Conversations with Clergy is a new interfaith initiative at Utah State University that invites students to speak with local church leaders about issues going on in their own lives.
“We want to ask students about their hopes and their dreams and their desires,” said Bonnie Glass-Coffin, director of the USU Interfaith Initiative.
“We’ve asked students what they needed most, and there is a desire to offer more support services on campus,” Glass-Coffin said.
Those who are exploring issues of faith, one’s identity or choosing to convert or remove religion from their lives are invited to meet with local clergy in Old Main each week.
“Anyone is invited to come and speak with us, whether they are religious or not,” Glass-Coffin said.
“College is a time when students are actively engaged in identification and trying to figure out who they are, what they believe and whether or not organized religion fits in their life,” Glass-Coffin said. “Spiritual and religious identity is a large part of that.”
Glass-Coffin said that for many students in college, it is common to experience new ideas and meet new people. This change of environment can cause students to wonder why they believe the things they do.
“Currently there is a wait list to visit with counselors on campus,” Glass-Coffin said. “We decided to offer this service for those who may be on the wait list and need to discuss issues of faith. This way we can help students quicker and free up space on those wait lists.”
USU currently doesn’t have an office of spiritual and religious life like many universities in Utah, so Glass-Coffin works out of the anthropology department where she also teaches. Glass-Coffin is an ordained interfaith minister and said that students don’t need to worry about being swayed toward one religion or another when they visit.
“Our clergy members are trained individuals who know how to listen and walk beside the students who need help,” Glass-Coffin said. “We have a mental health issue on campus, and many students may just need someone to talk to about the bigger questions in life.”
This is only the second week that Conversations with Clergy has been operating, but Glass-Coffin said she hopes to see it grow and expand if there proves to be a need for it.
“Right now, we have three clergy members,” Glass-Coffin said. “We want to open that up to all religions and have all traditions represented, but we have to start somewhere, and right now the three of us are available.”
Alongside Glass-Coffin is Pastor Meg Vail from the Presbyterian Church and Teri Hernsmeyer from Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Logan.
“There are a lot of assumptions on a campus with one predominant faith,” Glass-Coffin said. “Many students feel like campus isn’t a safe space to discuss religion or the lack thereof because people assume their experiences are the same.”
Glass-Coffin wrote a 2015 article for The Huffington Post titled, “Coming Out of the Religious Closet in Utah.” In the article she states that silence surrounding religious convictions often keeps individuals from connecting across faith-divides. Glass-Coffin believes that making interfaith cooperation a social norm should be the goal in Utah.
“In 2014 I began researching how the effects of silence about religion impact my campus climate and community,” Glass-Coffin wrote. “In conversations with more than 100 students, faculty, administrators, staff and community leaders, almost all agreed that their religious (or non-religious) convictions shaped them in fundamental ways.”
Glass-Coffin realized that people want to be able to share this important aspect of their life, but religion became an “elephant in the room” at USU.
“We want to provide that outlet, and confidentiality is very important to us,” Glass-Coffin said. “It is normal to have existential questions and to wonder what your place in the universe is. That answer may not be the same for everyone.”
The Interfaith Initiative at USU is an umbrella that has multiple other programs underneath it. Conversations with Clergy and weekly faith distress groups are two of the newest programs implemented. The Interfaith Student Association is also under that umbrella and has events on campus and in the community celebrating the ability to coexist with religious organizations and non-traditional beliefs. The department is part of the Access and Diversity outreach at USU.
Drop-in hours for Conversations with Clergy are 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays in Old Main, Room 243, and will continue through April.
“We really hope students make use of this service,” Glass-Coffin said. “Issues don’t need to be centered around religious organizations. We are excited just to discuss the bigger questions with students.”