A Space for Spiritual Secularism

Tufts’ award-winning Humanist Chaplaincy thrives because it provides opportunities for open inquiry, community-building, philosophical discussion, and the inclusion of many faiths

Lacey Walls, A24, will never forget the first time she climbed to the top of the hill at the Middlesex Fells Reservation. It was the beginning of her first year at Tufts, at the height of the pandemic, and she’d just moved to campus from her small town in central Florida. The hike was an activity offered by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Tufts (HCAT), and, because she hadn’t yet had many chances to interact in person with fellow students, Walls decided to join in.

“We were on the most difficult trail at the Fells,” said Walls, now a junior double-majoring in sociology and economics and a member of HCAT’s executive board. “We made it, with some effort, to the top—and then I got this incredibly beautiful view of Medford and Somerville. We could see Goddard Chapel from where we were.” 

The literal perspective provided Walls with a figurative one. “The opportunity to survey all of that beauty from one vantage point, as opposed to standing in the middle of it like I’m used to on the flat Florida terrain, was a real turning point for me,” she recalled. “It was a moment of belonging, of appreciating that I was in a new space, at college, and getting to explore myself, my beliefs, and my place in the world in a way that I hadn’t ever done before. I knew then that HCAT was a community that I would value and that would help define my time at Tufts.” 

Seeking to “Humanize the World”

If Tufts’ receiving the American Humanist Association’s 2022 University Award for Philosophical Diversity is any indication, then Walls is not alone in her feelings about HCAT. The award, presented to President Anthony Monaco at a ceremony in Breed Memorial Hall on November 2, is given annually to a college or university to recognize institutions that, in the words of the association, “foster a culture of openness and academic inquiry that allows humanism and a diverse array of other philosophical perspectives to flourish.”

HCAT, according to University Chaplain Elyse Nelson Winger, does just that. “At Tufts, you don’t just see the Humanist chaplaincy or the Humanist chaplain in isolation,” Nelson Winger said. “You see the Humanist chaplaincy and the Humanist chaplain working in collaboration with our other multifaith chaplaincies, and you see the Humanist chaplain—and chaplaincy—at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts… the Boston health sciences campus, and all around Tufts, providing spiritual care to students and the community no matter their religious or philosophical beliefs.”

“One of my favorite things... is that [HCAT] is fully dedicated to the mission of creating spaces for all students at Tufts, regardless of spiritual or religious beliefs or the lack thereof.”

Lacey Walls, A24, HCAT Executive Board Member

Anthony Cruz Pantojas, the university’s Humanist chaplain, agreed, highlighting the fact that Tufts’ Humanist chaplaincy has relevance beyond the campus as well. “Being in partnership with national and international organizations, presenting, and doing panels speaks to the broader vision of our University Chaplaincy,” Cruz Pantojas said. “Our intent is to not limit our work to the university. We know that there is an urgent need to seek to humanize the world, and a need for the Humanist Chaplaincy to contribute to that effort.”

Nevertheless, it was very much an on-campus need that sparked the creation of the Humanist Chaplaincy in the first place. Walker Bristol, A14, who served from 2015 to 2021 as Tufts’ first Humanist chaplain, explained that, in Bristol’s own time as an undergraduate, one-third of the student body described themselves as “humanist, atheist, agnostic, or none.” (Today, it’s more than 40 percent, said Nelson Winger.) Many students who fell into that category about eight years ago were active in a group called the Tufts Free-Thought Society, and they felt the need for someone who could more formally help guide their ideas, gatherings, and efforts. 

“There was an awareness of what other chaplains were providing for other communities,” Bristol said, “and we began to ask, ‘What would it look like for us to have something like a chaplain ourselves?” 

Supporting Students by Fully Engaging Chaplains

Through conversations among students, the President’s Office, and Nelson Winger’s predecessor, Tufts created a professional role for a Humanist chaplain. Though the role was a new one, it followed logically from Tufts’ mid-19th-century beginnings. “It felt consistent with Tufts’ Universalist origins to be responsive to what communities are represented on campus and in the Chaplaincy in particular,” Bristol said. “In other words, it was Universalist to be responsive to the diverse beliefs on campus.”

But what makes Tufts’ Humanist Chaplaincy an award-winning one? Nelson Winger offered a key factor that sets apart Tufts’ overall approach to its chaplaincy: its chaplains are university employees. While some other universities do this as well, most give chaplains from a range of different traditions an affiliate status and permission to work with their communities, Nelson Winger explained, but do not hire them as employees of the institution. 

Because Tufts does hire them, she continued, “our chaplains are part of the Tufts community. With that comes the opportunity to deeply collaborate with other university partners and programs—not to mention with individuals in the community. The Humanist Chaplaincy has for many years now been deeply engaged in important initiatives because it receives the support it needs to do so.”

For students like Walls, HCAT has created a rich and rewarding college experience. “It’s such an important community space,” she said. Walls loves the group’s weekly reflection meetings, to which anyone on campus is welcome, and for which no preparation is necessary, and she cherishes the events that the group regularly holds—and which she helps plan and organize. 

“We try to host at least one event per month where we’re doing something that connects us to the larger Chaplaincy community or the larger Tufts community,” she explained. Examples have included celebrations of the winter solstice, candle-making events with the Catholic chaplaincy, and an annual Death Cafe, which is part of a worldwide movement that brings people together over a meal to have conversations about death and dying.

“HCAT has done so much to make me feel at home at Tufts and to help me understand myself better,” Walls said. “But one of my favorite things about it is what it demonstrates about the broader Chaplaincy community on campus: that it’s fully dedicated to the mission of creating spaces for all students at Tufts, regardless of spiritual or religious beliefs or the lack thereof.” 

Back to Top