CampusLife

Kay Spiritual Life Center

Questions?

  • Kay Spiritual Life Center
    202-885-3320
    Fax: 202-885-3317
    kslc@american.edu
    Kay Spiritual Life Center, Room

    Office Hours: Monday-Friday 9 AM to 9 PM

    Joe Eldridge
    University Chaplain
    Assistant Director

Mailing Address

History

The Abraham S Kay Spiritual Life Center

The Kay Center dedication in 1965.

Hurst Anderson, American University president from 1952 to 1968, was very much attuned to the need for a spiritual life center. An adequate campus chapel was one of his central priorities—and he knew exactly where he wished to situate it: at the north end of the university’s central quadrangle, where it would plainly and unquestionably represent the importance of religious faith to the life of the university. He also knew that to build a chapel of the sort he envisioned would cost $300,000 to $400,000—numbers that may sound less than daunting [today] but that loomed very large in 1960 to a president facing enormous uphill financial battles.

Years after his retirement, Anderson wrote an informal memoir describing events experienced along the way of his life as a teacher and as president of two colleges plus American University. For a variety of reasons, he avoided identifying people by name in this memoir, but in one instance there can be little doubt about the identity of the person he describes:

I invited an extremely wealthy gentleman who had no school affiliation to assume membership on our board. He wanted to know why I wanted him and I was very frank to tell him that that I needed him as partner in the further development of this fine institution. I said, “It will cost you some money, but you’ll be a part of the action and I would guess that you’ll enjoy it.” After a period of time and several conversations he agreed. He elected and took his seat with forty others who were already largely committed to our development goals. I didn’t bother him for three months; so he called one day to ask me why I had not asked him to do his part financially. I replied that I, in fact, was working for him and not he for me, and that I was assuming that when the spirit moved him he would tell me what he wanted to do and contribute. “Well,” he said,” if that’s the story I’ll give you an answer in a couple of weeks.” He invited me for lunch at the end of that time. He had a copy of the University’s master development plan which he had been studying. I just relaxed and let him lead in the discussion. He was ready. “I’ve been going over this plan and I think it is excellent. I can see that you are going to need a number of things and I want to make a suggestion. I am not an educated man as you are, but I have a fundamental feeling that if we are trying to project the best of our heritage we cannot overlook the religious tradition. I’ve tried to be a good churchman; I believe that we should have that interfaith chapel built at the earliest time and if you are willing I’d like to build it. The sooner we get at it the better, for I want the experience of seeing it go up and become useful on this already beautiful campus.

“There is one problem. You know that I am a Jew and your institution has a Protestant background. Can you get by with this?” I looked at him and thanked him for his frankness, but assured him in no uncertain terms that this made his gift even more readily acceptable, for he must know that our student body was made up of people of many faiths and that nowhere better could they live together and grow together than on a university campus; that in fact this should be one of the by-products of our intellectual experience together. We employed suitable architectural talent and this center is now one of the very much used buildings on a campus of 15,000 students. Needless to say, this inter-faith center bears the name of the donor. (Hurst Robins Anderson: “An Educated Journey,” pp. 62-63)

The name, of course, is that of Abraham S. Kay, who as a boy of 10 years had emigrated to the United States and to Washington, D.C., with his family from Vilna, Russia. Here in America, his was an almost classic story of a youngster forced by family economic circumstances to drop out of school at age 12 in order to work in a grocery store at a salary of $2 per week. In due time he owned his own store at Sherman Avenue and Girard Street, Northwest, and in the 1920s organized the District Grocery Society. Later he entered the building business and became a major builder of homes, apartment houses, and office buildings in the greater Washington area. And, having prospered, Abraham Kay wanted to give back.

Inevitably, there were those who questioned why a university so clearly anchored in the Methodist tradition would agree to having an interfaith chapel at the heart of its campus. This, after all, was a university which only 10 years previously had further strengthened its ties to the Methodist Church, requiring the church’s prior approval of all trustee nominations, making all university property, real and personal, subject to terms and provisions of the Methodist Church’s legal code, requiring any proposal for charter amendment to receive prior approval by the church, and stipulating that any violation of these provisions would trigger a reversion of all real and personal property of the university to the Board of Education of the church. No other Methodist-related university in the land was so closely related, so intimately bound, to the church. Yet, when the time finally arrived for a chapel to be built, it was to be, by its architecture and design, not a place solely for protestant Christian worship, but an interfaith structure, capable of becoming a Christian sanctuary, a Jewish synagogue, a Christian Science lecture hall, an Islamic mosque—or simply a hall in which all sorts of community and community-building events might take place. And it was not to be the gift of a Methodist, but of a devout Jewish layman who caught and believed in the spirit of what this Methodist lay president was trying to achieve.

Hurst Anderson and Abraham S. Kay were in total agreement as to the need. Both were men of open heart and great vision. Religiously sensitive, both were men whose religious faith allowed the possibility that other religious insights were equally deserving of respect, their adherents equally children of God.

