Monday, January 28, 2013

EDS Faculty Visit Wilson Chapel

(l to r) EDS faculty members Suzanne Ehly,
Kwok Pui Lan, President of Andover Newton
Theological School Nick Carter, EDS professor
Lawrence Wills, EDS Board Member and former
chair Brett Donham, and professor Stephen Burns.
By Dr. Kwok Pui Lan

Last Friday when the temperature dropped to the teens, Professors Stephen Burns, Suzanne Ehly, Kwok Pui Lan, and Lawrence Wills of the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) braved the cold and visited the award-winning Wilson Chapel at Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) in Newton, Massachusetts.

Mr. Brett Donham, the former Chair of EDS’s Board of Trustees and the architect who designed the Chapel, accompanied them on the visit. The visit was prompted by Mr. Donham’s lecture on “Does Form Follow Function: The Design of Sacred Space” delivered at EDS in December, as well as growing interest among the EDS community to think more innovatively about the use of chapel space for worship.

Wilson Chapel attracted the faculty because it is intended to be a house of worship for multiple faiths: the predominantly Protestant ANTS community, a Jewish prayer group, and a Sufi group.

EDS has received a major grant from the Luce Foundation to support curricular revision, faculty development, and online continuing educational programs on religious pluralism. During the last academic year, a trip was organized to visit the RamakrishnaVedanta Society of Boston to learn about Hindu worship and religious life.

ANTS is the oldest seminary to offer graduate studies in the country. Its old chapel was not handicap accessible and can no longer serve the growing needs of the community. The school decided to build a brand new chapel on a former parking lot for multireligous services and multi-purposes. Mr. Donham met with the school community twice and listened carefully to them before finalizing his design.

The Wilson Chapel, built in 2007, has an open and transparent design, with no fixed iconic images, so that it can accommodate the needs of multiple religious communities. It was built by stones quarried in Brazil, with square windows that allow much light to shine through. Inside the Chapel, the stones were from Jerusalem.

For Professor Lawrence Wills, the building reminds him of the Pantheon in Rome, a temple consecrated to all gods. He said, “The indentations in the Pantheon ceiling achieve a windows effect as the shadows change over the course of the day, and it creates a truly awesome presence of divinity that I find captured also in the actual windows of the Wilson Chapel.”

President Nick Carter of ANTS warmly welcomed the EDS visitors and told the group that the school has seen a 300 percent increase in the use of the chapel since moving into the new space. The whole school community gather for worship on Wednesdays and throughout the week, denominational worship services, morning prayers, and complines are held. Since the chairs are moveable, a group can use the whole space or a section of it, depending on the size of the group.

The space is very good for dancing, President Carter added, and this is especially important for the Sufi group.

One of the favorite design features of worshipping space at Wilson Chapel is that of the circle, which reminds us of the theme “the church in the round” we have experimented with in the worship services during the January term at EDS.

Another favorite design aspect is in the form of a semi-circle facing south. The south side of Chapel has no stones, with only square glass windows, which signifies being open to the people and churches in the Global South, where Christianity sees its future. During festive activities, colorful banners will be hung to celebrate the richness and diversity that the community embodies.

There is also a meeting room for group reflection and a prayer room downstairs. The little prayer room has an intimate design, with icons from different traditions stored in the cabinet for people to choose to use.

At the end of visit, I shared with the group that I have been interested in the design of sacred space for a long time, because my church in Hong Kong was built in Chinese architectural style. The Holy Trinity Church in Hong Kong is one of the three churches in Hong Kong built in the Chinese style. Inside the church, Christian and Chinese religious symbols decorate the space. In addition to the symbols of the vine and fish and loaves, there are the symbols of thunder and clouds, found in traditional Chinese buildings. The candlestick holders on the two sides of the lectern are made of wood shaped like the Chinese bamboo tree.

It was not until much later that I recognized how the hybridity of Christian and Chinese symbolism and religiosity of my church has shaped my spirituality and my understanding of the Anglican tradition in an expansive way.

The faculty plan to expose our students to the creative use of sacred spaces in our area. Mr. Donham is renovating St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Boston. Several hundred Muslims use spaces of the Cathedral for their Friday prayers each week. The Wellesley Multifaith Center, housed in the first level of the Chapel building at Wellesley College, provides multifaith sacred and meeting spaces for prayer and study, and facilities are made available for Muslim members to wash themselves before prayers.

Supported by the Luce grant, we will continue to visit worshipping spaces of other religious traditions to learn about their spirituality and community life. As the United States is going to be religiously more diverse, such exposures will be invaluable in the formation of religious leaders for the future.

Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her most recent book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude is published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Religious Scholars Stand in Solidarity with Hyatt Workers

This blog post has been reprinted with permission from the website Hyatt Hurts

A convention of several thousand religious scholars was scheduled to meet in downtown Chicago the weekend before Thanksgiving. When a few of the scholars found out they would have to cross a picket line to attend, they began organizing to support Hyatt workers and the Hyatt boycott. As a result, hundreds of religious scholars took action online, lobbied their organizations to move the event, and invited workers to speak to the Boards of Directors of their organizations.
The joint meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion (AAR) was held at the McCormick Place Convention Center, drawing more than 10,000 religious scholars to Chicago.  In honor of the worker-called national Hyatt boycott, religious scholars successfully fought to move all sessions from the boycotted Hyatt McCormick and signed a petition pledging not to stay, enter, or spend money at the Hyatt hotels in Chicago. The decision to avoid the Hyatt hotels was made based on teachings found in religious texts.
Some religious scholars attending the event went to extraordinary lengths to honor the boycott. The only non-boycotted hotels were almost two miles away from the conference center. This meant observant Jews would have to walk to the conference early Saturday morning, since they cannot take transportation on the Sabbath. So religious scholars and Hyatt workers organized a “Solidarity Walk” to let them know they were not alone and to show their appreciation for their commitment to honoring the boycott.
Some scholars were also worried about the crushing workloads. Carolyn Roncolato, a graduate student at Chicago Theological Seminary and AAR member, explained to the New York Times:
“The Hyatt does routinely unjust things. They won’t give them fitted sheets for the bed, so they have to life to 100-pound mattresses up and fold sheets under.  I understand it to be an ethical issue, an issue of justice, an issue of civic engagement.”
During the convention weekend, Roncolato and other supporters suggested that AAR members attend an American Academy of Religion business meeting on Sunday morning, where a pro-labor resolution was proposed. The resolution, which passed, proposed that clauses in future hotel and convention contracts allow the organization to be released from contractual obligations without penalty if there is a labor dispute at the hotel or convention.
Hyatt has singled itself out as the worst employer in the hotel industry. They have eliminated jobs, replaced career housekeepers with minimum wage temporary workers, and imposed dangerous workloads on those who remain. Hyatt has refused to remain neutral as non-union hotel workers organize. In Chicago, they are unique in their refusal to adopt the fair contract that the other hotels in the city have adopted.
“The Gospels are very clear that the Christian call is to stand on the side of the marginalized, and in that case it’s very clear that’s the hotel workers,” Roncolato said. “So the idea that as academics we would ignore the people around us while we talk is hypocritical.”
The scholars’ concern for Hyatt workers received national press attention. Check out these stories in the Chicago Tribune and the national edition of the New York Times.

People interested in supporting the Hyatt workers' boycott in Boston can be in touch with me at