Chapin Chapel Consecrated in Multi-Faith Ceremony for First Time in History
Issue   |   Wed, 01/25/2017 - 00:01

The college’s religious and spiritual life staff consecrated Chapin Chapel in a short multi-faith ceremony on Thursday, Jan. 19.

Director of Religious & Spiritual Life Paul Sorrentino said religious staff held the event after realizing that though Chapin hosted its first religious service in 1958, college archives did not have any record of a service of consecration for the chapel.

The event received attention from The Boston Globe and other local media outlets after Sorrentino described the chapel as offering a “sanctuary” for undocumented students. But Sorrentino said in an email to The Student that there had been some “confusion of language” regarding the consecration.

“I think there was an assumption that we were declaring the chapel to be a part of the larger sanctuary movement, and we were not doing that,” Sorrentino said. “So we changed some of the language to be more clear.”

In an earlier email to The Student, Sorrentino had connected the event to the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, who has said he will deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

“It is our hope that this ceremony will help to establish the chapel as a sacred space and a true sanctuary,” Sorrentino wrote in the Jan. 13 email. “There is a great deal of uncertainty going forward after Jan. 20, and we want to assure that the chapel is a safe sanctuary space, should there be a need for it for DACA students and employees and others who might feel threatened.” DACA is an acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy enacted by the Obama administration that temporarily provides a work permit and protection to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

Religious life staff later backed away from language that described the chapel as a “sanctuary.”

Before the consecration, the Office of Communications issued a statement saying that the event was not sponsored by the college.

“This event was privately organized by multi-faith religious advisers who use our campus chapel,” the statement said. “They are not acting on behalf of the college. As we previously emphasized, we indeed care deeply about the concerns of students who may be worried about immigration issues, and that is why we are providing a wide range of resources to assist those individuals. At the same time, we have upheld the law and always will.”

In an email, President Biddy Martin said the college decided to issue a statement after an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette “incorrectly described the designation of Chapin Chapel as an official College-designated sanctuary.”

On Nov. 20, after students held protests advocating to make Amherst a “sanctuary campus” for undocumented students, Martin issued a statement pledging her support to undocumented and DACA students and describing resources available for these students.

“We have long had policies and practices for that purpose, even as we respect existing legal restrictions on what we can do,” she said in the statement. “As is true of other institutions of higher learning, we do not share student records and other materials with immigration agencies. Nor does the college police department inquire about or record an individual’s immigration status, or participate with other law-enforcement agencies in any policing actions related to immigration.”

However, Martin did not declare Amherst a “sanctuary campus,” the term that some other college presidents have chosen to describe their schools. The terms “sanctuary campus” and “sanctuary city” have no legal definition, but they generally describe measures taken to protect undocumented residents. In an email to The Student on Jan. 24, Martin elaborated on the decision.

“Like many colleges and universities, we chose to take every measure that ‘sanctuary cities or campuses’ can lawfully and honestly take, but not to characterize the college as a sanctuary,” she said. “We made that choice because it can be misleading to suggest that the college could guarantee protection regardless of law or circumstance and also because we do not want to expose our students to greater risk with such a naming.”

Martin said that “virtually any effort to protect our undocumented students and students with DACA status would be consonant with our commitment,” but that religious life staff did not have the authority to officially name the chapel a sanctuary.

The ceremony of consecration lasted less than an hour on Thursday morning. It began with members of the Amherst College Gospel Choir singing “We Shall Overcome,” followed by an introduction from Sorrentino, who is the college’s Protestant adviser. The college’s Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish and Hindu advisers each offered a prayer. The Gospel Choir members concluded by singing the hymn “Lord, Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary.”

The ceremony made oblique references to the Trump presidency, but did not explicitly discuss undocumented students or Trump’s policies.

A consecration litany was distributed on paper at the event and spoken aloud by religious staff and members of the audience.
“In accordance with the values and beliefs of our various traditions, which have in common a commitment to welcome strangers and protect the vulnerable, we consecrate this chapel,” the litany began. It also made reference to “those who fear violence may be perpetuated against them” and “those facing overwhelming anxiety in these uncertain times.”

Few students attended the event, which was held during interterm. “It was very meaningful that advisers from each faith had the chance to introduce and conclude the ceremony,” Isa Goldberg ’17 said.

On the morning of Jan. 24, in response to further inquiries from The Student about the event, Sorrentino asked a reporter not to print a story about the consecration. Chief Student Affairs Officer Suzanne Coffey also asked The Student not to print the article until she had a chance to address potential “inaccuracies.” In a later email, Coffey said her initial email had been “hurried.”

“I now withdraw my concern,” Coffey wrote, saying she had spoken with colleagues. At press time, Coffey had not responded to further requests for clarification. Sorrentino also did not respond to repeated requests for clarification about his concerns.
Director of Media Communications Caroline Hanna said on the phone that it was not college policy to interfere with student media coverage.

The Student is an independent newspaper, and coverage is not under the jurisdiction of school officials.