Editor’s note: In the second reference, we refer to the Spiritual but Not Religious group as SBNR.
On the night of the 2020 presidential election, then-sophomore Megan Salters shivered at the Columbarium and Memorial Garden as she held a candle with her spiritual community and meditated.
Salters and the Spiritual but Not Religious community gathered on a night heavy with anxiety about the future of the United States. Holding candles in a garden while meditating in silence reassured Salters that while the election was out of her control, she could find peace within herself, she said.
At the University of Richmond, Salters is part of SBNR, a group that does not identify with a religion but explores one’s identity and the significance of life through spirituality.
Salters first discovered the group during a pre-orientation hiking trip her first year. There she met the Rev. Jamie Lynn Haskins, chaplain for spiritual life and communications director, who introduced Salters to the idea of practicing spirituality regularly at UR, Salters said.
Now, as a senior, Salters participates in monthly group conversations, meditation sessions, chakra workshops and group dinners with her SBNR group, she said.
“It's about having these difficult, but meaningful discussions,” Salters said about the group. “And questions with people about like, ‘What is the purpose of our lives and how are we here on earth?’”
After attending a Presbyterian Christian school in Louisville, Kentucky, Salters said she felt a lack of fulfillment in organized religion. However, Salters discovered a deep connection with plants and insects, so much so that nature was a recurring theme in her poetry and high school journals.
“Just like the resurrection through plants. . .and like coming [back] to life. I think there's a lot of spiritual symbols within nature,” she said.
SBNR was formed on UR’s campus during the 2018-19 school year. Haskins, the group’s leader, said she applied for the job after the chaplaincy recognized an opportunity to meet the needs of many students.
The Rev. Dr. Craig Kocher, a UR chaplain, and his staff decided that the chaplaincy wanted to offer programming for the 40% of students who did not have a formal religious identity, Haskins said.
Each year, incoming UR students fill out paperwork about themselves, Haskins said, and there are boxes that students can check to indicate their religious preference. At most schools, the chaplaincy stops at religious traditions. It is rare for there to be a chaplain to care for students spiritually, she said.
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“So, it’s actually quite progressive and thoughtful and kind of groundbreaking for the University of Richmond to say, ‘Hey, every fierce young adult student deserves a chaplain, including the 40% of you about each year who don’t have a religious tradition,’” Haskins said.
The Survey Center on American Life found that over a third of people in Generation Z do not identify with a specific religious affiliation. Gen Z tends to lean more agnostic or atheist, according to the website.
Going away to college represents a time when students may realize they have a choice when it comes to expressions of faith.
“For many students, it’s the first time they get to decide,, ‘Do I want to go to synagogue? Do I want to go to worship? Am I even a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim? My parents introduced me to these ideas, but what do I think?’” Haskins said.
SBNR attracts all types of students, Haskins said. Some have had negative religious experiences. Some did not grow up in religion at all, but graduated from high school, moved away from home and showed interest in religion for the first time, Haskins said, asking ‘hey, what do I think spiritually?’
“I myself have a faith tradition, but I’m also a part of the LGBTQIA+ community and have experienced some trauma and hurt at the hands of religion,” Haskins said. “And so I feel like I occupy this space where I can honor the importance of religion, but I also really honor and believe, as someone who’s had negative experiences with religion, that you can have a deep and robust spirituality without religion and I believe that everyone deserves that and should have access to it.”
SBNR’s first meeting hosted around 30 to 40 students, Haskins said. Since then, the group has grown to 140 to 150 students on its mailing list.
Not every student comes to every event, but that’s the beauty of the group, junior Mia Lazar, an SBNR member, said.
“I was a freshman and was really busy and anxious about different things and [COVID-19] and I wasn’t sure which groups to join,” Lazar said. “And it’s the fact that [Haskins] said that it was a guilt-free space, you don’t have to come every time but it’s just always going to be here for you.”
Lazar grew up attending a Unitarian Universalist church where she enjoyed talking with the many people of differing beliefs who made up the congregation. Unitarian Universalism is a religion rooted in many backgrounds with spirituality coming from science, scripture, personal experience, ancient tradition, philosophy and nature, according to the Unitarian Universalist Association.
She found the church to be a continuous search for truth and meaning and was interested in continuing those philosophical conversations when she came to UR, she said.
In addition to attending multifaith dinners on campus, Lazar took a class with Tom Mullen, director of public affairs journalism and Catholic chaplain, and said that was how she heard about and joined the SBNR community.
“It’s been really great,” Lazar said. “I really enjoyed talking to different people and also, I feel like I’ve made a few friends from that group as well. And it’s just always a very welcoming space, so I really enjoy being a part of it.”
In addition to weekly events that include conversations about everything from sexuality’s role in spirituality to yoga or journaling, SBNR offers pilgrimages for students that usually occur in the fall semester.
These pilgrimages, which are fully funded for students through UR donors, involve spiritual practices, but not from a particular religious tradition, Haskins said.
Lazar went on a pilgrimage to Arizona in fall 2021. She took part in 24 hours of silence, which has become a standard exercise on SBNR pilgrimages.
