Elmhurst College: Sharing in the Spirit

Alumni News

Sharing in the Spirit

When the Rev. Kelly Stone shows visitors around the Multifaith Center at Wellesley College, the super-selective women’s college outside Boston where she is interim dean for religious life, the first thing she points out is what is missing from the space.

“There are no religious symbols here,” she said, walking through the center’s minimalist central gathering space. 

The absence, she explains, is intentional. Wellesley is home to some two dozen student religious groups, representing not just the Protestant Christians who founded the school in 1875, but also Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Jains, Sikhs, Wiccan, Zoroastrians and others. “We want everyone to feel welcome and comfortable here,” says Stone, a 2003 Elmhurst graduate.

As campuses grow more diverse, chaplains and the administrators who hire them are rethinking the ways they serve the spiritual lives of students. At Wellesley, where she was hired three years ago as Protestant chaplain and director of multifaith programs, Stone works at the cutting edge of the national trend toward a more inclusive campus pastorate. The changes are not only symbolic. One of Stone’s 19th century predecessors in campus ministry is said to have preached sermons of such evangelical fervor and severity that they drove the students in the congregation—many of them away from home for the first time—to tears. For her part, Stone says she is more likely to be found talking to students in small groups on the snug sofas in the Multifaith Center than thundering from the pulpit.

“I don’t preach many sermons,” she says. “It’s more about conversation and meditation.”

Stone remains on the lookout for chances to broaden the conversation. With the college’s Catholic chaplain, she launched a regular discussion group focused on feminism and religion. With the Hindu chaplain, she facilitates the college’s multifaith council, a gathering of 25 women representing the spectrum of religious diversity on campus. “It’s a place where students feel free to ask honest questions of each other, the kinds of questions that in ordinary conversation would be considered a faux pas,” Stone says. “They ask about traditions and about beliefs. Where else but on a college campus can you find all this diversity and such fertile ground for understanding?”

Such productive interfaith exchange is what Wellesley’s leadership had in mind when it overhauled the college’s religious life office some two decades ago. In response to the increasing diversity of its students, the college added more chaplains, ministers and advisors. The new Multifaith Center, opened in 2008 in what had been a dank basement space beneath Wellesley’s stately Houghton Chapel, became an inclusive focal point for the diverse spiritual life of the campus. Wellesley’s multifaith approach—it was dubbed the Wellesley Experiment—became a model for colleges around the country that were serving students from more faith traditions than ever before.

“It was a recognition that it was no longer feasible to have one person meet the needs of such a diverse community,” Stone said.

The change came at a time when an entire generation of college students seemed to be hungry for spiritual direction. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA studied 100,000 students in the first years of the new millennium. What they found made educators take notice: Two-thirds of the freshmen surveyed by UCLA said they wanted their college to play a role in their spiritual development. But only about half of the juniors surveyed said they were satisfied with the opportunities their institutions offered for spiritual exploration.

Meeting all those disparate needs can be a complicated business, Stone says.

“Multifaith work is hard,” she said. “You don’t learn it by reading a book. You have to sit down with people and listen and share. And you have to rethink the idea that your approach to a question is the only approach.”

She acknowledges that working as part of a large and diverse ministry team hasn’t always come naturally for her.

“I’m Type A. I want to tackle a project and move it forward, see it through. But I’ve learned I have to slow down sometimes,” she said. “I know now that collaboration looks different than me having an idea and inviting other people to get on board. It takes time to learn that. But the good thing is that now I can help students work through that, too.”

Stone grew up in Geneseo, Illinois, where she was active in the First Congregational Church. But it wasn’t until she was well into her studies at Elmhurst that she began to consider a life in ministry. She had enrolled at Elmhurst because of its strong program in speech-language pathology. “Ministry wasn’t even on my map,” she says. But during her junior year, to satisfy a general education requirement, she signed up for Professor Paul Parker’s Christian Ethics course. It turned out to be a life-changer.

