Faith and Spirituality at Swarthmore: A Conversation with Joyce Tompkins

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Joyce Tompkins, Swarthmore's Religious and Spiritual Life Adviser and Interfaith Coordinator

Since last spring, discussions at Swarthmore have increasingly brought attention to the diversity of groups and identities present on campus. Absent from many of these discussions is the topic of religion. This series will seek to explore religious life at Swarthmore by highlighting an individual perspective every week.  The series will discuss the challenges faced by specific students who identify as religious as well as highlight the religious communities that give students of different faiths the opportunity to gather, learn, and engage in rituals and traditions.

This week, a reporter spoke with Joyce Tompkins, the Religious and Spiritual Life Adviser and Interfaith Coordinator at Swarthmore. In an interview, Tompkins touched upon the campus’s secular climate, religious students’ reluctance to discuss their views, and the religious community’s perceived silence during the events of last spring.

As part of her interfaith work, Tompkins interacts with students whose religion does not have an adviser at Swarthmore. She also works with most of the Christian student groups on campus and is an ordained Episcopal priest. Tompkins is not a part of the College staff but is supported on campus by a non-profit organization called Partners in Ministry.

Over her ten years at Swarthmore, Tompkins has deliberately expanded her role due to her concerns about the lack of attention given to religious life. “I felt it was an important part of identity for many young people,” Tompkins said. Therefore, she makes herself available to discuss spiritual and religious life with any student who wishes to have such a conversation.

According to Tompkins, approximately one third of each incoming freshmen class over the past several years has indicated a religious affiliation. At any given time, there are about ten active religious and spiritual groups on campus. These groups include the Swarthmore Christian Fellowship, Swarthmore Hillel, the Muslim Students Association, the Swarthmore Progressive Christians, Swarthmore Meditation, and Queer+Allies Faith in Action.

Tompkins gave her insight into the relative silence of many religious groups on campus. “I hear many students say that it’s hard to be religious here, particularly in the classroom,” Tompkins said. “I hear students tell me that they feel it’s not safe to share a religious view. I’ve had students tell me that they feel they have been laughed at for having a religious perspective on an issue.”

Tompkins felt that Swarthmore appears deceptively secular to both students and prospective students. “I think that there’s an assumption that the default at Swarthmore is secular. If you don’t speak out and say otherwise, people are going to assume you’re not religious. I don’t think that’s a neutral position,” Tompkins said.

Tompkins was particularly concerned with the lack of support for minority religious groups on campus. “I feel uncomfortable with the fact that on our campus we have three religious advisers supporting the Christian community and one supporting the Jewish community, but at this point, we don’t have anybody for those other groups other than myself,” Tompkins said. “But I’m not a trained Muslim chaplain or Hindu chaplain.” However, a search is underway for a part-time Muslim advisor, a move that Tompkins regards as “a positive step.”

In addition to the lack of support for these minority religious groups, Tompkins expressed concern that the minimal presence of these groups deprived the larger student body of basic awareness and knowledge about religion. “Does our campus and our student body adequately reflect what the larger world looks like? If it’s possible to graduate from Swarthmore without ever having talked to a Muslim when you’re a Poli Sci Major, I think that’s a problem,” Tompkins said.

While Tompkins feels that religious life at Swarthmore is unfairly stigmatized, she believes that religious groups on campus have a responsibility to speak out against popular misconceptions about their religions. “In my own work I try very hard to lift up that more moderate and affirming religious voice. I think unfortunately, the way our culture is, that voice tends to be quieter than the voice of the hate-filled people,” Tompkins said.

She said would like to hear more vocal discussion of these issues by religious groups. “I know last year the Christian community was struggling around issues about queer identity and Christianity,” Tompkins said. “There were some great conversations about it, and then it died down again. I’d like to see more public exposure of that conversation.”

While many religious students were involved in the discussions of last spring, the intersectionality between religious identities with other identities was often overlooked.  Tompkins observed that few students offered a religious perspective on the issues. “I can only guess why. Is it because that’s not their salient identity when they’re speaking about an issue? Is it because they feel that if they come out as Christians that people won’t take their opinion as seriously? I don’t know,” Tompkins said. “But I’m sad that there wasn’t a larger outcry from the religious community around some of the things that were going on.”

According to Tompkins’ observations, Swarthmore is caught in a trap. Due to vocal hate groups that use religion to justify their aggression, religion may be a painful subject for some people at Swarthmore. This may be particularly true for members of the queer community, which of course includes overlaps with the religious community. However, because of these negative associations, some religious students may feel uncomfortable discussing their faith and thereby dispelling these assumptions.

Tompkins believes that such a discussion would be beneficial for the entire campus, regardless of one’s personal religious affiliations. “Whether you are a practicing religious person or not, religion is a factor in the world that influences you,” Tompkins said. “I think that more conversation around this can only be a good thing.”

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