By Laken Franchetti, Editor-in-Chief
Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and College Chaplain Michael Bright is introducing a new program to Gettysburg College that he hopes will bring the community closer together and will allow students to honor and celebrate their diverse religious traditions.
The Interfaith Community Chapel Program is sponsored by The Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL), and the program will have monthly events that students can attend. The college has had a chapel program before in the nineties, yet it was Lutheran-centered. Bright wanted to begin a new chapel program that showcased various religions and beliefs.
“I believe that if we were able to create a different sort of environment where it wasn’t just the Lutheran story, but it was every religious and spiritual story that comes to our campus through the lives of our students. We can build and create a space for that to be honored and celebrated,” said Bright.
Through this open, accepting environment, Bright hopes to foster a greater solidarity among students.
“Our goal is to help students foster religious and spiritual solidarity, meaning that we affirm and encourage each other through our own individual religious journeys,” said Bright.
The kick-off event for the program, “Welcome Back! Chapel,” took place on Saturday, Sept. 2. The next event is an “International Student Chapel” and is scheduled for at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 7 at Christ Chapel. Bright and other members of the RSL team will offer reflections on what it means to travel and to journey for education. This event will also allow the different liturgical music traditions of international studies to be studied and showcased.
“Students for international identities will bring liturgical music traditions with them when they come to school,” Bright said. “We know that, in a lot of ways, music is something that keeps a lot of people together. It’s an anchor for a lot of us. It allows us to give sound for things that sometimes there’s no words for.”
The November event for The Interfaith Community Chapel Program will be a Gospel Music Concert on Saturday, Nov. 4 at 6:30 p.m. in Christ Chapel. A Gospel Music Retreat and Workshop will be built around this event. The idea for this concert and retreat came to fruition after Bright discovered that there used to be a gospel music club at the college.
“I met a number of alumni who told me that there used to be a gospel music club that functioned here,” Bright said. “Now, there really isn’t a place for expressions of Black religion here in Gettysburg. That does not seem to be a huge part of our formation as an institution. I was given a vision for something like this, where we would be able to bring students from different places to help them experiment and explore with gospel music on their own terms and in ways that are most meaningful to them.”
Students from the other Central Pennsylvania colleges, Messiah College, Lancaster Seminary, Lancaster Bible College and United Lutheran Seminary, as well as congregation members and alumni, have been invited to participate in these gospel music events. The invitation to neighboring and peer institutions for them to participate was made in order to bring gospel music to other campuses and to galvanize the gospel music community.
“Our real goal to do something like this is to make gospel music accessible to people who do not come from the Black church or do not come from churches where gospel music was a regular part of that,” said Bright. “It’s a way for us to build those bridges of religious and spiritual understanding and solidarity that we have all come to this tradition in different ways: some of us inherited it, some of us adopted it, some of us are neighbors and friends of the tradition.”
The Gospel Music Retreat and Workshop, as well as the Gospel Music Concert, is meant to be an intersectional, intergenerational and ecumenical experience due to the various identities that will be a part of the choir. To sign up to participate, students can apply at a link that will be available on RSL flyers on campus, the Student Digest and the RSL Instagram page (@rsl_gettysburg).
The final event in the fall semester for the Interfaith Community Chapel Program will be a Candlelight Service in December.
The Interfaith Community Chapel Program is representative of what Bright has come to love about his position as the College Chaplain: making connections with the student body.
“Just making connections with students and seeing the kind of hope that is ignited in students when they come to see me… I think in those moments, where I see them, where I see you all, grow into the people you dreamed about being and that you’ve seen those opportunities come to fruition in front of you… I think over the past year, working here and watching that happen has maybe been one of my favorite things,” said Bright.
Bright reflected on the message of the Interfaith Community Chapel Program and how he hopes RSL can continue to help students both through this program and beyond.
“When everything around you says that it is impossible, and that it is illegal, that you are inhuman, you have this to lean on to say, ‘I am a person. I have dignity and purpose in my life that has nothing to do with being subservient or second class to anybody.’”
Bright hopes that this program will continue in coming years and can see the gospel music event forming into something larger, such as a Pennsylvania Consortium Gospel Choir or an Adams County Community Gospel Choir.
On reflecting on his time at Gettysburg College, Bright spoke on how history inspires him to pursue and create programs such as the Interfaith Community Chapel Program. Daniel Alexander Payne is one example of such.
Payne was the first African American man to graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, and he is one of the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“He suffered so badly working with the Lutherans here where there was no way for his spirituality to be acknowledged in the spiritual framework and worldview they believed in, so he and other Black preachers helped found another institution: Wilberforce University in Ohio,” Bright shared. “Gettysburg has this huge fixture in the history of the Black church in America because of Alexander Payne.”
The Interfaith Community Chapel Program has been created to recognize these various religions that can be found within Gettysburg and to honor the history behind them.
“The real goal with us creating this new chapel program was to try and build a sacred space where students are able to honor and celebrate the very diverse and nuanced religious traditions that they come from,” Bright said. “Even though, in some ways, religion and religious people are becoming their own minority, it is still something we preserve as a part of our human consciousness. We preserve that as a part of our human identity.”
This article originally appeared on pages 14 to 15 of the October 2023 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.