The Kay Spiritual Life Center was built, according to language printed on its groundbreaking ceremony program, to:

stand at the end of the campus quadrangle in a place of unique prominence, symbolizing the importance of the worship and service of God in the aims of the University, and bearing witness to a belief in religious freedom which is in accordance with one of the best features of American life…The policy of the University has always been to provide high quality education in an atmosphere of free inquiry to students regardless of faith. As a cosmopolitan institution with students from various parts of our own nation and from far corners of the world, the University feels the need for allowing all to worship as their conscience may dictate, and to meet for discussion of religion and for fellowship…[The Kay Spiritual Life Center will provide a place for] the sharing of different faiths and denominations, and will allow more fully for encounter, for questioning, and for seeking…

An initial design, very traditional in concept, was rejected, and the well-known ecclesiastical architect A. Hensel Fink, among whose many buildings are those of neighboring Wesley Theological Seminary, was retained. Fink’s was an altogether different, and very functional, approach to the problem. Essentially circular in conception, the building had an upper floor consisting of a chapel designed to seat 288 people, two small meditation chapels, two meeting rooms, a sacristy, and storage facilities for altar furniture, all of it on casters, so as to make it easily moved into place for the changing needs of the various religious communities/ A pipe organ designed by the Moeller Company of Hagerstown, Maryland, was well matched to the space and over the years has not only provided music for religious services but has also served as an excellent practice instrument for organ students.

On the circular north wall, behind the platform, five stained glass windows were created by Odell Prather to represent the Creation. From left to right, the first window impressionistically depicts the Eye of God, from which emanate lines of power and photons of light. At the bottom of the window are clouds of dust and gases beginning to gather. In the second window, circling clouds are coalescing into an infant sun, white-hot in its center, and below it, there is another cosmic whirlpool. While the artist resisted too specific descriptions of the remaining three windows, the center one speaks of the creation of sun, moon, and planets; the fourth reflects the creation of earth, with violent eruptions of geysers and volcanoes; and the fifth suggests torrential rains, below which the processes of sedimentation and ultimately of life take place. Smaller side windows suggest, on the left, the scientific victories of humankind, and on the right, the unconquerable spiritual immensities, at the center of which stands the tiny flame of human learning.

Writing in the Washington Post on October 26, 1965, music critic Paul Hume observed: 

Those who regularly pass by American University at Ward Circle have been watching in recent months the completion of a circular building of intriguing design…Its interior, which can be furnished suitably for a variety of religious services, is, when not so adorned, a simple but attractive setting for music…In its first concert last night, the musicians…were seated on chairs that stood on a raised wooden platform which, in turn, was placed in the center of a gently concave space. Behind them was a wall of wood and plaster and slender stained glass windows, all of which act as excellent reflectors for sound. It is the nearest sound to that of the Coolidge auditorium in the Library of Congress that I have heard anywhere in Washington.

Again and again, for soloists, chamber groups, and orchestras, the Kay Spiritual Life Center has proven the accuracy of Hume’s commentary.

The lower level of the building was designed to provide a central meeting area for 125 people, capable of being subdivided into three smaller rooms by folding partitions. Bookcases and cabinets created the possibility of shelving a small library collection. Adjoining the meeting space was a small kitchen, much used over the years for preparing refreshments, breakfasts, luncheons, Seder meals, and reception events. Because eating together has always been among the most powerful symbols and means of creating understanding between and among disparate groups, this little kitchen deserves mention as one of the most significant spaces on the campus. 

Also on this level eight offices were created, with four secretarial areas and a reception space—a design all but guaranteeing interrelation among the various faith groups, students, and chaplains who would be quartered here. On this level are also two areas conceived in one instance as a general storage space, and in the other, an undesignated space that, like all undesignated spaces, tended to become over the years a catch-all, a sort of chapel attic. This space was later renovated to become home for the university’s Muslim students, providing a place to gather daily for prayers, reading, and fellowship.

The building itself was capped by a 16-foot-tall impressionistic flame, designed by the chapel architect, A. Hensel Fink, crafted in bronze, with gold-leaf plating by Allied Crafts of Philadelphia, and weighing nearly 700 pounds. Created to be a “projective device,” it was intended to permit viewers to see in it such symbolism as was meaningful to them. As described in the dedicatory program:

To some it recalls Christ, the light of the world; to others, the Eternal Light; to still others, the human spirit reaching upward; and to yet others, the warmth of love Divine or human. From whatever faith or whatever personal history, the flame may lift up some ultimate meaning. To all on this campus it also speaks of the light cast by knowledge upon the ways of man and nature. Thus, the purposes of this University, both religious and secular, are caught up in one prominent symbol at the head of the campus quadrangle. This is no accident, since faith and learning both point toward all truth.

