No sooner had Rosalie Turner arrived in Central New York last fall than she stumbled upon the Buddhist Meditation Association in Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel . The New Hampshire native was immediately struck by the warm, eclectic group, which welcomed her with “kind words and open arms.”
“I had limited experience with meditation, so the idea of doing it daunted me,” admits Turner, an environmental biology major at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “Everyone in the group, including students from Syracuse University and SUNY-ESF, has helped me find my footing in a new place.”
Meditation helps you become more grounded in yourself, so you can be more present to others.—Rosalie Turner
Today, Turner is president of the organization, which meets regularly for meditation and discourse. The group is currently studying Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up , by renowned Zen teacher and psychotherapist Koshin Paley Ellison. “We’ve been exploring the idea of being present in the moment and living our values. It’s easier said than done,” she admits.
The meditation group also engages in public outreach through groups like the Food Recovery Network. Such selflessness reaffirms the link between compassion and mindfulness, Turner says. “Meditation helps you become more grounded in yourself, so you can be more present to others.”
Nurturing Clarity and Creativity
The Buddhist Meditation Association is part of a broad sweep of programs and services in Hendricks Chapel devoted to student health and wellness. Such offerings reflect the chapel’s commitment to religious, spiritual, moral and ethical living. They also demonstrate the University’s pledge to integrative, holistic health—one that has taken on a sense of urgency in the wake of the pandemic.
The Rev. Brian Konkol, the chapel’s dean, acknowledges the challenges and opportunities created by COVID-19. “Crisis tends to give birth to clarity and creativity,” he explains. “For us to clarify our mission while bringing creativity to our methods is woefully challenging and wonderfully comforting.”
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 30% of Americans report stronger personal faith because of COVID-19. Moreover, 40% say the pandemic has tightened their family bond.
At the University, where 85% of students self-identify as spiritual, a renaissance is afoot. An increasing number of students—whether by accident or design—are being exposed to different religious traditions and practices. “Our remarkable growth in student engagement is a testament to the outstanding efforts of our chaplains, staff members and advisors,” says Konkol, who came to the University in 2017 from Gustavus Adolphus College in southern Minnesota. “I have a front-row seat to campus life, in which students exercise their freedom to focus on the spirit within while exploring the world around them.”
Developing the Whole Person
Hendricks Chapel has been a bastion of diversity since it first opened doors in 1930. Francis Hendricks, a New York State Senator and University Trustee, named the building in honor of his wife, Eliza, with the stipulation that it serve people of all faiths. Today, the 1,000-seat edifice, with Greek and Roman flourishes, is one of the nation’s largest, most vibrant university chapels.
While Hendricks Chapel’s style of operation has evolved over the years, its place as a social, cultural and intellectual hub remains unfettered. Regarded as the spiritual heart of campus, the building has hosted thousands of academic and cultural events (and the occasional student demonstration), as well as visits by the Dalai Lama, John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Learners are more than brains, and learning is more than grades. The pandemic has forced us to rethink how we live and learn together.—The Rev. Brian Konkol, dean of Hendricks Chapel
The chapel revels in its own brand of student-centric programming. “Our goal is to develop the whole person,” says Konkol, who earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in theology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
One of the chapel’s most popular programs is “Matters That Matter,” an online series in which Konkol interviews local and national thought leaders. Recent guests have included Hillel International president and CEO Adam Lehman, Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, Peabody Award-winning broadcaster Krista Tippett, and former NAACP president and CEO Cornell William Brooks.
Konkol, who also serves as a professor of practice in religion in the College of Arts and Sciences , believes that “information leads to personal formation and community transformation.”
“Learners are more than brains, and learning is more than grades,” he continues. “The pandemic has forced us to rethink how we live and learn together.”
The chapel has long embraced meditation and mindfulness, which are among the nation’s fastest growing health trends. Five days a week, virtual meditation sessions are led by Buddhist chaplain JoAnn Cooke, an experienced University student or a senior student from the Zen Center of Syracuse. Students may also attend the chapel’s “Healthy Monday” meditation series, co-sponsored by the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion; Wednesday night online meditations, courtesy of the Lutheran Campus Ministry; and a weekly yoga class, co-presented by the University’s Contemplative Collaborative.
Cooke is a fixture at many of the sessions, in addition to having launched a five-week mindfulness training program this spring. Her class is the latest in a series bridging Eastern and Western thought; others have focused on grief counseling and physical and mental decluttering. “Meditation calms and focuses the mind,” she says. “Take a moment to sit still, train your eyes on something and breathe, just breathe. It’s transformative.”
The Healing Power of Presence
Not even the pandemic has hindered the chapel’s breakneck schedule of worship services, prayer gatherings and public forums dedicated to all matter of pressing issues, like race and religion.
One such gathering is the weekly “Music and Message” series, which tackles a different theme each semester. (It is currently examining “Loss/Renewal.”) University Organist Anne Laver says the idea is for students to share their talents with others through music, literature and spoken reflections. “Each session brings a sense of peace and well-being to those listening online or in person,” she adds.
With nine chaplains across four world religions and a burgeoning number of campus and community partnerships, Hendricks Chapel is poised to enter its second century of spiritual service. Until then, there is much to do as students navigate college life while preparing for an uncertain future.
It is at times like these that Konkol recommends availing oneself of the “healing power of presence”—giving others permission to stop hoping for a better past. “The pandemic may test our collective spirit,” he says, “but it cannot cancel the sacred link that binds us together.”