Women religious leaders on campus reflect on role of women in the chaplaincy
Female chaplaincy gains momentum across religions at Tufts
Published: Monday, October 15, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 15, 2012 08:10
With so many faiths represented on the Hill, religious support for the student body must cover a broad range of traditions. Across these various religions, students are likely to find a young woman in the chaplaincy leading the way.
Although many other colleges and universities have female chaplains, the high proportion of women to men distinguishes Tufts’ chaplaincy.
Young female chaplains serve the Protestant, Catholic and Muslim communities at Tufts, in addition to the position of the university chaplain ad interim held by Reverend Patricia Budd Kepler.
The chaplains, along with Rabbi Kerrith Rosenbaum at Tufts Hillel, share the rare opportunities inherent in being a woman in a position of religious authority.
While these women now hold positions of power, they have not forgotten the opposition that females have faced in organized religion, both historically and today.
Kepler recounted that she was a part of the women’s rights movement within the Presbyterian Church.
“When I first went to seminary, women were not being ordained,” she said. “It didn’t just affect women as clergy, it affected the whole of how women were seen.”
According to Kepler, the movement encompassed a broad range of issues of women’s rights, from having women become ministers to listing women who served in churches under their own name rather than that of their husbands.
“It’s been a long haul because in the beginning there were very few women who were ordained, and there were not many churches that wanted women as clergy,” Kepler said.
Despite movement towards equality, some faiths refuse to accept women as leaders. In an article and accompanying multimedia piece published in late September, the New York Times reported that there is a growing initiative to ordain women in the Roman Catholic Church, which continues to maintain a patriarchal order.
Protestant Chaplain Rachael Pettengill-Rasure discovered the difficulty of being a woman in a restrictive faith when she was a member of the evangelical Christian tradition growing up.
“I went to a Christian college to study to become a minister, but one of the issues was my gender because, in the tradition I was a part of, women were not allowed to be leaders in the church,” she said.
Pettengill-Rasure added that, over time, she felt much less accepted by her religious community, propelling her to make the switch to the Episcopal Church.
Pettengill-Rasure said that when she grappled with the role of women in religion, she would turn toward the Bible.
“For Christians, people who approach the Bible more literally will argue that the Bible says that women can’t be leaders,” she said. “But if you dig deeper, you’ll find so many stories in the Bible of examples of women as leaders.”
Many Tufts students have had their first interaction with a female religious authority figure on the Hill. Junior Megan Berkowitz said that it was refreshing to meet and engage with Catholic Chaplain Lynn Cooper.
“A woman’s life experiences are going to be necessarily different from a man’s life experiences,” Berkowitz said. “In a tradition that puts men in the visible forefront, having a woman to relate to who has worked inside that hierarchy is really helpful.”
Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, who is currently the only male chaplain at Tufts, echoed the importance of a female perspective.
“I think that a person’s gender, of course, is a factor in how we function in the world,” he said. “But when we work with a mixed community of men, women and people who are transgender, we benefit from having people of different genders serving as chaplains.”
Rosenbaum feels that her role at Tufts has been determined by more than solely her gender.
“I really felt like this wasn’t a place that I had to say, ‘I’m a female rabbi and let me tell you what that means,’ but that I could come here and be my full self,” she said.
For many of these women, the “full self” means bringing their individual perspectives as young religious leaders to the table, which has allowed them to be increasingly accessible and open to students.
Berkowitz noted that Cooper, who herself graduated from Tufts in 2002, was helpful in advising her on many Tufts-specific issues, from handling stress to choosing courses.
“Outside of her role as a spiritual guide, she just has practical knowledge about the university,” Berkowitz said.