On March 10, 1962, at their regular spring meeting, the university’s Board of Trustees saw and accepted the general plan for the Kay Spiritual Life Center. Before ground could be broken for the new building, however, President Anderson had the task of finding the projected $350,000 cost. Abraham S. Kay’s generous gift was used to leverage others. At Anderson’s request, the Methodist Church promptly matched Kay’s gift, leaving approximately $150,000 yet to be accumulated. Anderson approached the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and other denominational groups. Very generous gifts were made by these first two, with donations of various sizes coming from other groups and individuals, including the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, firm of C.H. Masland and Sons, loyal Methodists, who supplied the carpeting for the chapel. The Kay family—Abraham Kay’s wife, Minnie, and the families of their children, Jack Kay and Sylvia Kay Greenberg—made additional contributions. Following Kay’s death in July 1963, the Kay Foundation contributed yet again; and Minnie Kay let it be known that if something were ever needed for the center, she was to be notified and it would be taken care of—a promise kept on a number of occasions by her and by others in the Kay family. The money was in hand.

Ground was finally broken at 2:30 on the afternoon of Sunday, June 9, 1963. Most memorable from that day are the remarks offered by Kay, who, sad to say, did not live to see the project completed. He said:

We are here today, inspired by a faith that goes all the way back to the first pages of the Book of Genesis. Faith in God and service to Him motivated those who founded this nation. In facing the challenge of today’s world, we shall be strengthened in our morale if we can transmit to the maturing minds of each generation the basic ideas of the sanctity of each human being and his or her equality before God, for this is the faith that unites us all…

In due course, the building was completed, and on Sunday, October 4, 1965, a service of dedication took place. Bishop John Wesley Lord, resident Methodist bishop of Washington, pronounced the invocation, and President Anderson welcomed the many people who filled to overflowing the chapel and the lower level. Rev. Joseph Byron, the Roman Catholic chaplain, read from the book of I Kings, and Janet Riggle sang. A tribute to Abraham S. Kay was then delivered by Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz, and this was followed by the act of dedication, with participation by Minnie Kay, Dr. Charles C. Parlin, chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees, and Dr. LeRoy S. Graham, university chaplain. Student religious group leaders then participated in an act of commitment.

Campus chaplains at the time included Dr. LeRoy Graham, university chaplain; Rev. Charles C. Rother, Methodist; Rabbi Louis Barish, Jewish; Rev. Earl H. Brill, Episcopal; Rev. Joseph F. Byron, Roman Catholic; Dr. Victor Murtland, Lutheran; Dr. Thomas Stone, Presbyterian; Richard Lee, Christian Science advisor; and Howard Rees, advisor to the Baptist Student Union.

The dedication itself was immediately followed by two weeks of special dedicatory events, which in their variety illustrated the inclusive agenda of the center, as it was envisioned at the time. A member of Congress spoke about civil rights and Native Americans; the editor in chief of the Christian Science Monitor discussed the role of religion in society; The Parable, a film, was shown and analyzed; No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre, was staged; a prominent Washington rabbi spoke about the nature of religious dialogue in an urban area; a panel of student leaders and deans from area universities discussed the concept of in loco parentis; a columnist from the Washington Post spoke about censorship and the public media; an FBI director of criminal law research talked about religion and criminal law; the director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Population Research spoke about the Catholic Church, birth control, and the demographic revolution, followed by Bishop John Wesley Lord, of the Methodist Church, who spoke on civil rights and African Americans. A panel discussion on the impact of technology on religion and, finally, a musical program on religion in music and dance climaxed the two-week celebration. The Kay Spiritual Life Center was open for business.

Launched with such a program of events the center soon began to establish itself as an important part of the life of the university. Not only were regular weekly services of worship held there—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and occasionally others, later to be joined by Muslim prayers—but a broad-based chaplaincy program began to evolve. The national Danforth Foundation was at this time pursuing a massive study of campus ministry and their findings were published under the two-volume title The Church, the University, and Social Policy.

Campus ministry, according to the Danforth model, was pictured as quadrilateral, consisting, in biblical terms, or priestly, pastoral, prophetic, and kingly roles. The priestly role involved “proclaiming the faith and carrying out ritual acts which affirm the central tenets of that faith.” The pastoral role was defined as “caring for individuals,” while the prophetic role involved “judging the justice and humaneness of the social order and pointing to the changes required if these values are to be present.” Finally, the kingly role is “governance and the organization of activities for the care of persons in the world through responsible corporate action.”

These were large and demanding goals, requiring a considerable widening of horizons from the traditional expectations of chaplaincy. But they were taken seriously as a framework and guide to the pattern of ministry it was hoped the new center would provide. Inevitably, occasions arose when the ministry of center chaplains, individually or corporately, was incongruent with administrative, academic, or student priorities—as church, synagogue, and mosque not infrequently find themselves bucking currents of social, economic, or political life. Such occasions, however, were often among the Kay Center’s most valuable contributions to the life of the university.


