In March when the Covid-19 pandemic cleared college campuses across the country, many students were left unsure of how they would finish out the semester and keep in contact with their friends. Unfortunately, many students also found themselves suddenly facing unemployment, food insecurity, extreme financial strain, unsafe family or housing conditions, uncertainty surrounding their federal student visas, and even the threat of homelessness. The sudden uncertainty of the situation left a lot of students anxious, and struggling to cope. In such an unfamiliar situation, leaders of all kinds on college campuses tried, and sometimes failed, to know how to communicate effectively and support students accordingly.
I had the opportunity to speak with a handful of spiritual leaders at Boston University and to listen to their reflections on where they succeeded and where they wish they would have done better over the last 9 months. Overall, the leaders, a mix of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim chaplains, felt the same kind of blind-sided panic that the students experienced. They received information moments before, if not at the same time, as the students. They didn’t blame the university, understanding that things moved very quickly from hour to hour and even moment to moment during the week that decisions were being made in early March, however, they did feel the nature of the situation made it very difficult to respond to the needs of their students constructively and supportively.  Students and faculty were given very few resources and little support to fully grasp and cope with the spiritual, emotional, and sometimes financial, impact of the pandemic. In attempting to communicate logistics effectively, the University often neglected the emotional, mental, financial, and spiritual well-being of the students and the faculty. All parties were left holding a lot of information, but very few tools to integrate the information into their lived reality.
Studies on instances of trauma following natural disasters and events of terrorism have shown that religion and spirituality play an important role in helping people cope with difficult and traumatic events.  One study on the trauma of the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11 said that religion and spirituality may offer a framework for adjusting to and contextualizing events and experiences in a way that results in more positive affect after the dust settles.  Human beings lean into religious and spiritual affiliations following traumatic experiences in an effort to look for meaning and comfort beyond trauma. Thema Bryant-Davis and Eunice Wong say that people begin to look for the sacred in the midst of trauma recovery because they need to make meaning out of what happened, or what is happening to them.  The practices, rituals, actions, or beliefs could be anything that draws a survivor of trauma closer to whatever it is that they hold sacred.  Turning to spiritual things is also sometimes encouraged in survivors of trauma or refugees by spiritual leaders or mental health professionals, because it offers a way to turn toward a more positive or holistic view of past experiences. 
Spiritual care on college campuses in the wake
Overall, there seems to be an overarching belief that engaging in a community of faith or in spiritual practices and support systems during and after particularly difficult or traumatic events allows for people to cope with and recover from jarring, emotional experiences. Spiritual care on college campuses in the wake of Covid-19 is, and is going to continue to be, critically important. Anecdotally, the spiritual leaders from BU agreed that currently they are really struggling to connect with students and have limited resources to try to reach students who may be hurting. Students are probably not receiving the spiritual support they may need, and worst of all, they may not know where to look for it if they need it. While I cannot offer the answers or highlight one small thing that will make all the difference, I believe it is important to point out the need and to ask universities how they can support the spiritual well-being of their students when extreme circumstances require drastic changes without notice.
 Anonymous Interview with Six Boston University Chaplains, November 16, 2020.
 Leola Dyrud Furman, et. All, “Reflections on Collective Trauma, Faith, and Service Delivery to Victims of Terrorism and Natural Disaster: Insights from Six National Studies,” Social Work and Christianity 43:1 (Spring, 2016), 75-76.
 Daniel N. McIntosh, Michael J. Poulin, Roxane Cohen Silver, and E. Alison Holman, "The distinct roles of spirituality and religiosity in physical and mental health after collective trauma: a national longitudinal study of responses to the 9/11 attacks," Journal of Behavioral Medicine 34, no. 6 (2011): Gale Academic OneFile.
 Thema Bryant-Davis, and Eunice C. Wong, "Faith to Move Mountains: Religious Coping, Spirituality, and Interpersonal Trauma Recovery." The American Psychologist 68, no. 8 (2013): 675-676.
 Bryant-Davis and Wong, “Faith to Move Mountains,” 675-676.
 Bryant-Davis and Wong, “Faith to Move Mountains,” 679.
Bryant-Davis, Thema, and Wong, Eunice C. "Faith to Move Mountains: Religious Coping, Spirituality, and Interpersonal Trauma Recovery." The American Psychologist 68, no. 8 (2013): 675-84.