“That class got me thinking about the larger world and about our responsibilities as Christians,” she said. It also confirmed her growing sense that she was ready to set out on a new path.

It was at around the same time that she casually mentioned to Elmhurst’s chaplain, the Rev. H. Scott Matheney, that she would like to travel to Africa someday. Matheney’s response took Stone aback. “Before you leave here, we’ll find a way to get you there,” Matheney told her. The following year, Stone was one of several students who joined Matheney and then-president Bryant L. Cureton in a home-building project for Habitat for Humanity in South Africa. When Habitat founder Millard Fuller came to campus to receive the College’s Niebuhr Medal, Stone led the effort to raise $10,000 in donations to the group.

“Kelly had a sense that she had to be in service, she had to act on her faith,” said Matheney. ”She wasn’t thinking about herself but about others.”

“Scott showed me that it was okay for me to dream about something other than small-town life,” Stone says. “To have someone affirm that was really powerful. He’s still a role model for me and a close friend.”

Stone spent part of her senior year studying at Chicago Theological Seminary, an experience she jokingly calls “my study-abroad experience.” But if the seminary was in some ways like another country, Stone discovered that she felt right at home there. 

“I had fallen in love with higher education. I found that I thrived with a level of independence, freedom and flexibility,” she says. “I was good at it.”

After her graduation from Elmhurst, she went on to Yale Divinity School, where she earned a Master of Divinity. Fresh out of Yale, she was hired as the chaplain at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. She was the college’s first female chaplain and one of the youngest anyone could remember. Some of her students asked her directly why the college didn’t have a male minister. People she met at local churches sometimes commented patronizingly on her youth. But Stone made an undeniable impact at Lakeland, revitalizing a moribund worship program and teaching introductory theology courses.

“Some thought that Lakeland was taking a risk hiring someone so young, but Kelly showed them that she had the maturity and the skill set to do that job very well,” Matheney said.

Stone, meanwhile, was hearing more about Wellesley’s innovative approaches to campus chaplaincy. She met the college’s head of religious life, Victor Kazanjian, at a professional conference and was impressed with the school’s efforts. When she learned of an opening on the chaplaincy team at Wellesley, she decided to apply. In 2011, Stone was hired as director of multifaith programs and Protestant chaplain at Wellesley.

“When I first heard about the position, I thought, ‘Protestant chaplain I can do. But multifaith programs?’” Stone said. “Then I realized I had been doing multifaith work out of necessity as the only chaplain at Lakeland. When one of your students tells you that her roommate doesn’t like it that she is up praying at 5:30 in the morning, you’re going to do what you can to find that student a place to pray. The multifaith work we’re doing at Wellesley is making explicit what a lot of good chaplains have been doing out of necessity for a long time.”

It’s all part of the evolving role chaplains are playing on many campuses, as student bodies grow more diverse and institutions become more inclusive. Matheney said Stone offers an example of the kind of impact a college chaplain can have. “Colleges and universities can be an incubator to frame what our future will look like, what our values will be,” he said. “In her interfaith work, Kelly is showing what colleges and universities need to be about.”

For all its focus on reinvention and change, Wellesley also remains rooted in its often high-profile history. This year, Stone and the rest of the campus are looking forward to welcoming back two of the school’s best-known graduates, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. Nowhere is the college’s 19th century heritage more clearly on display than in the sanctuary of Houghton Chapel, just one flight of stairs above the spare, nonsectarian spaces of the Multifaith Center. In the chapel, rows of stained glass windows testify to the college’s evolution. One, from 1890, shows St. Elizabeth teaching a youthful John the Baptist. A more recently installed window includes symbols representing 14 world religions and the figure of a woman who is, alone among the chapel’s stained-glass images, dark skinned.

This year, Stone is overseeing the design of a new triptych of windows to be installed in the chapel. The design process, she said, will include input from students, faculty and staff of diverse religious backgrounds.

“These windows will still be here in 100 years, so we want to get it right,” Stone said. “I feel like the custodian of something much bigger than me.”

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