The Danforth quadrilateral offers a convenient outline for describing the life of the center. With regard to priestly ministry, an average week included as many as a dozen worship services—Masses, Sabbath Day services, ecumenical Protestant worship, interfaith experimental services, Episcopal morning prayer, and others, more and less formal than these. Particular times of religious significance—High Holy Days, Christmas (although on the 25th of December itself, the campus is usually empty and closed), Lent, Easter, Ramadan—filed the chapel, often many times over. From time to time, groups formed who wished to search for new and, for them, more existentially adequate ways to express faith, and they experimented with modes of liturgy and music and movement that not only satisfied those yearnings but, as they returned to home parishes or became part of worshipping communities in other places, enriched worship there.

To these examples of priestly ministry must be added such university-wide occasional liturgical functions as opening of the school year services, a holiday “Festival of Lights,” Martin Luther King birthday observations, baptisms and weddings of members of the university community, occasional memorial services for persons who have died, the baccalaureate services that once formed a regular part of commencement day, and formal prayers at the commencement exercises themselves, as well as dedication services for new buildings, such as the library, or new academic initiatives, such as the then Kogod College of Business Administration, and other times of celebration and remembrance. The significance of such events in drawing together the various persons who make up the complex organism that is the university and in binding them together in a sense of their oneness and common purpose can hardly be overestimated. And it is the Kay Spiritual Life Center itself that, to no small extent, made and continues to make much of this possible. 

The pastoral role has always been the most widely understood and expected mode-so much so that to many, the terms pastor and chaplain are all but synonymous. Most obviously, this consists of personal counseling with students and occasionally with faculty and staff members seeking help in sorting out a wide variety of questions and difficulties in their personal lives. Typically, these are questions having to do with vocational choice, with sexual identity and relations, with marriage, occasionally with the specter of abuse. Students hoping to pursue theological education seek help in choosing direction and in selecting a seminary. During the early years of the Vietnam War, many students sought advice regarding draft status and options.


More fundamentally, students and others bring specifically religious and moral questions—sometimes directly, often obliquely—relating to their own self-understanding, their worldview, their sense of destiny, or their need for help in sorting out issues of ethical behavior. And for a significant number of students, the chaplain-as-pastor is frequently the person to whom they turn for help simply to stay afloat during periods—often, but not exclusively, in the early semesters of college life—when they find themselves bombarded by a host of new ideas, new conflicts, new academic and personal responsibilities, sometimes overwhelming loneliness, shaky self-image, a clashing of values. At such times, to find a mature man or woman trained and willing to listen nonjudgmentally, one who is able to help sort out important from inconsequential issues and to support them personally as they make their passage through the rapids toward calmer waters below, can be lifesaving. To be sure, such counselors can be found elsewhere on campus—in some faculty offices, at Psychological Services—and for a variety of reasons, some students prefer those options. But for many, the listener of choice is the chaplain.

In addition to these counseling roles, chaplains have accepted responsibilities within the various residence halls, being on call for assistance in sorting out domestic and roommate problems, for participating in floor discussions, for responding to serious crises. And when students or other university community members are hospitalized, a chaplain has usually found his or her way to that bedside. Finally, the chaplain as pastor frequently becomes the liaison person between a student and his or her family or home church. 

The prophetic mode of ministry is one less widely understood, a mode that seeks to engage many persons within the university community in the task of searching for moral dimensions of life pursuits. The physical and social sciences, business, international relations, law, the humanities and arts—all are fields of intellectual quest that raise questions of profound ethical significance; and it is the task of prophetic inquiry to raise these often subliminal questions to a level of dialogue and debate.

In pursuit of this, the chaplains of the Kay Spiritual Life Center have continually attempted through various strategies to involve the university community in prophetic inquiry. Not only are issues of moral significance addressed within the context of worship, but other events have been crafted with this purpose in mind. From time to time, for example, groups of faculty members have been invited for a light lunch at which, often with the assistance of a discussion leader from outside the university, subjects of significance to the academic or social or political life of the university are addressed—this within a politics-free zone of relative confidentiality provided by the center.

At other times, faculty members who taught freshman composition and reading—instructors who often had a closer relationship to entering freshman than any other group on campus—and representatives of the Center for Psychological and Learning Services were brought together to explore the kinds of problems faced most frequently by these students. Again, faculty members who in one way or another were engaged in teaching religion or teaching about religion—anthropologists, members of the philosophy and religion department, of the literature and sociology departments, or of the Wesley Theological Seminary faculty—met, discovered one another, and occasionally for the first time listened to one another. Those teaching the plastic and performing arts, business, and athletics composed other such groupings. It soon became apparent that few initiatives of the center staff were more important than these.

Within this same category of ministry, a series of lunch-time discussions on a wide variety of issues of ethical significance were held under the overall title “Table Talk,” recalling the legendary dinner conversations at Martin Luther’s table in Wittenberg. These were open-invitation events, frequently drawing guests from such neighboring institutions as the National Cathedral’s College of Preachers, the National Presbyterian Center, the Wesley Theological Seminary, and the Washington Hebrew Congregation, as well as our own philosophy and religion faculty, together with other faculty staff, and student participants; and they grew to be so popular that phone-in reservations became necessary.

