During a Year of Separation, an Interfaith Program Creates Connection

Even before the pandemic forced us apart, Tufts Catholic Chaplain Lynn Cooper noticed that loneliness was widespread. So she devised a way to bring people together
Sara Barkouli, A22, and Curry Brinson, A22, liked that the foundation of Be-Friend, a program offered by the University Chaplaincy
Sara Barkouli, A22, and Curry Brinson, A22, liked that the foundation of Be-Friend is “the radical act of sharing yourself with someone.” Photographer Alonso Nichols brought them together virtually in this composite image.
May 7, 2021

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During one week in 2015, two Tufts students sought pastoral care from Catholic Chaplain Lynn Cooper, A02. One student faced great challenge, the other was experiencing great joy. Neither wanted to share what they were going through with friends, fearful of being a burden. 

The back-to-back interactions highlighted for Cooper that the need for connection and a fear of vulnerability were twin threads running through young lives. She realized that loneliness, which had already seeped into American culture, was widespread in higher education.

“I just felt like there were patterns around what, over time, I thought of mostly as disconnection: disconnection from self, disconnection from one another, disconnection from sometimes an authentic relationship with self.” Those patterns prompted her to pursue a Doctor of Ministry degree, and in 2019, as part of her dissertation, she created a curriculum designed to foster human and spiritual connection. Last semester, Cooper debuted that curriculum at Tufts as Be-Friend, a nine-week interfaith friendship program offered by the University Chaplaincy. 

For one of the Be-Friend exercises, Giuliana Perini, A21, put together an altar of personally meaningful items to talk about with her partner. Photo: Courtesy of Giuliana PeriniBe-Friend is open to students as well as faculty and staff in identical, parallel programs. Each participant is matched with one other person as a dyad. The dyads, who can choose to be paired with someone from the same faith background or a different one, meet weekly for an hour to check in and discuss that week’s prompt, such as “What’s in a Name?” or “Building a Home Altar.” Designed as a test run centered around Catholic spirituality, the curriculum was reworked by Cooper and her chaplaincy colleagues for Tufts’ multifaith community. Conversations between participants from different religious backgrounds become multifaith dialogues. The tweaks also reflect the pandemic. “It’s important to acknowledge the specific, ongoing demands of this moment,” Cooper said.

Despite its name and Cooper’s belief that friendship is a sacrament, Be-Friend’s fundamental goal isn’t necessarily to spark lifelong relationships. Rather, the format creates a place where it’s safe to be vulnerable, as you might with a close friend. “It’s about ‘Has this person had the transformative experience of being heard and being valued?’” Cooper said. 

It’s also about sensing that everyday life can be sacred. One exercise asks dyads to take pictures throughout their day, then share those with each other. It’s not about selfies; it’s an invitation to go deeper. “Your spiritual life doesn’t have to be only at special moments,” Cooper said. “It can be right now, built into the day.”

That expansive take on spiritual life is part of the program. “The spiritual practices in Be-Friend remind people that their lives are already holy,” Cooper said.

The program addresses the very human experience of getting to know someone deeply. “We know that this can be awkward. That’s part of it,” she said. “The challenge is to keep people in the room.” Talking about the things that matter might be a bit easier now, when so many people are otherwise feeling isolated by the pandemic. Cooper senses that the pandemic has normalized loneliness somewhat over the past year, possibly lessening the stigma for good.

Last semester, 27 student dyads and 13 faculty/staff dyads participated, meeting remotely or, when social-distancing protocols allowed, in person. Some have continued meeting this semester, and new dyads have also begun.

Be-Friend will be offered again next fall.

Tufts Now recently caught up with three dyads to hear about their experiences with Be-Friend last semester.

Olivia Talbert, A24, and Ryan Botsaris, A24

“We immediately established that it’s confidential, so I’ve been really open about a lot of things that I wouldn’t tell other people,” Ryan Botsaris said of his conversations with Olivia Talbert. Composite photo: Alonso Nichols

Botsaris: We met the first time in October, on Pres. Lawn. I was so nervous that I read our first prompt like five times and had a mental answer to every question. 

Talbert: It was nerve-wracking. I did not prepare as much, but I could tell you did. I remember telling you, “I’m actually really terrified.” 

Botsaris: We immediately established that it’s confidential, so I’ve been really open about a lot of things that I wouldn’t tell other people. We only meet once a week for an hour, but I still felt really comfortable being vulnerable.

