Digital painting of an imaginary landscape, with many people in a field approaching a glowing sky

Faith Lights the Way

Alumni reflect on hope and humanity in the wake of a year of tumult. As 2021 begins, their views illuminate a spiritual path.
by Elizabeth Slocum
illustrations by Ileana Soon

N THE YEAR 2020, humanity experienced more tragedy and unease than at any other time in modern memory, enough for even the most eternal of optimists to begin losing hope.

While the new year brings new promises, new challenges also lie ahead, as the fight against COVID-19 continues in earnest and a divided country begins to heal.

But after such a dark moment in history, how do we see the light?

For these six Swarthmoreans, one solution lies in keeping the faith, whether in a higher power, in love, or in one another. Though all inspired by different spiritual backgrounds, they’re bonded by a common belief: that across time, and despite unimaginable hardships, humankind has persevered, together.

Responding to the calling within
Sometimes it takes hitting rock-bottom before things can change, says Ailya Vajid ’09. A Muslim chaplain at the University of Virginia, Vajid says the most troubling aspect of 2020 was the way it revealed painful realities that lie just below the surface, especially in terms of oppression and racial injustice. However, the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans also raised awareness globally, she says, opening the door for systemic change.

“I am heartened and hopeful that perhaps there are many more people standing up against systemic racism, dehumanization, hate, and violence than those who are perpetuating it,” Vajid says. “As much as suffering and injustice surround us, there is so much goodness, selflessness, and love embodied by humanity.”

She sees this daily in her spiritual work with students — a career path that started at Swarthmore. A religion and Islamic-studies major, Vajid found mentors in professors Tariq al-Jamil and Yamina Bouguenaya, who introduced her to aspects of her faith tradition that became formative to her College experience.

Vajid soon realized she sought to walk alongside other students on their religious journeys, the way al-Jamil and Bouguenaya had walked with her. In 2014, she joined Swarthmore as its first Muslim student adviser, a position now held by Umar Abdul Rahman (see sidebar, pg. 45).

Above all, Vajid’s faith gives her meaning for existence, she says, “and a lifelong journey towards knowing and drawing nearer to God who is Mercy, Love, Peace, and Everlasting.”

“We can address the devastation of our times by working toward something better,” she says. “That change can be within ourselves, it can be in our communities, it can be broader political change. We each have a different capacity, talent, calling, and gift, and if we respond to that and work on changing both ourselves and the realities around us, perhaps we can create something better.”

Looking for signs of care
If COVID-19 has shown us one thing, Jacqueline Jones-Smith ’74 says, it’s that it’s an equal-opportunity pandemic, reaching across communities, borders, and oceans.

And as it rages on, we’re not just struggling with the loss of life, she says: “We’re struggling with the loss of life as we’ve known it.”

“Although the virus can kill us physically, the loss of hope is killing our spirits individually and collectively,” says Jones-Smith, senior pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It feeds our fear that everything is out of control. But let me tell you, God is in control.”

“In the Islamic tradition, it is said that God tries those whom He loves and that these trials come with the opportunity for growth and learning. It is often through our greatest hardships that we experience the most meaningful transformation.”
—Ailya Vajid ’09
Digital painting of two hands, palms up, against a yellow background
Jones-Smith has felt that control in her own life, which she never expected would lead to the ministry. A former attorney, Jones-Smith once argued an appellate case in the D.C. Circuit before a three-judge panel that included Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She also served as the first African-American chair of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, an appointment by President George H.W. Bush at a time when bipartisanship was more common.

A spiritual experience surrounding a friend’s death led Jones-Smith to enter the seminary in 2001. Despite initial anxieties about leaving her law career, she now can’t imagine doing anything else.

“God puts us in places where we don’t expect to be,” she says. “God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called.”

In her ministry, Jones-Smith reminds congregants to look beyond the dark headlines to see the kind things that people are doing for one another.

“In the midst of all the devastation, tribalism, political rancoring, hate, and systemic racism,” she says, “we see signs of hope through our first responders, teachers, and others who provide essential services. They selflessly put their lives on the line to help others. We also see it in those who volunteer to provide meals, check on elderly neighbors, serve in food banks, and more.