The first university chaplains—Ralph John, Edward Bauman, Le Roy Graham—and Episcopal chaplain Earl Bill held dual appointments as chaplains and faculty members. Since then, university chaplains and other chaplains from the center have on occasion taught university credit and noncredit courses, presented classroom lectures, and participated in panels in the School of International Service, the then College of Public Administration, and the then Kogod College of Business Administration; in academic departments, such as English, literature, athletics, performing arts; at Wesley Theological Seminary, and elsewhere. Subject areas have included business and social ethics, interpretation of literature, coping with loss and stress, justice in American society, Jewish studies, biblical studies, and American studies. Indeed, Chaplain Earl Brill founded the American studies department. Additionally, there have been collaborative events with the offices dealing with minority affairs, peace studies, and residential life, plus the Center for Psychological and Learning Services, the Washington College of Law, and other academic and administrative units. 

The center has offered to students, faculty, and staff members a broad range of opportunities to become involved in relief work, political advocacy, public policy discussion, and education in justice and human rights. Volunteer work in local shelters, soup kitchens, housing rehabilitation, AIDS education, activity around issues of human rights in Africa and Central America-all these reflect the prophetic responsibilities of campus ministry. In recent years, the university chaplain, in conjunction with the office of Community Action and Social Justice, has organized alternative spring break trips to Nicaragua, Honduras, and Cuba.

A prophetic mode of ministry occasionally commits a chaplain to a not-always-welcome task of criticism and advocacy. As in any community, there are from time to time movements, individual actions, by various segments of the university population that carry heavy ethical freight. Whenever the lives of persons are affected, moral questions are raised. And while no chaplain can presume his or her ethical judgment to be definitive or binding, ordination commits one to reflecting a point of view regarding human relationships and to expressing that view by whatever means may be available, and at whatever risk in terms of possible alienation from administrative, faculty, or student understanding. So chaplains have, from time to time, and not without risk to their tenure, articulated moral concerns in meetings of the University Senate, the General Assembly of the undergraduate Student [Government], the Graduate Student Association, the President’s or Provost’s Council, the pages of the Eagle, the student-run campus radio station WAMU-AM, and elsewhere.

The mode of ministry characterized in the Danforth study as “kingly” has to do with various kinds of involvement in issues of university governance. Within the religious traditions represented on American University’s campus, there exists no dichotomy between spiritual matters and physical, social, economic, or political ones. Hunger and oppression are just as surely religious concerns as are prayer and worship. Issues of academic freedom and integrity are no less important than those of religious freedom and integrity.

Consequently, in this mode, American University’s chaplains always have taken advisory membership on the University Senate and the student governments very seriously, as they do their participation in policy development within the offices dealing with student life and on various committees which are outgrowths of these. From time to time, the Kay Spiritual Life Center, through its chaplains, has been involved in such essentially governance issues as freshman orientation, efforts at interpretation and crowd control in times of crises, campus management-labor disputes, long-range planning for the university, and many more. And, exterior to the campus, but with very significant governance implications for its life, chaplains have represented the university’s interests and served as channels of communication within their various judicatories—most consistently within the Baltimore Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church—and have served as interpreters of the university’s life in churches and a variety of public venues.

Kenneth Underwood, principal author of The Church, the University, and Social Policy, maintained that “although different individuals may carry out these roles [priestly, pastoral, prophetic, and kingly] in varying degrees, the roles cannot be separated in the total ministry…without grave distortion of that ministry.” That, again and again, has been the experience of the Kay Spiritual Life Center. While this author has written in no small measure reflecting his own years as university chaplain (1969-1985), it has become clear from conversations with successor chaplains and from reading their reports, that, while terminology has changed, and the Danforth study is no longer current reading, its fundamental description of campus chaplaincy and its four-fold description of ministry are still quite descriptive of the goals and programs of the center.

The center’s work has from its beginning [has] been under the administrative direction of the university chaplain, who, since the mid-1960s, has reported to the vice president for student life. (It should be noted that at times both of these titles varied from this norm. Chaplain Joe S. Rainey, for example, directed the center program from 1972 to 1978 with the title of coordinator of religious affairs. The vice presidency for student life became for a time a vice provostship, before reverting once again to a vice presidency, now of Student Services. And actual reporting lines have varied with changes of incumbency, at the direction of the then vice president.) For most of these years, there existed an informal understanding, born of the university’s church relationship, that the university chaplain had, when appropriate, the privilege of direct access to the president.

In addition to the university chaplain, in every case an ordained United Methodist minister, there has been a group of full-time denominational chaplains throughout the life of the Kay Center. In earlier years, this included, in addition to the university chaplain himself, a Methodist chaplain. With increasingly ecumenical emphases, as well as tightened budgets, the Methodist responsibilities, which included administration of scholarship assistance to children of United Methodist clergy, devolved upon the university chaplain and his very able administrative assistant, Elvira Melegrito.

