This month, University Chaplain the Rev. Dr. Shaun Whitehead joined us for a candid conversation about tradition and community at St. Lawrence. Reflecting on the unprecedented events of the last two years, Shaun shares the impact that it has had on her and the broader Laurentian community, along with her hopes for the future.
Recently promoted to University Chaplain, the Rev. Dr. Shaun Whitehead serves the campus community by providing spiritual and emotional support to students, staff, and faculty, regardless of faith background. She also is the pastor of the campus’ weekly Gospel Service and directs the Community Gospel Choir. Shaun received the Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications from Clark Atlanta University, the Master of Divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary (Chicago) and the Doctor of Ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary.
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Amelia: Welcome back everyone to another episode of Scarlet & Brown Stories. This is Amelia Jantzi, your co-host with my co-host, Beth Dixon. Welcome back, Beth.
Beth: Thank you so much. So good to be back. I had such a good time listening to last month's podcast with Dennis Morreale filling in, but also hearing about eSports from Josh and Kyle. It was such a great episode, but I'm excited to be back in the cohost seat this month.
Amelia: I'm excited to have you, and I'm so excited to introduce our guest to our listeners in a few minutes, but Beth, can you give us a little bit of a preview?
Beth: Of course, we're going to be talking with beloved University Chaplain, Shaun Whitehead. Shaun has been with the university for nearly 20 years, which is insane to think about. She joined in 2003. I met her my first semester on campus as a first year student in 2006. Primarily worked a lot with her through Laurentian Singers and singing, did some work with her with gospel and with the Freedom Singers. She came on tour with us. So I have a really wonderful, reflective relationship with her. And she really is a defined moment with so much of my time, but I know that a lot of people feel the same way about her. So I'm excited to hear her thoughts about what the Laurentian student experience is right now in the middle of the pandemic, how we can all still come together as a community and the role of spirituality in the Laurentian history and traditions.
Amelia: So without further ado, let's jump into it.
Beth: Shaun, welcome on in, how are you doing today and what is it like in the beginning of the semester to be back on campus with the students?
Shaun: Well, greetings of peace and what a blessing it is to see both of you all. I know that this is an audio, but I see you in my spirit. Trust me. I see you in that way. It is a gift though we are here during the pandemic, things have changed. And so the coming back to campus has been slow for me in that some things happen remotely and then we are easing back into the office. And so even some of the things that happened right at the beginning of the semester have been postponed. Our MLK Service and those events have been moved to February, which works very well for us.
Shaun: It is in Black History Month, but think about it. I mean, we are accustomed to beginning the spring semester right off the bat with the MLK Service, which usually has a wonderful missive or wonderful reflection from our president and some good singing. And so here we are in the pandemic and we are masked and we are distancing. And so we're just trying to be as whole as we can. And so that has brought challenges, but at the same time, the gathering as Laurentians is the gift, truly.
Beth: I think the way that you said that you feel us and you see us in spirit, I think that, that's maybe not necessarily in those terms for everybody, but I definitely feel like that's the kind of thing that we all feel during this time of COVID where I am with you in spirit, or I see you, I feel you, but I'm not there physically with you. Have you seen a lot of that talk amongst students or the students that you've interacted with?
Shaun: I think that faculty, staff, and students, and just the broader community, we've had to really plum the depths of our being, haven't we? To connect with one another, to find one another, and we've gotten quite creative. The ways, in which, especially in 2020, in early 2021, the ways in which we were clamoring to, how do we gather? And so the drive by birthday parties, the Zoom birthday parties and gender reveals and all of those things. It's very interesting, the ways in which we've tapped into gifts that we didn't know we had. And thank goodness, thank heavens, thank the universe for technology.
Shaun: Because that has been very much a key connection for us, but I would also say that we have had to really tap into an ultimate truth and that is interdependence, interconnectedness, what Thich Nhat Hanh, who just passed away recently, a Zen Buddhist Master, who would say, interbeing, is what he would call it. And so the thing is we are interconnected. We need one another. So this way of being raised with this individualistic sense, it turns out that I need you. It turns out that I need you and we need one another to even know the essence of who we are.
Amelia: I'm so glad that you bring that up. In my own life, I've seen how much more intentional I've become about my relationships, whether they're near or far, because so often it didn't matter if they were in town or if they were halfway across the country, I was going to connect with them in the same way. And it's taught me to be more intentional with those relationships. Something that I hope I keep, even as the life we know slowly, potentially, hopefully drifts back to normal, but are there ways in which you see that connection to each other, that importance of relationship, ways that you see and hope a more of a focus on that becomes more obvious or important or more a part of our daily life here on campus?
