In July 2017, the Reverend Kirstin C. Boswell-Ford arrived at MIT as the new chaplain to the Institute and director of the newly renamed Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life (ORSEL). On Friday, Sept. 28, Boswell-Ford will be installed officially as chaplain at a ceremony in the Wong Auditorium (E51). The 3:00 p.m. ceremony will be followed by a reception in the Ting Foyer. The ceremony will feature remarks from President L. Rafael Reif, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson, and a number of guests. Boswell-Ford will offer a benediction.
Ordained by the American Baptist Churches USA, Boswell-Ford is a graduate of the University of Virginia and holds a master of divinity from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is currently working to complete her doctoral dissertation — which she wishes was “done yesterday” — also at Chicago. Her work examines issues of homeland (which she refers to as “homeplace”) in the context of the historical African-American church and descendants of enslaved people who have found refuge there.
Boswell-Ford is married to the Reverend Paul Robeson Ford, senior pastor at The First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the couple has three children. Before joining MIT, she was associate university chaplain at Brown University, where she ministered to and represented over 20 Protestant denominational and parachurch organizations for five years.
Q: You’ve been at MIT for a full academic year and a summer. From a spiritual and religious perspective, what has surprised you about the MIT community?
A: I am surprised every day by how religious and spiritual life vibrate just under the surface of MIT. I’ve heard a misperception that MIT students are not religious, or that the MIT community is not friendly to religion. I’ve found just the opposite: The religious community is active here, and a great many students and community members are committed to their faith traditions.
We have vibrant Christian communities, and a very active, award-winning Hillel chapter. Our Muslim community fills the prayer room to capacity. In fact, we occasionally have students praying in the hallways because they want to be connected to their faith community.
But it’s not just about practicing one’s faith tradition. We have groups of students who passionately support different political and social ideologies, but together, they are committed to sharing an open dialogue on persistently challenging issues. Our interfaith programs draw many students from across faiths, and some who do not follow a religious tradition.
So, though it may be surprising, religion and faith, and exploring meaning-making and ethical perspectives are an important part of the MIT experience for many students.
Q: As chaplain to the Institute, you support individuals as well as all of MIT. How do you balance those responsibilities?
A: Honestly, they are complementary. All interactions — individual and communal — are human interactions. I find balance in remembering each person’s humanity, trying always to come from a place of empathy, concern, and respect, and remaining clear about also expressing my own humanity. Those characteristics can bridge any sort of differences: racial, gender, religious, political, whatever those differences might be. That’s how I operate in all of my interactions, whether it be supporting an individual or working with the entire community.
As chaplain to the Institute, I want to be a strong advocate for our community and a strong source of support to our community. This support extends not only to people who identify as religious or who follow a particular faith tradition, but to anyone and everyone. The advocacy role is not just for our students, faculty, and staff who are religious, but for all students, faculty, and staff. The chaplain to the Institute — and all of the chaplains in the ORSEL — are here to help guide the MIT community toward being more inclusive, more caring, more supportive, and more ethically minded.
There’s been a shift in how we’re engaging the interior life. Our chaplains are working more closely with staff who support student mental health and wellness, for example. Partnerships with such colleagues across the MIT community is helping us to better support students, faculty, and staff who are in distress.
Q: MIT charges our students to change the world in tangible ways through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That can seem to be dissociated from spiritual or religious concerns. What do you hope our students take away from their experience of religious life at MIT?
A: I hope the chaplains and I impart to students that whatever amazing things they go on to do with their lives after MIT should be grounded in social and ethical responsibility that is strengthened by a solid sense of themselves as members of a global community. We hope they will act consciously, thinking about how they’re acting, why they’re acting, and who is going to be affected by their actions. All of those questions are crucial, and never more so than today. We recently decided as a department to change our name to the Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life because it more accurately reflects our mission and how we hope to serve the MIT community.
In the end, I hope that we can help students recognize the humanity in themselves and others that we share this world with, and to inspire them to greater self-awareness, kindness, empathy, and responsibility. If we can do that by the time they leave MIT, then we will be have fulfilled our goal.