“I truly believe that God uses difficult circumstances to draw us closer to God and each other.”

Viewing each moment as new
The isolation brought on by COVID-19 has been especially hard on vulnerable populations, says Richard Rudnick ’74, a rabbi and chaplain in Worcester, Mass. As the pandemic prevents loved ones from visiting hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes, Rudnick often serves as a surrogate family member, offering a welcoming ear and essential embraces to patients approaching the end of life.

It’s a connection that Rudnick relishes, both as a religious leader and a former doctor.

“I spend the time to find out who that person is and find something in their life that reflects their ability to go forward,” says Rudnick, who practiced family medicine for 30 years before being ordained in 2011. “Something that’s important to them that will still be there tomorrow.

“Every time somebody thanks me it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I got so much more from this than you did.’ I truly feel that.”

“Opportunities are limited right now because you can’t be around people, but just giving in whatever capacity you can is something that Hinduism really emphasizes.”
—Abha Lal ’18
Digital painting of a dove on a limb with a small olive branch in its beak
Rudnick moved into Jewish leadership after feeling the urge to learn more about his faith tradition, a zeal for knowledge he ties back to Swarthmore. After a brief attempt at juggling rabbinical school and his family practice, he left medicine to pursue religious studies full time. Chaplaincy allows Rudnick to focus on what he cherished most as a doctor, the patients, while sharing a message of hope and love.

For inspiration, Rudnick points to the Old Testament story of Noah, who, through faith, survived the Flood.

“Most of the people I spend time with have had multiple tragedies in their lives,” he says. “They’ve had losses of parents, siblings, spouses for many of them, children for some, and they’ve come out on the other side. I think that’s a big piece.

“Each moment is new, and we decide how we react to it. So, if this one’s not so good, the next one, God willing, will be better.”

Mourning what’s been lost
As a practicing Hindu, Abha Lal ’18 has missed the social aspects of her faith during these days of physical distancing, like the puja celebrations marking milestones in her loved ones’ lives. Lal has instead relied on prayer and self-reflection to keep her connected spiritually amid life’s uncertainties.

Listening Across Faiths

Swarthmore’s Interfaith Center strives to support all students on their spiritual journeys, regardless of whether they follow a faith tradition.

But the challenges presented by COVID-19 have led the College’s religious advisers to expand their outreach efforts, to engage with students both on campus and online and address the unique concerns Swarthmoreans are facing today.

“We offer a ton of opportunities to connect, and we make ourselves widely visible,” says Rabbi Michael Ramberg, Jewish student adviser and co-interim director of the Interfaith Center. The goal, he says, is for students to know the center is there for them as they need it.

Closeup of Michael Ramberg, smiling and looking upward
Photo: Laurence Kesterson
Rabbi Michael Ramberg, Jewish student adviser
Closeup of Umar Abdul Rahman, smiling and wearing a garnet Swarthmore jacket
Photo: Laurence Kesterson
Umar Abdul Rahman, Muslim student adviser
The increase in stress for students combined with safe distancing policies present a particular set of challenges, says Umar Abdul Rahman, Muslim student adviser and fellow co-interim director. “We want students to be able to decompress,” he says, “so we’re finding ways for them to get what we typically offer but in a different setting.”

One successful new initiative has been the center’s daily 10-minute contemplative practice sessions. Held virtually and led by a different religious adviser each day — Ramberg and Abdul Rahman, along with Catholic adviser Lizzie Chapman, Buddhist adviser Hojin Park, Protestant chaplain Sabrina LaBelle, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff worker Lindsey McAleese — these guided meditations offer the opportunity to slow down, breathe, and re-center.

Another program, proposed by a student Interfaith intern, is a support group for helping students deal with the intangible losses they’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic, whether those are missed personal milestones or on-campus experiences.

Perhaps the biggest initiative was the online panel discussion “Faith and Racial Injustice in a ‘Just’ Society.” The October event, which featured Swarthmore professors Nina Johnson and James Padilioni, among other speakers, addressed spiritual identity and perspectives among people of color amid the pandemic and demonstrations against racial injustice.