Shaun: Absolutely. I hope that first of all, we accept it as an ultimate truth. So if we can just start there by accepting that it is a fact, it is a truth that we need one another, that you will find, it is said through Vuntu, you'll hear it within South African traditions. And I am because we are. That if we can accept that and then ways, the practical and physical and tactile ways that we connect with each other, we will find those things. But until we accept that we are of one another, that the essence, I need your essence, you need mine. I think Martin Luther King said it best, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." I simply cannot be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. We are interdependent. So if we can accept the truth of that, then I think all of our programming, which is wonderful here on this campus and the continues to evolve, then all of our divisions, we will flow from that truth.
Beth: I think what's so interesting about all of this is... I like that we jumped right into this. We didn't even ask any background. Hey, Shaun, what made you choose? We got right into the meat and the boat of the conversation.
Beth: What I think is so powerful about that is, that is what I love about you, Shaun. You are somebody who can look at something from so many different perspectives and you are that inter-connective energy. You're a representation of that on our campus. Whether it's because of the position that you hold or because of the lessons that you teach and the things that you say. So what I think is so interesting about this, we talked a little bit about, unfortunately, some of the things that we're accustomed to, like the MLK Service needed to be postponed, but we were able to have our hundredth annual candlelight service a month and a half ago.
Shaun: Yes, indeed.
Beth: And so this is a time of flux in some way-
Shaun: Yes, it is.
Beth: ... where sometimes we're able to really gather in the ways that we're used to and accustomed to this tradition, this coming together portion, but we're still trying to figure out what is the best way to do that. How has that impacted your ability to... And I'm going to say serve the Laurentian Community because when I think of your position, I think of it as, honestly, the largest service position we have on our campus.
Shaun: First of all, like you said, this flux that we are in, having the notion of grief right in the forefront. I mean, because like you said, in December, what a gift it was. The 100th Candlelight Service, it was pretty amazing. It was online and in person. We had a number of protocols in place and not knowing that the Omnicron virus variants was on its way that would just change things, literally within a month's time. But so we are at that peculiar intersection between grief and gratitude, how wonderful. So there's this gratitude and the thing is with that, there's the, okay, we're on our way. And then within a month, things are shut down again, or people we're not able to go home and be with family during the various ways that we celebrate, observe the holiday. And so acknowledging the loss that we have experienced and that we continue to experience. The loss of people in our lives.
Shaun: I mean, we are in a global public health crisis. And so we've lost a number of traditions, the ways in which our commencements have been observed, everything that we do from birthings to dying to all of our celebrations. Now we have to think about and be sure to be masked, or if it's going to happen at all. So naming that people are deeply grieving. And a lot of my work has centered around grief since I became University Chaplain. It was very interesting, the ways in which, well, first of all, everyone knows we lost our beloved university chaplain. She was chaplain here for 19 years, Reverend Kathleen Buckley. She had given her notice for retirement and then was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And so I had hoped she would be here for me as I had become university chaplain, that she's right here and I can pull from her wisdom.
Shaun: And so she passed away. So there was already that grief, but then there were student deaths and then the pandemic came full force in March 2020. And so there have been the losses, there have been the physical deaths, but then there have been the death of some of our hopes and our dreams. So how does one continue moving forward-
Shaun: ... as one is grieving. Let me tell you this real quick. When my mother died in 2009, wonderful grief counselor here in the North Country, Mary Jones, I'll never forget. She said, "When you come back to see me bring a slinky." And I said, "Okay, all right then." And so I walk in and she said, "We always think about grief in a linear way. Stages 1, 2, 3, 4 as if when you get to stage four or five, that somehow stage one or two is now gone." She said, "No, no." She said, "This is grief." Now, so the slinky, you can picture it, it's already wound.
Shaun: So there's already that. She said, "But then this is grief. We're going from hand to hand. It's up and down, up and down." But she says, "You want to get to the grief where it becomes steady, where it becomes..."
Beth: An arch.
Shaun: That's right. More manageable. And so I try to keep slinkies in my office. I have to go and buy some more, but this notion of going back, we can hold on the wonderful memories and hold on the even unsettledness, the uncertainty of the future. But if we do it together it lessens the fear and it keeps us from being led by fear. And so I've been acknowledging grief with students in groups as well as one on one in that way.