Talbert: I feel the same way. We established a trust in the space, and that was part of the prompt, to establish norms and expectations. I think it was really important.

Botsaris: We’re both Catholic, but a lot of our conversations and revelations don’t have to do with that. The prompts were from different traditions, and we explored new things.

Talbert: We often had the same values, but came from different communities with different dynamics. 

Botsaris: In September, I didn’t really meet anybody and I felt really isolated and depressed, to be honest. I’ve relied so much on Tufts Chaplaincy and Be-Friend specifically; it makes me feel less alone and helps my outlook.

Talbert: When I first arrived at Tufts, before Be-Friend, when I didn’t feel fully comfortable here, it did feel a little lonely and was a little isolating, but establishing my comfort through my faith helped.

Botsaris: We have not talked about what we’ll do when Be-Friend ends again, but I feel like even though we’ve only met once outside of Be-Friend, the foundation is there for a friendship. 

Talbert: I agree. We meet with prompts every week, but—

Botsaris: —we go off topic and have regular friend conversations, too.

Talbert: Right.

The Rev. Elyse Nelson Winger, University Chaplain, and Jennifer Hashley, Project Director, New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
 

“It helps us bring out the parts of ourselves that we want to live, that generosity and trustworthiness,” said Elyse Nelson Winger, who partnered with Jennifer Hashley. Composite photo: Alonso Nichols

Hashley: I thought, “Oh my gosh” when I found out that I was paired with the university chaplain. I’m a little bit agnostic, a recovered Catholic. I joked that they partnered me with Elyse because I have a lot of work to do. But I really loved the diversity of the prompts. I especially liked the hospitality conversation. I could relate to wanting people to feel welcome over a meal. That sticks out, and the altar. I didn’t have one, and I felt guilty.

Nelson Winger: And I didn’t have one either. We were both really busy that week. We didn’t do the homework. It was fine. We had a wonderful conversation about what our altar would mean, what we would put on it, where it would be. I also loved the prompt by Priya Sraman, who was then our Buddhist Chaplain, who talked about Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching about a piece of paper. It allowed us to talk about our own values, experiences and spirituality related to nature and the environment. I just loved the expansiveness of that. I remember that morning feeling really connected to the earth and creation in a different way.

Hashley: And we got to go outside out for a walk and reflect on the experience.

Nelson Winger: That’s right!

Hashley: It was great. And then at the end of Be-Friend, we were asked to present each other with a gift. That was so cool, and so thoughtful and personal. Our gifts to each other were heartwarming, special and much appreciated. That was really nice.

Nelson Winger: What I love about Be-Friend is that it invited us to take time to do what we want and need to do as humans. It helps us bring out the parts of ourselves that we want to live, that generosity and trustworthiness.

Sara Barkouli, A22, and Curry Brinson, A22

Sara Barkouli and Curry Brinson have “talked a lot about how to get together with people in a way that’s meaningful and connecting during these weird times.” Composite photo: Alonso Nichols

Barkouli: At the beginning of last semester, Curry said, “There’s this cool thing. I thought of you, no pressure, but we could try it out.” He and I have talked a lot about how to get together with people in a way that’s meaningful and connecting during these weird times. So I said yes. Having specific prompts seemed cool.

Brinson: Sara and I always have these tender, intense conversations that are full of gravity but also rooted in vulnerability and friendship. And the radical act of sharing yourself with someone is a foundation for Be-Friend. One week was about sharing a song. We talked about how we were worried that the other person wouldn’t like our song.

Barkouli: It was kind of funny. We said to each other, “Why wouldn’t I like the song?” And also “It’s not about that.” It’s about how sharing something important to you is so vulnerable: I like this thing, and you might not feel connected to it, and that’s okay. 

Brinson: Be-Friend definitely made a tangible impact on our friendship. There’s just this renewed understanding. 

Barkouli: I’m learning these things about your life that may not have come up otherwise. Some of the activities seemed silly on paper, like listening to a song. But I’m proud of how we accepted that this is kind of weird, but we’re going to listen. We definitely had some laughs, but we also took it pretty seriously. 

Brinson: I would leave our conversations and think, “We just had the best talk today.” I know it’s not a competition with the other dyads but I do feel like we won.

Barkouli: Yeah. If it was, then we would have won. I wholeheartedly agree that we had the best time of anyone.