By Ruthie Kott
Photo by Marianne Morgan
Before Dean of Rockefeller Chapel Elizabeth Davenport launched the Spiritual Life Office three years ago, there was no formal structure for supporting the diversity of religious practices at the University of Chicago.
“One of my primary goals at the time was to support students of all traditions and students who were questioning their own spiritual orientation or practice,” Davenport said.
She wanted to create an office that fit the University’s growing spiritual community, which in 2011 led to her hiring Jigna Shah, a practicing Hindu-Jain, as Assistant Dean of Rockefeller Chapel and Director of Spiritual Life. The first non-Christian ever appointed to an assistant deanship at Rockefeller, Shah is “deeply committed to interfaith work,” Davenport said.
In her first year, Shah has worked to create a sense of community within the Spiritual Life Office, including creating the Spirit Café series.
“The series provides students the opportunity to engage in critical philosophical dialogue in a casual atmosphere,” Shah said. “My role and the role of our office is to provide a range of programs, services, support, and other engagement opportunities that meet the religious and spiritual needs of our students.”
One of the first tasks Shah and Davenport took on was to find an adviser to support Muslim affairs on campus. Jewish, Catholic, and some Protestant traditions were well represented; there was a graduate-student humanist adviser for secular students; and the office had brought in professional Buddhist priests.
“As we looked to complete our initial staffing for the Spiritual Life Office, it made sense on multiple grounds for us to look for someone who would be a resource to Muslim students, who face particular pressures in today's world as American Muslims or as international students from Islamic nations,” Davenport said.
They chose Tahir Abdullah, a Sunni Muslim who had just completed his master’s degree in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). As a student, he had noticed that the University’s Muslim community was growing, but there was no Muslim liaison to serve as an advocate for the community.
Abdullah, a convert to Islam, takes inspiration from West Africa’s history of Islamic scholarship and the synthesis of Islamic law and Sufism, for which the region is known.He explored these ideas extensively while at UChicago, and developed strong relationships with CMES professors, as well as University staff in other departments—relationships he hopes to grow in his new role.
“I may ask them questions, or I make myself available to anyone who thinks that they can utilize the services and the skill set that I have,” Abdullah said.
For example, he’s helping to plan an event with the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs that seeks to address religious discrimination in a hostile political climate and acts of violence toward religious minorities.
The hiring of Shah and Abdullah signals a shift in religious life at the University, one that is consistent with UChicago’s mission and values: to embrace rigorous inquiry from multiple perspectives.
“I like the idea that questions could be raised, and I want people to engage and challenge their assumptions in this regard,” says Shah. “Can a Hindu-Jain woman be an assistant dean at Rockefeller Chapel? Is Rockefeller, a church, a temple, a mandir, a mosque? Who do we serve? The answer is that it’s none of these! It’s a spiritual center for all who come here, as well as being the university’s major ceremonial center and a major performing arts venue.”