One day about nine years ago at his local Washington D.C. church, Hierald Osorto, the newly appointed director for religious and spiritual life at Ithaca College, remembered watching an interaction that stuck with him.
He saw a high-profile politician taking communion next to a homeless woman. He watched as two people with drastically different lives were still able to connect and share their faith with one another.
“For me, that was my moment of feeling to believe in something and to trust something means to create the conditions to create that kind of possibility where people gather and come together and understand each other’s humanity,” Osorto said. “And to see that enacted in that ritual form is what brought these pieces together, and I have not experienced that before.”
The experience articulated for him the unique unity religion can provide people, and this principle is ingrained in the way that Osorto is approaching his work inside Muller Chapel and the changes he is pursuing.
There is a series of new initiatives in the works, including an entirely new budget that aims to increase inclusivity in Muller Chapel. These initiatives include physical changes to the chapel, bringing speakers to campus to discuss issues of intersectionality, workshops and listening sessions.
The new budgeting furthers efforts the campus pushed for last semester to create more equitable funding and inclusive spaces for religious and spiritual groups. This is in an attempt to make the chapel an interfaith space that reflects the diversity at the college and within its religious communities. Now, the three groups already housed in Muller Chapel — the Catholic Community, the Ithaca College Protestant Community and Hillel at Ithaca College — will have to figure out how to move forward with less support from the college. Additionally, Osorto said he adds a paradoxical narrative to these adjustments as a queer, Latino Lutheran whose parents emigrated from El Salvador.
“The paradox that I speak to is the mess, the chaoticness, of ‘How do you embrace who you are alongside with how the world sees you?’” he said. “And then, the choices that you make to be not what the world is seeing you as. I think that comes easier for folks on the margins because their lives are paradoxical.”
Osorto said these changes are necessary to better meet the needs of a more diverse student body. He said he wants everyone to be reflected in the chapel.
“Who we were and who our students were in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, … that’s not where we are today,” he said. “And we had a higher number of Catholic, in particular, and Protestant students, Jewish students as well. That’s shifted, and in every other place in this institution, you will probably hear we are rethinking ways and strategies of retaining the new students that are coming that are now going to college. 2018 looks very different.”
Osorto said the new budget for the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life will follow a zero-based budgeting process that will only distribute funds to meet programmatic needs and will not be used to fund salaries of chaplains and personal expenses. He said if a smaller organization is struggling to get funding because of its size, he would help them access funding for their initiatives this academic year until the budget is restructured for the 2019–20 academic year.
“A zero-based budgeting process requires that you build a budget based on what your needs are,” he said. “It’s collaborative, and it represents or speaks to the larger strategic efforts of an institution, and so I’m tasked for creating that for this office.”
The way that funding worked previously, Osorto said, is that the college allotted funds, called chapel disbursements, to the three religious communities housed in Muller Chapel.
Other religious organizations at the college that are not included in Muller Chapel can receive funding through the Student Governance Council. This is how many clubs on campus receive funding. He also said the budget will allow students from smaller communities to access resources to hold events that align with their faith traditions, such as Diwali, a Hindu festival of lights.
Osorto said he could not disclose the exact groups that he plans on providing funding to for the 2019–20 academic year because the budget has not yet been approved by the college. He said funding will also go toward religious literacy initiatives for the campus by providing training sessions and bringing speakers to campus. Additionally, he said, it will go toward interfaith collaboration among religious communities.
Osorto said he could not disclose the amount of money that the religious communities housed in the chapel currently receive. The ICPC received $53,378 from the college for the 2016–17 academic year, according to previous reporting by The Ithacan. Osorto said each community receives the same amount of money from the college each year. This means that the Catholic Community and Hillel at Ithaca College received that same amount during the 2016–17 academic year. The college’s allocations to the ICPC, combined with donations, compose the community’s budget and fund the chaplain’s salary. He also said neither the board of directors nor the college provides the chaplain with benefits.
Osorto said the college has already shifted funds for the current academic year. The college shifted $8,635 in funding from the ICPC to the Christian Community Church, a religious community housed in the chapel with worship services rooted in the style of the contemporary black Pentecostal Church. Osorto said the money was combined with additional reallocated funds from Hillel and the Catholic Community. The funds were split between the Christian Community Church and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life for programs happening this academic year.