The university chaplain and the Methodist chaplain, together with the center’s principal support staff, have been the university’s personnel contribution to the program of the center. But throughout its life, the numerically larger sector has been “contributed staff,” clergy and lay advisors and support staff funded by their own religious communities and appointed to chaplaincy at American University by their own religious superiors, with the approval of the university on recommendation of the university chaplain. Contributed staff must agree to work cooperatively within this unique center, to respect the integrity of other religious faiths, to refrain from proselyting, and in general to support the mission and purpose of the university.

The Jewish community has, since the early 1960s, been served by a series of rabbis, at first part time, but with a burgeoning Jewish student population, soon full time. From the earliest days of the Kay Spiritual Life Center, the Hillel Foundation has been a vital and very active constituency, not only celebrating weekly Shabbat services, but observing High Holy Days, as well as many other community functions. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, American University Jewish students were very active, on and off campus, in campaigns to free Soviet Jews; and for a time there was an excellent student drama group within the Hillel community. Over the years the Hillel staff has grown and is engaged in a wide range of activities that students, faculty, and staff participate in, including innovative study, community service—such as Yom Kippur Skip a Meal—regular blood drives, and programs specifically for Jewish members of fraternities and sororities.

The Roman Catholic campus community has been led by a succession of priests, appointed to the chaplaincy by the Archdiocese of Washington. These men have in every case been diligent pastors, teachers, and counselors; and under their leadership the Catholic community became a most significant presence in the center. Addition in the early 1980s of an associate chaplain, a trained lay woman, Dr. Karin Thornton, added significant dimensions to this ministry.

During the mid-1970s, the university began to attract increasing numbers of students from the Middle East, principally from Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. With these students came the urgent necessity for providing space for Muslim religious expression. That space was created within the Kay Spiritual Life Center, and very soon it became one of the most active and heavily used spaces in the building. Because there is little bifurcation between church and state in Islamic society, the membership of American University’s Islamic community often reflected Middle-Eastern political conditions. The fall of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, for example, brought about a significant transformation in the student body—and the Islamic community changed accordingly. Similar metamorphoses occurred in later years. 

Throughout all of these, that community has continued, depending not upon professional chaplains but upon its own inner discipline of daily prayer and drawing from among its own resources for leadership. Among the very first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church was the Reverend Lee McGee, who joined the center staff in 1972 as a part-time Episcopal student advisor. Upon her ordination, in 1975, she became the university’s first woman chaplain. This was an important initiative for the center, coming at a time of greatly increasing attention to women’s issues. As full-time Episcopal chaplain and assistant coordinator of religious affairs, McGee established a women’s study group, she created new liaison with faculty members active in university women’s issues, and of course she became chaplain of choice to many students who had been reluctant to bring personal problems to male chaplains.

It very soon became apparent that, while major religious groupings-Protestant, Catholic, Jewish-were being served by appropriate religious leaders, there were other groups whose interests were not as adequately met. In 1972, provision was made in the center’s budget to retain the part-time services of a chaplain whose duties, while not to be seen as directed exclusively at the needs of African American students, would nonetheless signal to those students the university’s sensitivity to their particular needs and would at the same time provide for other students an opportunity—for many, their first—to know and work with a black pastoral leader. First to be appointed to this position was a young and charismatic Wesley Seminary student, Douglas Force, who quickly established relationships within the black community and across racial lines.

Force was succeeded by another seminarian, this time a postgraduate British Methodist student, from what was then Southern Rhodesia, with the unforgettable name Canaan Banana. Despite his foreign origin and accent, Rev. Banana became one of the center’s most effective chaplains. In part this was because of his identity as a leading resistance figure in his own country against the white minority government of Ian Smith. Canaan Banana officially represented the African National Council at the United Nations in New York and frequently traveled to meet other national leaders. At American University, he sought out African American students, spent time with them, developed rapport not only with them but with many others who were drawn to him by the intensity of his commitments. When he left the United States to return to his home in Africa, he was met at the Harare airport by armed security personnel and immediately put in prison, where he languished until the Smith government fell, whereupon he became the first president of the new nation of Zimbabwe.

A third constituency that had never before received attention from campus religious leadership was the small group of self-identified gay and lesbian students, together with others struggling in private with questions of sexual identity. For one two-year period there was added to the part-time staff a seminary student who was homosexual. He not only was able to create a sense of welcome for some students who otherwise more frequently encountered rejection but also provided, because of his openness regarding his own sexual orientation—together with his very clear religious commitment, his literary, musical, and artistic talent and his very warm and friendly nature—and opportunity for many other students to talk quite freely and frankly with him regarding the various issues that surround homosexuality in American society and in the church.

While the basic program of the Kay Spiritual Life Center was carried out by the university chaplain and the other full-time chaplains and religious advisors, the contribution of part-time chaplains to the center, and therefore to the university, has over the years been immeasurable. In most instances, these were religious leaders, both clergy and lay, supplied and paid by various denominational groups, to work with students from those groups. Their contribution to university life, however, knew no denominational boundaries. Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Assemblies of God, Rejoice in Jesus, Christian Science, Mennonite, Eastern Orthodox, and other groups supported, for various lengths of time, workers on American University’s campus.

