Office of Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life names director
Rev. Callista Isabelle will join the Center for Diversity and Inclusion as the Director of Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life, this semester.
As director, Rev. Isabelle will collaborate with the Interfaith Campus Ministries Association, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, student groups and other organizations in order to build bridges between different faiths on campus and to provide resources for religious groups which previously lacked resources. Isabelle previously served as the associate university chaplain at Yale University and the college chaplain at Muhlenberg College.
The push for an interfaith office at the University began with senior Ali Elahi, who initially noticed the lack of support for Islamic religious life on campus.
“As a first year, I came from a practicing Muslim family in Memphis and my faith was a really big part of my upbringing, my childhood and my identity,” Elahi said. “So when I came to Wash. U., aside from the Muslim Student Association [MSA], there wasn’t any institutional support present for that part of our identity.”
Although Elahi, along with alumni Itsak Hussein, Jennifer Greenburg and Sydney Curtis, initially sought to find a Muslim chaplain for the student-run MSA, they eventually decided to advocate for an interfaith minister instead.
“The Interfaith Campus Ministry Association [IFCMA] covers a lot of the Christian and Jewish organizations on campus, but there are so many students such as Sikh students, Hindu students, Jain students, Bahá’í students, Muslim students, a countless amount of faiths and identities that aren’t supported by it,” Elahi said. “So we thought ‘Instead of just having someone to advocate for our needs, why don’t we just have someone from the institution to advocate for all the needs of the students on campus?’.”
Administrators immediately responded to these concerns and worked with students to outline a proposal.
“This [spiritual life] is an important aspect of our students’ lives that we as an institution have not provided support for,” Chief of Staff to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, James Parker, said. “And one of the things that Dr. White particularly feels very strongly about is that we support the holistic development of our students. This was a piece that was a missing link to the puzzle, so when students reached out with a proposal and a desire for more support, we are really eager and glad to step in and help.”
Elahi, Hussein, Greenburg and Curtis worked with Associate Chancellor for Student Affairs Emelyn dela Peña, James Parker and other University administrators to meet with student groups, professors and administrators from Washington University in addition to other universities to discuss the proposed position.
“We spent about a year visiting other campuses, talking to people across the country about how universities do this, particularly when they are not religiously affiliated, and so we basically put together a proposal for them to consider,” Parker said.
After the proposal was approved by the office of the Provost, representatives from IFCMA, the CDI and the student body collaborated to select a candidate for the new role.
“We were looking for people who not only had…experience working with students, but also someone who had experience understanding the diversity of religious, spiritual or secular experiences so they could serve all students,” Parker said. “The other piece is that we were looking for somebody who could be an effective collaborator with the interfaith campus ministries, which are external.”
Jackie Levey, executive director of Hillel at Washington University, emphasized the importance of having an administrator within the university who could collaborate with external interfaith groups.
“Having someone who can come in in an administrator-type role to support the work of the campus ministry association would allow the campus ministers to really leverage their potential to foster more collaborative types of programs, to really focus on interfaith activities in ways that we really haven’t been able to do,” Levy said.
This summer, the search committee selected Reverend Callista Isabelle as Washington University’s first director of religious, spiritual, and ethical life. Rev. Isabelle plans to begin her time on campus by listening to the needs of students.
“First of all, I hope to just meet a lot of students and listen to the needs that they might have in order to better practice their particular traditions or practices,” Isabelle said. “Also, sometimes students from underrepresented religious and spiritual groups on campus don’t yet have support from an off-campus ministry, so in particular I will be listening to hear if there might be support that the University can offer those groups or individuals.”
Rev. Isabelle expressed this commitment by advocating for Muslim students in need of a prayer space, this week.
“The CDI recently moved from the third floor to the first floor,” Elahi said. “So, the prayer space on the third floor was fairly large…but the new space has an even smaller room, so two days ago I texted Callista and was like ‘The Muslim students need a bigger space. Can you do anything for us?’ So then she reserved the multipurpose room for us at the CDI from 1 to 1:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, exactly when we need it. If she wasn’t here, then we would literally not be able to pray together.”
In addition to advocating for religious groups on campus, Rev. Isabelle also hopes to support students on an individual level as they struggle with both religious and secular issues.
“Sometimes students come to me just to vent about a roommate or family stuff or talk about a crisis in their lives,” Isabelle said. “Sometimes those things have spiritual or religious themes to them and sometimes not.”
After helping establish the new office, Elahi hopes that the presence of Rev. Isabelle on campus will provide opportunities for students of faith, which were not available to him as a first year.
“When I applied to Wash. U., I wrote in one of my essays that my goal when coming here was to establish an interfaith group, so my goal by the end of senior year was to have an interfaith group on campus,” Elahi said. “I am so grateful to the fact that two years later there is not only an interfaith group, but there is also a full office dedicated to this and there are so many resources available, which I think is invaluable to the Wash. U. community.”