“Our programming always starts with the interns and religious advisers considering what our individual needs are,” says Interfaith intern Jayna Jones ’21, a neuroscience major and religion minor from Wilmington, Del. “Then we try to broaden those thoughts out to other students on campus to develop events that can be most impactful.”

For students struggling under the weight of this difficult era, Abdul Rahman suggests a change in focus.

“Something common in a lot of our traditions is the idea that even within a trial, there’s a blessing as well,” he says. “So try to search for the blessings that do exist during challenging times.”

Overall, Ramberg says he’s been amazed by the resilience of Swarthmore students. “The students are learning a lot of valuable lessons, and they’re really supporting each other,” he says. “The way that current students have extended themselves to welcome new students is very beautiful.

“Some people would say that’s a form of faith, too.”


“Hinduism has always been very related to rituals and being with other people,” says Lal, a journalist in Kathmandu, Nepal. “It’s been interesting during the pandemic for the most important part of the faith to not be there anymore. Trying to find faith by myself has been a way of practicing Hinduism that I didn’t know before.”

In college, as an international student, Lal found spiritual grounding through the Hindu Club of Swarthmore. Her interest in how others practiced religion led her to become an Interfaith intern, and likely played a role in her decision to major in anthropology and sociology.

These days, as life feels less under control, Lal stays grounded by intentionally focusing on all that’s unfolding around her — even the unpleasant realities. That allows her to find the silver linings.

“Distraction can be useful, but it’s also important to mourn in whatever way you can,” she says. “Whether it’s for the people you’ve lost or ideas about your own life or whatever it may be — just be present and process the things that you need to process.

Animistic Understanding

In his recent book, When God Was a Bird, Professor of Religion Mark Wallace introduces himself as a Christian animist — viewing the Earth as a living soul with a spiritual life force.

“All of creation and its many inhabitants are God in a variety of forms and disguises,” Wallace writes in the book, which earned the prestigious Nautilus Gold Award in the category of Religion/Spirituality of Western Thought for 2019.

“It’s a very different take on the Christian religion,” Wallace says, perhaps even heretical for those steeped in a more traditional view of Christianity. But Wallace suggests that Christianity is an Earth-based spirituality — including holy plants, sacred animals, and hallowed landscapes — rather than an otherworldly, heaven-bound religion. “There, you’ll see a rich environmental ethic, not a religion about a God who is distant and abstract and invisible, up there in the sky somewhere,” Wallace says. “It’s a way of rethinking Christianity as a way of life, consistent with the cultures and spiritualities of Indigenous peoples.”

Wallace points to the animistic understanding of the world embedded within Christianity, and sounds an urgent call for society to rediscover it. A more human-centric view of the religion has set the stage for our planetary ecological crisis, he told the progressive Christian magazine Broadview, and only by recognizing the spirit of God in nature can we begin to fix it.


“I often think about people who are younger than me, knowing that they have their entire lives ahead of them and that there needs to be a future,” she adds. “You have to keep trying to be a good person, trying to be helpful to people you love, and take things day by day.”
Seeking out role models
Erin Kast ’15 looks back on the past year through many lenses: scientifically, as a chemistry teacher; philosophically, as a master’s-level scholar; and spiritually, as a Jesuit scholastic — a Catholic pursuing the priesthood through the Society of Jesus. These viewpoints help bring the year’s events into clearer perspective.

In the midst of historically difficult times, says Kast, who teaches at a Jesuit high school in Omaha, Neb., God has continued to work. “Scripture reminds us that our limitations mean that we never need to have all the answers,” he says. “What we need, as a great prayer says, is to know the first step in front of us and to continue taking steps even if it’s cloudy and foggy and difficult to see a few yards ahead.”

Letting Their Light Shine

A person joins a Friend in attending Quaker meeting for the first time. At one point, the newcomer nudges the Friend and asks, “When does the service begin?” The Friend smiles and replies, “When you leave the meetinghouse.”

Mary Noland ’69 points to this Quaker adage when describing her faith, which she says is inseparable from her service. A religion major at Swarthmore, Noland has long been guided by Quaker ideals: as a teen concerned about civil rights in Athens, Ga.; as a lawyer who provided legal assistance to low-income residents; and now, as a member of Philadelphia’s Green Street Monthly Meeting, taking steps toward becoming more actively anti-racist, especially in light of 2020’s injustices.