One of these, Margaret Smith, an extraordinarily devoted Baptist lay worker, brought a particular focus on the predicament frequently facing wives of foreign students, primarily graduate students. These women often found themselves suddenly transplanted, sometimes from third-world countries, to this sophisticated foreign city, Washington, D.C., speaking little or no English, married to a husband whose days and nights were consumed by his research, living in cramped and inadequate quarters, often with infants and small children, frequently in less-desirable areas of the city. In many cases they were all but overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and inability to cope with American culture. Once each week, Margaret Smith brought them together, where they could draw strength from one another and form friendships. And here they learned how to shop in American stores and how to cook with unfamiliar foods, strange utensils, and gas or electric kitchen ranges. They learned about the city—how to access public transportation, where to go for services, how to visit museums and art galleries. For these wives, Margaret Smith was quite simply—and quite accurately—a godsend.

On one memorable day in the mid-1970s, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka appeared at the Kay Center, robed in saffron, to apply for a clergy tuition remission as a freshman undergraduate student. It was granted, whereupon Bhante Gunaratana volunteered to teach a course in meditation. A gentle, smiling man, Gunaratana quickly became one of the most-loved figures at the center, and, as a graduate student in philosophy, in which he ultimately earned his PhD, he remained active for a number of years—the work he inaugurated continued by another leader from the same tradition, Bhante Uparatana. For many years, a favorite academic counselor at the Kogod School of Business has been Uma Saini, who represents Vedanta, a system of philosophy based upon ancient sacred books of Hinduism, and she agreed to become the center’s Vedic chaplain. Similarly, there have been added to the rolls chaplains representing Baha’i as well as the Church of Latter Day Saints—all of these reflecting the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the university’s student body.

One of the spaces adjacent to the chapel itself, on the upper level of the center, had been negotiated from the start as a reading room for Christian Science students and faculty, one of whom, Professor Gordon Smith, with his wife, and later his daughter Daisy, served as advisor to this group. Each year, they brought to the campus a distinguished Christian Science speaker, to whose lectures they invited a broad cross-section of university students, faculty, and staff, along with people from the larger community. 

The Lutheran Church supplied a chaplain in the person, first, of Dr. Victor Murtland, succeeded by the Reverend Walter Scarvie, and following him, Rev. William Wegener, Rev. Leann Schray, and Rev. Tom Omholt. While there was never a very large Lutheran constituency, these chaplains helped to shape Protestant worship and met with students of various religious persuasions for study and counseling.

Among the part-time workers at the center were three young women who came as what the United Methodist Church termed “U.S. 2s”—two-year, short-term missionaries, their appointment negotiated by University Chaplain Richard McCullough. Their youth and energy and deep commitment as Christians to issues of peace and justice became a valuable dimension of center life, and they have been succeeded by others as United Methodist funds have permitted.

If the architectural adage “form follows function” describes an efficient modern building, it is equally true that form may prescribe, or at least significantly influence, function. The cylindrical form of the Kay Spiritual Life Center has helped to shape the ministries that take place there. The circular form of the chapel itself promotes intimacy—the person in the back pew is but a short distance from altar or ark—and the reality of having one chapel serve a variety of faith groups ensures negotiation, and virtually always, cooperation. At times, this negotiation can become fairly intense, requiring all parties to take stock, not only of their own needs, but of those of other religious groups as well. Memorably this occurred in the spring of 1989, when Christian Holy Week, Jewish Passover, and Islamic Ramadan all occurred simultaneously.

The lower level of the building all but guarantees ecumenical and interfaith communication. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish offices, as well as the Muslim prayer room, are allocated, but all open on common space, where mingling is not only encouraged but inevitable. Chaplains and students alike constantly move into and out of one another’s physical space—the sense of openness is such that every chaplain has entertained students from other faith streams who, perhaps for the first time in their lives, have an opportunity to talk informally with, to ask questions of, to discover the humanity of people from whom they have hitherto been all but shut off. The building itself, as a consequence, performs a valuable ministry in bridging gulfs between groups.

The Kay Spiritual Life Center, as earlier mentioned, is more than a religious center. Over the years of its life it has hosted a wide variety of gatherings. Faculty meetings have been held here, as have concerts, commencement exercises, dramatic productions, addresses by significant leaders of government, a lunch-time art series, the national Close-Up program for high school youth, addresses by the president and provost to the university community, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, weddings, memorial services, and many more events. It is usually the auditorium of choice for musical and speaking functions intended to draw audiences from one to three hundred. Former AU president George H. Williams mused:

I recall, mostly with fondness, the range of events I attended at, and in conjunction with, Kay Spiritual Life Center. Lucy Webb Hayes graduation exercises, a threatened pie-in-the-face for Henry Kissinger(!), a quiet 8:00 a.m. Eucharist with prayers for the university president (and how he needed them!). But most clearly I recall that lovely chapel when our daughter was married, and the parents of both bride and groom escorted them down the aisle…

