'The Rubber Hits the Road' in New Noontime Worship Format

When HDS's acting chaplain, the Rev. Libby Berman, decided with HDS students to plan a new format for Wednesday noontime worship during 2004-05—having it run by student faith groups—one of their fears was that not enough student groups would sign up to fill the spaces available.

That fear proved to be unfounded, according to Berman, an Episcopal priest who is also Assistant Director of Admissions at HDS. "The problem has become not 'how do we get the word out about this new plan and encourage student groups to sign up,' but rather, 'how do we accommodate all the requests for participation that we have received?,'" Berman said. "It's really exciting."

Berman, who is standing in as chaplain while Claudia Highbaugh is on sabbatical, says the idea of having noontime worship be a "diverse, authentic worship experience led by students" was a "natural evolution" from discussions she held in May with a focus group of students and Associate Dean for Ministry Studies Stephanie Paulsell, to find out students' desires in regard to worship at HDS.

"When I asked the students what they would choose if they could plan Noon Worship in any way they wished, the first strong answer was, 'It would be student-led,'" Berman explained. "Their second, and equally strong, response was that it should represent, with authenticity, the traditions of the people who study here.

"With these ideas in mind, we started asking some very basic questions, such as: 'If this hour belongs to the whole community, what should it look like? Is the point of the hour worship, education, or community building? If it is worship, what are the possibilities and limits of such a diverse community praying and/or worshipping together?'"

By mid-July, a steering committee composed of seven students from a variety of religious traditions, Office of Ministry Studies staff assistant Laura Ruth Jarrett, and Berman had hammered out a mission statement and composed an invitation to send around to faith groups registered with the Office of Student Life. They also decided to compose standard opening and closing sentences, expressing a spirit of openness and respect, that would be read during each service and printed in the bulletin. For example, the opening passage includes these words: "As leaders, may we share our traditions in a spirit of hospitality with those who may not understand what we do or why, having the courage to be true to our tradition without fear of judgment. As participants, may we be open and present with our peers in their own context."

The first worship service, on September 22, was led by the steering committee and included scripture readings, silence, a Taize, a hymn, a homily by Berman, and candle lighting by all members of the committee. Starting with the second service, specific student faith groups volunteered for two or three weeks each, leading Noon Worship in the manner of their own traditions. Among the student groups in charge this fall are the HUUMS (the Unitarian Universalist students), the Lutheran-Episcopal Student Association, the Muslim Student Organization (during Ramadan), the Mormon students, and the Roman Catholic students (who will hold a special celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe). In the spring, Noon Worship will be led by Harambe, the Jewish Student Association, Buddhist students, Sikh students, and the Taize Group, among others.

According to Berman, one of the clear benefits she sees for students in this new worship arrangement is that it can serve as "a laboratory of sorts for them to engage important theological questions, in addition to learning what it takes to plan good liturgy."

Students on the steering committee concur. "In supporting this project, we've immediately had to address the challenge of how to provide a space where people can authentically worship in a place like HDS, where there are people who come at worship from so many different angles," said third-year MDiv student Kelly Raths, who is United Methodist. "We've already encountered problems with the word 'worship' and with gathering in a communal space like the HDS chapel, when for some traditions, that's not the norm."

"There is a concern that some students will feel like they're on stage," Raths added. Still, she believes, "this setting provides a container for us to watch and hopefully participate, and so far, what I've heard is that people appreciate learning what those in another tradition are doing beyond the classroom."
"Students get to explore their own comfort and discomfort," she said. "It is really a gift of the student groups to allow members of the community into their worship."

Scott Buquor, a second-year Episcopal MDiv student, also reflected on the possible problems as well as the rewards. "There are places where interfaith services are appropriate, but we didn't want to do that for Noon Worship, because interfaith worship carries the danger that either you end up offending everybody, or it's so watered down that nobody cares," he said. "Though there are huge concerns about doing this kind of worship, it provides the opportunity to practice hospitality, and we can learn how to share our faiths in ritual and practice without compromising what they are. It's a way to engage faith at a time specifically set aside for this purpose by the school, and a way to take the multi-religious elements of what we do in the classroom into the worship context." 

Buquor says that no one on the steering committee has decided that this way of doing worship is "the solution," but rather "there is a sense that we're trying this out, seeing what works, and hoping to gather feedback and reevaluate as we go."

Berman said that she has detected a sense among students, staff, and faculty that "the community was ready for this kind of worship experience." Although Raths expressed a desire she has heard from other students—that more faculty and staff would begin attending the services—she and other steering committee members have been pleased so far by the response from students and are excited to see how the year unfolds.

After all, as Buquor put it, "This is where the rubber hits the road: Can we worship together?"