“My faith helps me believe that if I allow ‘my little light to shine’ less obstructed by racism and all the other -isms — including intellectualism — that I will be more open to meeting ‘that of God in others,’” says Noland, who joined her racially inclusive faith community in reading and discussing two books this summer: Me and White Supremacy, by Layla Saad, and Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. “If you believe, which I do, that there is that of God in everyone, then action is just the next step. It’s just what you do.”

A core tenet of Quakerism is to seek the guidance of that part of God within you, to direct how to live your life, says Wayne Finegar ’89, acting general secretary of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. And that, he adds, is inherently hopeful.

“It has the core assumption that it is possible to attain that degree of grace,” he says, “and if you assume that you’ve reached that point, that you’re going to make good decisions — ones that are positive for you and for the community and for the world.”

For Finegar, a former lawyer with a philosophy degree from Swarthmore, his Quaker faith is an ongoing question — “a continual ‘Is this the right answer? Is this the right choice for this situation?’

“And the permanent assumption is that the answer is no, it’s not the right choice — that you can always be better, you can always do better, you can always love more, you can always trust more.”


Kast entered the ministry partly because of his own questions about God, life, and existence. While studying biology and religion at Swarthmore, he worked with a Jesuit spiritual director to help guide him through the discernment process. After much prayer and contemplation, he took a leap of faith and joined the religious order. He found inspiration through multiple role models — such as Dorothy Day, the journalist-turned-Catholic activist who fought for social justice — and other figures whose actions he tries to embody.

“If there are people who are happy,” he says, “seek them out to share in the joy. If there are people who inspire you, look to see how you might be called in similar ways.”

To Kast, faith isn’t just a belief, it’s something he does. Quoting Hebrews, he calls it “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”

Finding internal peace
In 2020, sadness sank in for Jan Burgess Bays ’66 as greed, anger, and ignorance unfolded around her. Known in Buddhism as the three poisons, these three inherent human weaknesses were causing so much suffering around the world.

A spiritual practice helps to contextualize those poisons, says Bays, co-founder and co-abbot of Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Ore. “It doesn’t matter if your foundation is that God is trying to send us a message about how we’re not being good stewards of his creation, or whether you’re Wiccan and it’s Mother Earth crying out, ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ In Buddhist practice, we look to our mind as the cause of human suffering.”

The Zen tradition, she says, is based on silent meditation, which helps people look inward to see the mischief their mind creates. By clearing the mind of tangled thoughts and the heart of confusion, “then wisdom and compassion shine through.”

Digital painting of a hand lighting a candle with a match
It’s a practice Bays has turned to since early motherhood, when meditation brought peace in the midst of busy days. Later, while she focused on child abuse as a doctor, Zen mindfulness kept her from drifting off into depression. (“It is wonderful to live long enough to see something that you did that was thought to be weird to go mainstream,” quips Bays, who is also the author of the successful book Mindful Eating.)

These days, as a Zen teacher, Bays helps others make sense of the world’s senselessness. One way is by recognizing the Buddhist tenet of impermanence, that nothing is meant to last forever. Another is to realize that we’re all interlocked, she says: “Everything that I do influences the whole.”

One of Bays’s maxims is that people aren’t really willing to change until they are suffering.

Yet she says there’s another force that can compel people into action, into working toward the benefit of the greater good. That is love.

“If I can be peaceful and loving in my mind and heart and find my place to do good in the world, then that’s enough,” Bays says.

And if others could do the same, she adds, then that would be even better.

At its core, faith provides hope: a belief that things will never be perfect, but that they can improve. That there’s a goodness in people and an eagerness to help. That humanity can unite for a brighter future.

By confronting racial injustice and heeding the call to help others; by acknowledging what’s been lost yet recognizing what’s left to gain; by taking a breath and realizing that this, too, shall pass, then perhaps our faith in humanity can be restored.

Because across distance and demographics and the spiritual divide, at the heart of faith is love.