University Chaplain Whit Hutchinson, in a 1989 program review, described a typical Friday:

The Catholic mid-day Eucharistic service is celebrated at noon. At one o’clock, while Catholic chaplains lunch with students, the Muslim community rolls out its rugs in the lounge for weekly prayer and preaching. The restroom is abuzz with students washing for services. Upstairs, a Protestant chaplain conducts rehearsal for a Saturday wedding. By four o’clock, Muslim students are gone from the lounge and the Hillel staff begins setting up tables and starts cooking for Shabbat. Echoes of organ music, chants in Arabic, wafts of kosher chicken blend together in the stairwell, where students from different worlds pass on the way to class.

Since opening its doors in 1965, the Abraham S. Kay Spiritual Life Center has accumulated many and varied memoires. Almost immediately it began to serve as a sort of “free expression zone” for students increasingly caught up in the world events of the latter 1960s and early 1970s. Activist passions of all sorts found outlet within the walls of the center, and its mimeograph machine was in constant use duplicating broadsides, event announcements, and editorials. A policy decision was made within the center that free expression of varied opinion was in the student body’s—and ultimately the university’s—best interest, and that therefore any such expression, provided that it was neither obscene nor racistly repugnant nor violent in intent, could be reproduced.

These were years during which students experienced intense anxieties regarding our increasing national involvement in the conflict in Southeast Asia, the condition of Soviet Jewry, the worsening situation in American inner cities. The political assassinations of President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the increasing instability in Iran, South African apartheid, the global fear of nuclear annihilation—all these anxieties and more crowded in upon students, many of whom needed a venue within which they might express themselves. The Kay Center provided such a place, and it was the scene of intense activity. At times, its chapel and social hall were filled with protestors, and the offices became a communications center and first-aid station for tear gas victims.

George H. Williams remembers the number of calls he received in New York when his appointment as the university’s next president was announced—calls articulating a whole range of campus anxieties, calls which, he later learned, had originated from the telephones in the Kay Spiritual Life Center. To some on campus, the center seemed in those years to be “a nest of malcontents.” Probably more accurately described, it was a center of passion and passionate involvement in issues ranging from those on the campus to others on the far side of the globe.

Williams recalls that during the years of protest:

For whatever reason—perhaps due to the vacuum of an elsewhere to turn on campus—the Center became a hybrid religious, social, and campus reform hang-out. In retrospect, it may have been fortuitous that the magnet for campus concerns was at Kay Spiritual Life Center; for the lines of concern, and possibly action, from other quarters were pretty simplistic.

When students were arrested for protesting outside the Burmese Embassy in 1998, the university chaplain arranged for each to receive pro bono legal counsel. The Kay Center has also been ground zero for efforts to address the negative impact of globalization, especially those working in factory sweatshops around the world.

Issues change, but passionate involvement remains a constant. But—and this is of paramount importance—it has always been, and remains, passion leavened by conversation, criticism, occasionally meditation, and always debate with chaplains and advisors of the various religious communities and within those communities themselves.

Across the years the Kay Spiritual Life Center has remained a touchstone on campus for people whose lives are undergoing transformation. Those participating in acts of praise, prayer, and service are often led to the discovery of a new fullness of life. The intensity of an encounter with the divine mystery leads people to a deeper glimpse of the Truth of their lives.

“Work” for the team of chaplains is to find language to praise what they love. For [over] 35 years chaplains have provided a consistent witness of care and concern. The call is to help the community grasp a compelling truth-that the power of the soul is consistent with its needs, and that the discovery of that power leads inexorably toward transformation.

Encounters with the deeper meaning of God’s truth are not confined to the Kay Spiritual Life Center. But in the rhythms of university life, the center remains a place where people come to be alone or to seek out the companionship of a chaplain. Perhaps they have received bad news from home, are anxious about an uncertain future, or have just learned about the illness or death of a loved one. Sometimes they can’t quite articulate the reason but feel a magnetic pull toward a building that is more about matters of the heart than the head. The center is also a place where the community comes together to celebrate or mourn, to honor or to commemorate, to mark passages or to memorialize. The radical hospitality and unalloyed respect for all which inspired the building’s creation remains the Kay Spiritual Life Center’s leitmotif, giving it abiding integrity and character.

-R. Bruce Poynter

About the Author

Rev. R. Bruce Poynter, author of this history of the Kay Spiritual Life Center—written in 2000 in commemoration of the Center’s 35th anniversary—came to AU from the pastoral ministry, where he served churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church for more than 20 years. In 1969, while serving the Bethesda United Methodist Church, Poynter received a call from AU president George Williams inviting him to join the university community as chaplain. Over the next 16 years, Poynter not only served as chaplain but provided inspired leadership as director of federal relations in the development office and vice president for student life. In each position he discharged his duties with elegance and grace.
 

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