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When Knox announced a search for a director of spiritual life this spring, Lisa Seiwert was attracted to the position based upon the description she read: "The director of spiritual life will engage the Knox College community in exploring the roles of spirituality, religion, contemplation, and action in campus life and beyond and promote vibrant multi-faith dialogue and cooperation throughout the community." An ordained minister with experience in higher education, Seiwert was drawn to campus ministry, and the position seemed like a good fit.
"But it was through meeting and engaging with the community," she says, "that I knew this is where I wanted to be."
And the College agreed.
Seiwert officially joined the Knox community as the College's first director for spiritual life on August 8. She came to Knox from the Chicago Theological Seminary, where she served as director of admission and recruitment since 2012. Seiwert began her career in social work, after receiving her bachelor's degree from Michigan State University. In 2008, she returned to school to pursue her master of divinity, followed by a master of sacred theology, both at the Chicago Theological Seminary. She is ordained through the United Church of Christ and has worked with many faith-based, community organizing groups throughout her career, including Chicago Regional Organizing Group for Antiracism, The Night Ministry's Youth Outreach Team in Chicago, and ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community).
Her experience in higher education, ministry, and service made her a terrific match for this new position. "First and foremost, like all of us in Student Development, Lisa is an educator and will engage students in programs and dialogues around issues that are core to being human: compassion, understanding, equality, justice," said Vice President for Student Development Anne Ehrlich, to whom Seiwert will report. "She is also, in many ways, a counselor, and will help students navigate their personal, ethical, and spiritual lives."
Seiwert will also be of service to the entire Knox community providing, as Ehrlich says, "thoughtful care for our students, faculty, staff, and alumni."
"There are times when our community needs someone to be present for tragedies, celebrations, or whatever happens in life, either locally or globally," Ehrlich adds.
For Seiwert, her work at Knox will be based on trying to make meaning in our world. "We all wrestle with questions of why bad things happen to good people. We all face grief and loss and have times of deep personal pain. We all experience helplessness and hopelessness in working for social change. I believe all of us need to build up a sense of spiritual resiliency to help us get through those times," she says.
Knox Magazine spoke with Seiwert shortly before her arrival on campus about her journey to Knox and her hopes for this new position.
YOU BEGAN YOUR FAITH-BASED WORK LATER IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL CAREER. WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO THE MINISTRY AND YOUR FOCUS ON SPIRITUAL LIFE IN HIGHER EDUCATION?
Quite simply, what brought me to this place is hope.
I began my career in social work and found myself faced with impossible situations, limited resources, and lots of red tape. I was questioning my vocation, and feeling daunted by the amount of work to do in the world. At the same time, I was exploring my spirituality and growing into my own sense of faith. A mentor suggested that I work on the question, "From where does your hope come?"
Over time, I came to see the connection between my desire to engage in work that brings about increased justice, mercy, and peace and my own inner understandings of justice, mercy, and peace. My own spirituality. I came to see that rooting my work in prophetic texts, traditions, and practice is where my hope arises. This insight took me on a quest for theological education and deep vocational discernment.
THE DIRECTOR OF SPIRITUAL LIFE IS A NEW POSITION AT KNOX. WHAT CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES DO YOU SEE FOR YOURSELF AS YOU TAKE ON THIS NEW ROLE?
I see incredible potential in working to create a role that becomes an integral part of the Knox community. None of us has preconceived ideas of what this position might look like in the coming years, and I am open to the growth that I believe is about to come. I am humbled by the opportunity to enrich the already excellent educational experiences at Knox by encouraging spiritual growth and creating space for questions about life's meaning and purpose. I like to dream, imagine, and create, and there is so much room for all of that within this role.
Perhaps the biggest challenge I will face initially is getting engagement from the community. I don't see this role as isolated for only the "religious" people on campus. Rather, I hope to create spaces for people with all kinds of religious and nonreligious identities to come together, learn with and from one another, encounter new ideas, and journey together. In order to do that well, I will need to nd ways to make myself and programs feel welcoming, open, and relevant.
YOU HAVE A GREAT DEAL OF EXPERIENCE WORKING ON ISSUES OF SOCIAL JUSTICE, PARTICULARLY RACIAL JUSTICE, SEXUAL AND GENDER JUSTICE, AND INTERRELIGIOUS ENGAGEMENT. CAN YOU DISCUSS THE RELATION BETWEEN SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION TO SOCIAL JUSTICE?
Certainly we can all name instances where religion has been used in ways that have oppressed, ostracized, and incited violence against marginalized groups and individuals. In fact, many make the case that religion is at the heart of all the evils humankind has perpetrated upon one another. We can see that religious traditions have been used to support horrific policies, regimes, wars, and genocides. And so, some might seek to rid the world of religion altogether, or at least choose not to participate in anything remotely religious. And I get that.
