehicles I saw stopped for the stop sign at the crosswalk. Normally I wouldn’t think of noticing that, but after a few cars I began to get really concerned for my safety!! I made my way over to the path that runs along the Genesee River and thought that not only would I get a nicer view, I might be safer. Since I mentioned I had never been to the campus before, I’ll mention it here now to squelch any balkers. I went back to the campus later in the week to hear a local Holocaust survivor, Eva Abrams, tell her story. After listening to her heartbreaking story, I walked around campus a bit by myself both exploring and reflecting on everything I had just heard. So, now I’ve seen the campus (including the very cool graffiti tunnel under the library!). I got to the chapel a bit early and made my way to the office of the new Director of Religious and Spiritual Life of the Interfaith Chapel, Rev. Dr. C. Denise Yarbrough.
Hailing from Teaneck, NJ, Denise received a Bachelor’s degree from Barnard College, a juris doctor from the University of Michigan Law School, and earned Masters and Doctoral degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary. She has been involved in the interfaith dialogue ever since. In 2004, she became the canon for interfaith dialogue for Rochester’s Episcopal Diocese, and was (actually still is for a short time) faculty and a director at the Colgate Divinity School. Much of her focus there was also on interfaith discussion and instruction. With her background and presence in the interfaith dialogue in Rochester, she was a perfect choice for the University of Rochester to put her at the helm of guiding the Interfaith Chapel on their campus. The University of Rochester actually was one of the first colleges in the country to have built a dedicated building as an Interfaith Chapel, which was done in 1970. It’s clear that continuing such a philosophy and open dialogue is just as important to the college as it was 40 years ago and really, Rochester itself has really been a great place for interfaith discussion and communities. The First Universalist Church and Temple B’rith Kodesh kicked off a Thanksgiving Dinner together in 1874 and began a strong tradition in the city for interfaith celebration. It’s probably no surprise that the city and its spiritual inhabitants have continued supporting other beliefs and remained so open minded ever since.
Admittedly, I was a bit naive about what the job of leading the Chapel might entail–but, that’s precisely why we do this blog, right? The U of R has an incredibly diverse student population, so providing appropriate space for every belief on campus can get tricky. Denise could’ve easily explained that to us any day of the year, but we happened to be there during Passover. All of the normal considerations of accommodating so many different practices changes up a little with certain holidays. The space where the Muslims pray needs to be moved, because the Jewish students need a larger kitchen than they normally use, and the kitchen needs to be 100% kosher for the whole week, so the Muslims move to another area, which doesn’t have open floor space, so it means rearranging all the furniture to have enough room to pray on the floor, and the Christians who normally use the space where the Muslims now are get shifted to another room……the scheduling was even more than I could keep track of while we chatted. What struck me profoundly though, was that Denise shared with us how much all the students seem to embrace the idea of being inconvenienced for a little bit to provide their student counterparts the appropriate space for their worship. It seems like it would take a very special community to embrace such constant fluctuation and change for the purposes of honoring others’ beliefs. Think about it, move something in your office that your coworkers use and see how that goes for you.
Denise walked us around all three floors of the building and showed us around. The bottom floor is at river level, which has a beautiful view of the canal path. The path runs so close that there was a bit of discussion about how Muslim students praying in the room would feel about people running or walking by looking in the windows of the room watching, so considerations were made. The room on the day we were there was set up for the Passover Seder and students were beginning to filter in for an evening of celebration. It was interesting to see such a multi use looking space transformed in to a sacred one, with even an Aron Kodesh off to the side for the Torah.
The middle floor has a number of smaller multi use rooms and offices, but some of them are actually used for worship. One room was where the Muslim students prayed during the week of Passover, and later in the week it was the same room where I went to hear a local Holocaust survivor, Eva Abrams, tell her story.
The top floor of the building houses a large sanctuary, and this is probably the space that most people are familiar with. It’s a popular Rochester wedding locale because of its simple beauty and interfaith accommodations. So, for those Catholics who refused kicking and screaming to go through Confirmation (yours truly) and can’t be married in a church (at least, that’s the warning I received at the time of refusal), there’s still some options available that offer beauty and a strong spiritual presence. Despite the fact that it was a cloudy Rochester day, and we were approaching sunset, the stained glass windows above continued to wash the sanctuary with a soft, reverent light. The circular pews that intercept the sanctuary have now unfortunately been replaced by chairs. On that day, it was being used by a student pianist who was practicing, which provided a fantastic opportunity to hear not only some beautiful background music while we talked, but to discover the space had great acoustics despite being square and brick. There isn’t much in the way of religious iconography, save for a beautifully carved wooden Aron Kodesh in the back corner. It was obvious immediately why it was such a favorite spot to be married. As an aside, the space had an oddly familiar likeness to the sanctuary in Temple B’rith Kodesh.
After spending an hour or so with Denise, we certainly gained a newfound appreciation for what it means to accommodate so many different belief systems under one roof. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if all the world’s religions played together and prayed together just as well as they do at the Interfaith Chapel at the University of Rochester? Until that happens, it’s great to know that there are a few microcosms of interfaith dialogue that exist where people go to embrace their own beliefs while honoring everyone else’s. Many thanks to Denise and the University of Rochester for having us visit!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com