Imagining the Role of the University Chapel in the Year 2171

The interior of The Duke Chapel at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Photo: EQRoy/Shutterstock

(Earlier this spring, the Rev. H. Scott Matheney, chaplain at Elmhurst University in Elmhurst, Ill., informed me that the Elmhurst Chapel would be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the university’s founding.  As part of their observance, Scott asked me to offer a reflection on "The Role of the Chapel for the next 150 years.” He asked me to be “imaginative and bold.” This was my response.) 

Welcome each one of you to the 2171 Opening Exercises at Elmhurst University and Collective Learning Center. We are thrilled you have chosen to be a part of our learning community that has been educating leaders for the past 300 years.  My name is Chaplain Scott Matheney, and I am Lead Chaplain here at the Elmhurst Chapel.  I was named after a great chaplain who served here in the 21st century. Of course, for the past century all professors and administrators are trained as chaplains; each of us coming from diverse spiritual backgrounds and academic learning areas serving as both educators and chaplains.  And all of you will graduate from Elmhurst certified as chaplains as well as with degrees in your chosen fields. From our inception, Elmhurst has adhered to the principle that there can be no true education without an integrated approach to mind, body and spirit and we continue that tradition today.

As we have for the past three centuries, we are starting our education together in the beating heart of our campus: the Elmhurst Chapel. We want you to know that your heart is part of the wider heart of this community’s past and our future.  Whether you are joining us at these opening exercises from around the world (using the technology that they used to call “Virtual Reality” but which we now call eSpirit), or embodied here in the chapel, you are equally welcome. 

We know that you chose Elmhurst because of the mission of our learning community that is rooted in the six principles of love, beauty, community, spirituality, creativity, and justice.  Of course, the chapel is at the center of each of these mission areas, just as it has been for 300 years. While you will all have classes in your chosen fields of Human Flourishing, Plant and Co-Species Care, Interplanetary Relations, and Math – all evaluation will, of course, happen within the Elmhurst Chapel community; and your work will be assessed according to how well it furthers these mission areas of our school. 

For the entire first year you will be focusing on the six mission areas and experiencing key moments in history through our special eSpirit curriculum.  Next Monday we will be joining a figure from over 200 years ago named the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and we will all be walking with him and others across a bridge in Selma to protest violence and racism. Be prepared to reflect on how this has shaped human understanding of spirituality, love, justice, and community. In the afternoon we will be joining together at the feet of Buddha from 2,500 years ago learning about perceptions of reality through the 4 noble truths, and we will end the day with Rumi at a Sema to experience the role of music and dance in the quest transcendence.  Tuesday will start our day at the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus promptly at 9 so please be in your avatar at Chapel at 8:45 sharp. 

As you were promised when you elected to come to Elmhurst, our chapel is your chapel. By the end of orientation week, please design your Elmhurst eChapel it in whatever way that maximizes your spiritual well-being. Choose the architecture from a template from various eras or traditions or design your own; use the chapel windows creative function to tell stories from your own tradition in images - either moving or static; create a seating arrangement that reflects your understanding of community, and, of course, imagine the center ‘altar’ in whatever manner feels most conducive to transcendence.  Each of you is requested to host a ComeTogether that invites the entire community to your specific chapel design and introduces us to your personal tradition.  We look forward to joining you!

In addition to designing your individual eChapel, we will be joining together to co-create this year’s collective chapel design, incorporating each of your ideas into a space that reflects this year’s community as well as each of you individually.  This will be done in both eSpirit as well as embodied.  For the embodied component, remember that the walls of our chapel are movable, the windows can be designed as needed as well as all the seating, colors, and contours of the building. If your collective design includes a sweat hut, please plan for one extra week for construction.  

We will, of course, have our daily ComeTogethers in the Elmhurst Chapel to lift up the joys, hopes, pains and fears of our community.  As you share your concerns, they will be gathered in the chapel mainframe to create a visual and aural community tapestry that will be projected on the embodied or eChapel ceiling to illuminate how we are collectively doing and guide our time together; as well as dictate the curation of music, dance, poetry, fiction/nonfiction readings and food that will be provided.  Please sign up for your turn to lead the gathering as each of you must lead a minimum of 10 chapel ComeTogethers to graduate as part of the chaplaincy training required of all students. 

We know that this time of learning can be challenging and can raise questions, doubts, as well as inspire excitement and joy. The Elmhurst Chapel is your place where you can come and share whatever you are feeling in one-on-one counseling. Through our international network we have people available to speak with you in any language as well as conversant in your spiritual background and culture. That network includes you! Each of you will be paired with one of our chaplain/professors to learn counseling as part of your chaplaincy training, until you are prepared to offer counseling to your fellow students.  This is a place of healing for you, please know that.

Finally, we look forward to participating in your Chapel Justice Mobilization requirement in your field of study.  Each one of you is asked to team up with two other students from different fields to work collectively.  We ask that each Chapel Justice Mobilization include at least three other aspects of the Elmhurst mission of love, beauty, spirituality, creativity, and community. The Chapel Justice Mobilization is the final requirement of your chaplaincy training.  Please make sure your mobilization includes a rigorous study of effective change making and rhetorical styles of inspiration. Students are encouraged to use our eSpirit curriculum to go back and explore great justice movements from the past.

Let me again welcome you to Elmhurst on this history 300th anniversary.  We started as a place where people might seek to love others and to serve the great Love that is at the heart of the universe.  This chapel was at the center of our beginnings, guiding and grounding all that we teach and learn in the values of love, beauty, community, spirituality, creativity, and justice.  You, entering this great center of learning in 2171 continue that tradition by making this chapel the center of your vocational development during your time here, and leaving both as a certified chaplain as well as your academic credentials.  Welcome, dear new students. Let our adventure begin, knowing that many parts of our beloved Elmhurst will change – but that the values and the mission embedded in the chapel will remain.


The whimsical speech above highlights what I see as the most important aspirations of Chapel buildings and Chaplaincy going forward. The Chapel should invest heavily in the kind of technology that can expand the access of more students and increase the kinds of experiences provided. Much of the technology used in the address from 2271 is here or almost here, and the Chapel could be the center of experiential educational that uses virtual reality to learn compassion as well as experience singular religious moments from throughout history. Chapel building should seek to be as flexible to the variety of backgrounds that come to the school, serving that diversity with particularity, while also find opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to work together to learn from one another and find commonalities as well as respecting difference.  Finally, a university would benefit from each administrator and professor having been trained in the skills set of Chaplaincy and so would every student. These include peer counseling, community leadership and social justice.  Just as Elmhurst was first constituted to train spiritual leadership across the institution, so should the Chapel feel this is part of its mission.  The Chapel was meant to be the beating heart of any University. An empty or vacuous Chapel risks transforming the University into merely a factory, producing efficient cogs in societal machine.  The Chapel should be unapologetic about its place as the heart of the university and its role in furthering the mission of the University that can and should be more than technical skills, but developing the skills of love, beauty, community, spirituality, creativity, and justice. 




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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.