But within all the world religions, we find teachings, texts, and traditions that point us toward justice, compassion, care for those most on the margins, love of our enemies. Prophetic voices through the ages have painted a vision of a world very different from our current reality. A world of peace, sustainability, shared resources, abundant and diverse life. Spiritual teachers within all the world religions have offered paths that push back against the ways of the world and draw us into new ways of being- where priorities are focused on generosity, loving kindness, forgiveness, mercy, and love.
It seems to me that the work of social justice is emboldened when we lean into those teachings,traditions, and practices. I hope all of us will take the time to go beyond the ways humankind has distorted religion into a tool for evil and instead discover the transformative potential within religion and spirituality. Working for social justice is an uphill battle and often feels like one step forward, two steps back. I believe our work in the world is strengthened when our spirits are sustained by practices and traditions that offer us the vision we so long for. And I believe our work is strengthened when we engage hand in hand with friends from many religious and non-religious persuasions.
WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU PLAN TO DO WHEN YOU GET TO CAMPUS?
Meet people! I look forward to being present as much as possible to events already taking place. I look forward to sporting events, ne arts performances, lectures and convocations, and also to finding the best place for a good cup of coffee and conversation, the best places on campus to sit outside and watch the leaves fall, the best things to do in Galesburg.
AFTER A PARTICULARLY DIFFICULT SUMMER, ONE IN WHICH OUR NATION STRUGGLED WITH ISSUES OF INJUSTICE AND ESCALATING VIOLENCE, AND ENTERING A POTENTIALLY TUMULTUOUS ELECTION SEASON, WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR MEMBERS OF THE KNOX COMMUNITY AS WE START THE NEW ACADEMIC YEAR?
I hope as we enter this year that we will nd a way as a community to commit to staying in difficult conversations, using language of compassion and curiosity that does not vilify or insult, and listening to those who have very different opinions. I worry that, as a nation, we have come to a place in discourse that frames issues and opinions as polar opposites and necessarily pits us against those who think differently. I believe we need to engage in a different kind of discourse. I think we need to nd ways to refrain from demonizing those who disagree with us and instead see the humanity in everyone, even (perhaps especially) in those with whom we disagree.
I hope that as a community, we can encourage one another to change the discourse, to refuse to participate in behaviors and speech that marginalize and instead remember that every person has a story and a journey and has arrived at her/his place in ways we can never fully know. It should never be our goal that everyone think or vote just like us; rather, we need to build a community where diverse voices find ways to stay together even through difference and conflict.
While the director of spiritual life position itself is new to Knox, it has its roots in both recent and past College history. In fact, the position finds its origins in the same ones that brought James Thrall, Knight Distinguished Associate Professor for the Study of Religion and Culture, to Knox six years ago. Both the professorship and director are supported by the same donor, and both are perfect examples of where institutional initiatives and donor interest meet.
The official role of religion at Knox is complex and sometimes contentious. After a religious schism among the founders of the College, Knox became a secular institution early in its history, but religion and the spiritual life of its students remained an important part of College life. Daily chapel remained compulsory for all faculty and students until the 1940s, and a department of religion was created in 1947 and included a chaplain who also served as a faculty member. Over time, daily chapel turned to weekly chapel, which then turned to occasional convocations. In 1953, the department of religion was absorbed into the philosophy department, and, upon the retirement of long-time religion professor William Matthews in 1983, the College lost its chaplain. Thanks to faculty interest and initiative, active student groups, and connections to the local community, Knox was able to continue to provide opportunities for students to study religion and practice their spirituality.
A little over six years ago, Knox faculty and student interest in reviving religious studies grew, and the College knew of a donor with an interest in this very area. Two years later, a faculty chair in religion and culture was endowed by the donor, and, after a national search, James Thrall was invited to fill that chair.
More recently, with a more robust academic program in religious studies, along with a growing number of active student organizations focused on religion and spirituality, Knox saw a need to address spiritual life outside of the classroom. Last spring, Knox invited a panel of speakers from colleges similar to Knox to speak on spiritual life and the liberal arts, with a focus on multifaith campus programs. With campus interest growing in a spiritual life position, the same donor who endowed the professorship agreed to support the new position as well.
"A very important aspect of education takes place outside of the classroom," says the donor. "It will be wonderful to have someone who can help students work through the sometimes difficult personal and philosophical issues that confront them as they make the transition between living at home and, eventually, taking their places in the world after Knox."
From the donor's perspective, Thrall and Seiwert can work in tandem to help students explore themselves and their beliefs. "It is my belief that James Thrall and Lisa Seiwert, working together, will greatly enrich the Knox experience for every student who walks through the doors of Old Main."
This article is from the Fall 2016 issue of the Knox Magazine. Read more stories from the issue.