The $8,635 in funding shifted from the ICPC was in response to the demands of a petition presented to the administration last academic year by IC Color, a campaign aiming to make the ICPC more inclusive for LGBTQ students and students of color. The group was formed after Spring 2018 after many students disclosed that they felt the ICPC was exclusive for various reasons.
Reactions around changes in funding
James Touchton, chaplain of the ICPC, said via email that while he supports the new budget plan, he is concerned that equal allocation will dismiss the fact that some communities at the college have significantly more members than others. Touchton announced his resignation and will be leaving at the end of the semester, in part because of the budget redistribution.
“While I understand and support moving in a more equitable direction, I also don’t believe that ought to mean we disregard demographics,” he said.
Osorto said equitable funding means ensuring that every community member has access to the resources they need.
“Ultimately, it comes to the question of what are the overall needs of our students in terms of having access to resources that sustain the religious and spiritual life on our campus,” he said.
Touchton also said that because the funds will not be used for salaries or personal expenses, the ICPC will no longer be able to afford to have a full-time chaplain. He said he thinks that the new funding structure fails to provide for the needs of students.
“This change is being implemented without any period of transition and without sufficient dialogue,” he said. “While the goal of equity is certainly to be lauded, what it fails to truly take into account is the nature of religious and spiritual needs of college students.”
Senior Josh John, student chair on the ICPC council, said he is worried about the impact the changes will have on students because of the community’s inability to have a full-time chaplain.
John said the ICPC is trying to figure out how it could afford a new chaplain but that no official plans are currently being pursued.
John also said he is worried about the pressure of responsibility that could be put on student leaders in the ICPC to be a spiritual leader in place of a more experienced chaplain.
“The Protestant Community has always been very student-led, but what has been very helpful … is having some spiritual guide or spiritual mentor,” John said. “ … To have a resource on campus proves to be very useful, so I think moving on to next year, that’s the primary concern.”
Osorto would not comment on whether or not funding was used to pay chaplains’ salaries by each community. He said he would be willing to help students in the ICPC find religious affiliates in other ways, such as connecting with local pastors and funding a pastor through alumni donations.
He said he thinks that the loss of the ICPC’s chaplain is not a cause for concern for the other religious communities in Muller Chapel. The other communities included enough outside sources of funding in their budgets so they do not rely as heavily on the college’s allocations.
“I think the way that it’s been articulated, or inferred, that by changing the way that we distribute funding for communities, it’s essentially eliminating the Protestant chaplain role,” he said. “I think that’s misinformed, and it doesn’t speak to the fact that we exist on this campus because the religious and spiritual needs of this community are essential.”
Osorto said he is committed to helping the ICPC and other communities in the chapel have access to resources with the new budget.
Carsten Martensen, Catholic chaplain and director of campus ministry, said the Catholic Community received money from the college and currently receives funding from the Diocese of Rochester — a subset of the Roman Catholic Church — as well as from savings and fundraising through sending appeal letters to parents and alumni. The Catholic Community is a nonprofit corporation and Martensen acts as the secretary-treasurer. He said he plans to stay on as director.
He said the community also pays stipends to campus ministers, student ministers and music ministers in addition to his stipend and other staff members’ salaries. He said retreats are also a cost.
Martensen said that with an overall decline in the mental health of students, he thinks that having religious leaders to support students is important. He said that although he supports the goal of equity, the new budget leaves the future of the Catholic Community uncertain.
“I don’t know if we can have the type of involvement as we’ve had in the past because of finances,” he said.
Lauren Goldberg, executive director of Hillel at Ithaca College, said most of Hillel’s budget is supported by donations from alumni, parents, grants, philanthropic foundations, the local Jewish community and family foundations. She said that previously, both the external and institutional funding went toward funding salaried positions.
Goldberg said Hillel is grateful for the support of the college and understands the need for both transparency and equitable funding. Without college funding for staffing, Hillel will have to focus more heavily on donations, she said. This will mean reaching out to a larger number of alumni, parents and Jewish groups.
“Without increased support, we won’t be able to operate in the same way,” she said. “That’s just something we’re going to have to work harder at building over these next few years, but I know that we’re blessed with this really strong alumni relationship and parental relationship.”
Goldberg said her goal is for students to not notice a change in engagement or support due to the changes in funding because she and Cantor Abbe Lyons, the Jewish chaplain and business manager, have worked carefully on the budget application for next year.