“Being in such a dramatic landscape and doing something I had never done…I feel like it created a very close-knit group and it was a really powerful experience,” Lazar said. “And so I definitely recommend pilgrimages. It’s a really cool experience.”
The group usually takes eight to 12 students on its pilgrimages, Haskins said. Students have to apply for a spot on the pilgrimage and the process can be competitive, as there are often many applicants, Haskins said.
SBNR’s students and leaders are passionate about creating a space where everyone feels like they belong, Haskins said. SBNR strives to make the group as guilt-free, judgment-free and affirming as possible.
“And what that means is, whoever you are, whoever you love, however you identify, we love you and come on in, have a cookie or talk about Reiki or whatever we’re doing,” Haskins said. “And so I think when you’re intentional about creating spaces like that, usually spaces that seek to be diverse and welcoming often draw a diverse population that’s really committed to being welcoming and celebrating diversity themselves.”
Looking ahead in terms of SBNR’s future, more than anything, Haskins just wants to continue to empower the group’s student leaders to dream and imagine what might be possible, she said.
“Five years ago, [SBNR] didn’t exist,” Haskins said. “And I got to support these incredible student leaders in developing this community. And so I think in the next five years, they’ve built this thing and so now we get to dream big about what it might be. Maybe that looks like a more immersive experience. Maybe that looks like more programming. Maybe that looks like students meeting more regularly.”
Salters hopes SBNR can be a space for students to process and heal from the racist or hurtful events that happen on campus, she said. In this context, Haskins said, SBNR can be considered part of a wave of making positive changes on campus
Sophomore Ella Meyers discovered spirituality during the pandemic, and it helped her with her mental health and feeling comfortable with her queer identity, she said.
“I realized I could heal myself,” Meyers said. “I also found so many connections in the queer community because I think so many queer people have just not felt safe or accepted by a formal religion.”
Sophomore Alan Declerck grew up in a Catholic home. Declerck said it is difficult being queer and Catholic, given that so much queer backlash starts from religious and conservative principles, he said.
During his first year at UR, Declerck was introduced to spirituality by a friend. Declerck said he appreciated how spirituality incorporated community building and service, two aspects of Catholicism he admired, while supporting his queer identity.
“I’m trying to find things that work for me,” he said. “And if that means it’s from different spaces, that’s fun.”
At the beginning of his spiritual journey, Declerck said, he was introduced to queer theology, which allowed him to interpret the Bible through a queer lens and understand his identity in the context of religion and life in general.
Just as for Meyers and Declerck, SBNR has supported several students who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“But that wasn’t because that’s something we seek to do,” Haskins said. “We just really want to love and celebrate everyone. And so people who value that often tend to join us in doing that.”
After Meyers joined SBNR her first year, she continued practicing spirituality by meditating every night and working to become a certified yoga instructor, Meyers said.
“Anyone that’s close to Jamie Lynn just ultimately has a better life,” Meyers said, thanking Haskins for supporting her spiritual journey.
Last week, Meyers got a tattoo of a woman with hands stretching out as tree branches and a body imitating that of a tree trunk and its roots. The tattoo honors reincarnation, a concept Meyers discovered while practicing spirituality, she said.
“I believe in reincarnation,” Meyers said. “I think I’ll come back as a tree.”
Salters also described her spirituality as “earth-based,” exploring the relationship between human bodies and nature. Salters turns to her body and her physical senses to ask how she can exist beyond just the body, a question all religions try to answer. She searches for such answers in plants and animals, she said.
“Nature is this divine mirror through which we can examine ourselves and our consciousness and know how we exist,” she said. “[Nature] is also just something really beautiful and special…like the process of evolution, and how evolution is a process where everything is trying to be reaching towards something and purifying itself.”
Salters, who is an environmental studies major, recognizes human activity increases global warming and further harms the planet. She views environmental problems as political issues stemming from the growing disconnection between the environment and humans, Salters said.
Salters remains curious about the earth and spirituality through writing, meditating, attending SBNR events and practicing gratitude. By practicing spirituality, Salters notices reoccurring themes and messages speaking to her at the most crucial times of her life, she said.
“It's kind of like Mother Gaia communicating with me in some way. . .and it's beautiful. I'm grateful to be alive,” Salters said.
Just last month, Salter’s 17-year-old dog Ginger, who Salters lovingly calls Bug, passed away in Louisville, Kentucky. A few days later, while Salters was driving in Richmond and thinking about her late dog, a fly flew into her car, she said.
The fly did not fidget to escape Salter’s car but rested by the window, just as how Ginger would lean against the window and watch outside. Salters said that when she called for the fly and said “Ginger,” it turned around and faced her.
“I guess this is my chance to say, ‘thank you for everything, we love you and be well wherever you might go next,’” Salters said.
Just as the fly left Salters, the next song that played from her Spotify algorithm was “Me and My Dog” by boygenius. Such synchronicities let her recognize life’s mysteries are not within her control so she should embrace them openly, she said.
“Regardless of whether or not that bug was somehow my dog,” she said, “it was really meaningful to me getting to say goodbye in some way.”
Contact sports editor Jimmy James and executive editor Ananya Chetia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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