Furman, Leola Dyrud, Perry W. Benson, Bernard Moss, Torill Danbolt, Einar Vetvik, and Edward Canda. "Reflections on Collective Trauma, Faith, and Service Delivery to Victims of Terrorism and Natural Disaster: Insights from Six National Studies." Social Work and Christianity 43, no. 1 (Spring, 2016): 74-94.
McIntosh, Daniel N., Michael J. Poulin, Roxane Cohen Silver, and E. Alison Holman. "The distinct roles of spirituality and religiosity in physical and mental health after collective trauma: a national longitudinal study of responses to the 9/11 attacks." Journal of Behavioral Medicine 34, no. 6 (2011): 497+. Gale Academic OneFile.
Chloe Mclaughlin is a 2nd year Master of Divinity student at the Boston University School of Theology. She is passionate about helping spiritual leaders learn skills in conflict communication and also enjoys writing and reading work in practical theology and leadership. Chloe currently engages in conflict and communication work through BU’s Marsh Chapel and the Boston Theological Interreligious Consortium.
As part of my internship experience with ICTG, I had the opportunity to learn about some of the long-term impacts of the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow on the Westmont community. My own experiences during the disasters constituted the heart behind this project. During my first year, when I was new to the Santa Barbara and Montecito communities, the disasters created an opportunity for me to engage in the community and meet my neighbors in ways I never could have imagined. As I dug out a family’s home alongside one of the family members and with fellow Westmont students, my ideas about communities, trauma, and service began to be radically transformed. This project created an opportunity for me to reflect upon and articulate those thoughts and ideas in an organized and systematic manner. Moreover, this project gave me the space to ask new questions that came up for me during the internship, such as: How do you decide who gets to participate in the narrative making following a disaster? How much narrative space do individuals get to take up? Do some individuals get more than others? What position does Westmont in general, and do Westmont students in particular, get to occupy in the narrative following the disasters? What parts of the narrative can they claim?
How do you decide who gets to participate in the narrative making following a disaster? How much narrative space do individuals get to take up?
Throughout the interviews, individuals consistently reminded me of the diversity of feelings, emotions, and experiences that people have following disasters. Almost every person I interviewed mentioned the importance of recognizing and respecting this diversity. A comment from a student who was not present during the disasters made me think about the challenges that this diversity in experience can create for our understanding of what happened. In an effort to grasp what happened, the student attended and participated in memorial events. Though she learned more about the disasters and some community members’ experience she remarked that she “will never fully understand what happened.”
As I reflected on this comment, I realized that no person can fully understand what happened because no person can fully understand the experience of another. The only thing we can fully understand is our own experience in the disaster. However just because we can’t fully understand doesn’t mean we give up and settle for our own perspective. Instead, we hold the knowledge that we will never fully understand in tension with the effort to understand other’s experiences and feelings. We still participate in practices of collective remembrance. We still listen to others stories and recollections. We still share our own experiences of what happened. We remind ourselves that no story is the whole story; no person’s journey is everyone’s journey. We even begin to piece together what we have experienced with what others have experienced, attempting to create a more complete image of what happened.
We still participate in practices of collective remembrance. We still listen to others stories and recollections. We still share our own experiences of what happened.
This crafting together won’t ever yield a complete understanding of the disasters. Nonetheless, we strive to craft together our perspectives, respecting that each person has a valuable voice and worthy position in the narrative making, though exactly how that voice sounds or exactly how much space that voice takes up will look different from person to person. We continue to seek greater understanding of others and their experiences. In doing so, we affirm the uniqueness and worthiness of each person. Following the destruction of disaster, we get the opportunity to create something new with ourselves, our families, and our communities by sharing our stories, listening to the stories of others, and together creating a narrative that honors each person and each experience. In other words, we get to practice loving our neighbors.
Chloe is currently a fourth year student at Westmont College, earning a B.S. in Psychology-Behavioral Neuroscience. She enjoys learning about how resilience and connectedness impact experiences of trauma. Chloe brings her experiences living in Costa Rica and Scotland and studying abroad in Israel-Palestine to her studies and work.
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored the changing landscape of long-term care. This website serves as a historical mark of work the Institute conducted prior to 2022. This website is no longer updated.