“We have about 1,000 Jewish students on campus, which is a huge percent, especially in relation to the national average,” she said. “So this year, being … able to expand our staff has just allowed us to grow in terms of our engagement and what we can offer the students. The last thing we want to do is to constrict again back down to a staff of one. Our students are just too important to do that.”
Senior Margot Register, president of IC Pagans, said the club has reached a point this year that it will need to have a budget to support its growing membership. Paganism is an umbrella term for a variety of earth-based religious practices.
Register also said she thinks the new budget will create opportunities for her community in the future. She said she has also seen books about Paganism in the new interfaith book selection.
“I think it means security and stability,” she said. “If there’s a place in the bureaucratic system for [the] Pagan Community, in the budgeting or otherwise, it ensures that in years to come, Pagan students will have access to religious and community resources on this campus”
Initiatives at the college
Osorto also said there is a series of new initiatives that aims to make the chapel and the college a more inclusive space for all religious, spiritual and faith-based communities.
One example of these initiatives is facilitated discussions about faith and immigration in an aim to place religion in the public sphere. Osorto is working alongside Goldberg on the Interfaith Immigration Series, which had its first event Sept 12. Patricia Rodriguez, associate professor and Latin American Studies coordinator in the Department of Politics, conducted a workshop on how to become involved in the Rapid Response Network and Hotline for Immigrants. Osorto said the initiative was started by Goldberg over the summer, prior to his arrival.
“It’s a program that I have inherited, but I am in support of,” he said. “Because I think to have different religious leaders and different people from different faith backgrounds talk about an issue that is all over the place right now in this country is part of what I envision this office to be.”
He said he is also bringing in a Mexican-American Old Testament scholar, Gregory Cuéllar, in December to talk about a nonprofit that Cuéllar, along with his spouse, Nohemi Cuéllar, founded: Arte de Lágrimas: Refugee Artwork Project. He said the organization is an art-based social action project that provides crayons and other materials to young children who are detained throughout the country. He said the children paint and draw their stories and that there will be an exhibit of the art pieces in the chapel as a way of having a conversation about how the immigration crisis impacts children.
Another initiative Osorto is working on is bringing a photojournalist to campus in April 2019: John Noltner, who is working on a photo exhibit entitled A Peace of My Mind, which will be showcased in the chapel to highlight students’ notions of peace.
He also said there are physical changes being made to Muller Chapel to make it more of a visibly interfaith space. The meeting room next to the kitchen will be renovated and made into an interfaith resource room and will include books about a variety of religions, he said. There will also be additions to the chapel that are more reflective of all of the different religious communities, such as adding shoe racks for Muslim students who are using prayer spaces, he said.
“We’re working on thinking about those things as well,” he said. “The small pieces that when people look and see something, they see themselves reflected, and that’s part of what I get to do and think about.”
Osorto also said he held closed sessions with LGBTQ students of faith about their experiences at the college throughout October. He also said he is in conversation with three women leaders of color on having conversations about faith and diversity.
He said one of the leaders, Naomi Washington-Leapheart, oversees faith initiatives at the National LGBTQ Task Force. He is also working with Nayeli Velasco-Sanchez who helped create a Bible app, Our Bible, which is meant to provide content for people from marginalized communities. He said the third person he is in conversation with is Stacy Kitahata, director of programs for the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, and that he wants to bring her to the college to talk about spirituality and activism the week of Nov. 26. She will also hold an event involving dialogue between the ICPC and its LGBTQ members.
The Interfaith Council, previously led by student representatives from the Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Pagan and Buddhist communities on campus, will also shift under Osorto’s leadership. He said he hopes to have a core group of student leaders who are specifically trained in how to engage interfaith dialogue but that the student organization will not be active this semester as it is trying to assess the needs of the campus.
Osorto also said part of his task is creating policy and language that articulates expectations of behavior for religious and faith-based organizations that want to have a presence on campus. He said he will be working with human resources and the Title IX office to create these expectations, which may include trainings around diversity and inclusion.
“How does a space become reflective of our commitments toward inclusion?” Osorto said. “And that’s what I’m thinking through, and this space has been here since ’76, and we’ve never had a person in my role who works for the college who can think fairly intentionally about that.”
Staff writer Krissy Waite contributed reporting.