Amelia: Sure. I was reading something the other day about grief that reminds me of what you were just saying of how you get to a place where it can hit, but it doesn't haunt.
Shaun: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you for saying, that is very powerful. For example, I think my heart will always be broken by the loss of my mother. My father's still living, but the loss of Kathleen. But with my mother, I'm no longer in agony. [crosstalk 00: 11: 49] I'll put it like that. I am still in some agony with Kathleen, but I do know that with the journeying, that things will lighten the ways in which we have to learn to live with our loved ones, even our traditions in other ways. That takes time.
Beth: I think that there's grief and change.
Beth: Whether it's good change or bad change, there is something you're losing there, you move away for a great opportunity. There's still grief in the things that you leave behind. And I think what is powerful about the St. Lawrence Community in general is that we are a community that honors tradition, but also tries to pay paths forward. So yes, the pandemic has forced us in so many ways of face things that we never thought we would have to. We thought we had decades to try to change certain things or years, or months or whatever. And it was overnight.
Beth: And I think because of the leadership of various different faculty staff, and also students, alums,-
Beth: ... this community has really come together and it's managing. We're strong and we're powerful. And to your point, we are powerful united in order to make those kind of changes.
Shaun: The resilience is pretty amazing from the student body holding one another accountable, so that we can all be here. I think that's really rich and it shows the maturity of the students and shows the power of this place. But also this place becomes home. I mean, you all know. It becomes home, so it's...
Beth: I barely left it.
Shaun: It's hard to... When you're here, it's home.
Amelia: Yeah, for sure.
Shaun: It's hard to have one's life upended in that way.
Amelia: It's been interesting, to watch over the last couple years, of realizing the paradox of life, that joy and sorrow can coexist and talk to each other while they coexist, too.
Shaun: Yes, indeed.
And it's just been really interesting to see that play out in life here at St. Lawrence and the ways that traditions continue even as they shift and change and we learn from that change together.
Shaun: Absolutely. I remember, especially with the class of '20 and '21, and I think we're getting ready to find with the class of '22, the thing is maybe some things they will be able to gather some traditions back, but there's some things that they still, no doubt... I mean, here we are in January and we're looking at May going, what will we have? But the thing is, these classes, like all of the classes, will teach us something. We will look back on the class of 2020, 2021, and then say, "This is what we learned from this time." And who knows what we will continue to experience in the future.
Amelia: Sure. And there's such a deep community aspect in going through something like this. Before I was in communications and I was working with Laurentian engagement. I was working closely with a focus group from the Class of 2020 after they had graduated. And there is just this deep bonding experience of having lived through this together, having been students. And I was interviewing a student yesterday who mentioned that he was a freshman when the pandemic hit and he's never experienced a spring on campus before, but there's just this deep, profound sense of being known in having gone through in something like this. In my own life, there were big life celebrations that were experienced in a totally different way. But my friends who went through that exact same thing, we know that experience together and that-
Shaun: That's right.
Amelia: ... brings us together. And so it's interesting to see the power of community.
Shaun: Absolutely. And you talked about the student and students who had never experienced certain things that other Laurentian know, but what are they showing us? First of all, we're showing that there are varied ways of being Laurentians. There's so many. So no longer can we say, "Well, you're a Laurentian only if you have experienced this particular tradition or that one." And so now we will have students who say, "I know what it is to be a Laurentian in quarantine. I know what it is to be a Laurentian who could not come back to campus for this particular semester and we were learning virtually." And so that's really rich and being known in that way and being received fully in that way.
Beth: And I think that, that's a really important point, too. I don't care what class you are. You have gone through something that the previous generations haven't gone through or things have changed when you were a student in a way. And I think that that is sometimes what is difficult for alumni to grasp on is this idea that, they're not having the same experience or these things are offered. I struggle with that sometimes myself. I've only been out for 11 and a half years or whatever at this point. And I still struggle with, "Oh my gosh, what do you mean they're not doing X, Y, Z?"
Shaun: I've seen it. I want students to see the bagpipes at the commencement. However, we find that the ways in which we pull from even the losses and are able to grasp joys that maybe wouldn't have seen certain things we've had. Some classes have had to work differently to find some of the joys.
Amelia: It's interesting, too, I think we've at least from my experience and what I've seen, I've realized that being a Laurentian is in part about these great traditions that we hold, but it's also about so much more at something so much deeper than just the surface level of tradition.
Amelia: Not that tradition isn't important. Those traditions are valuable and they tie people together. And St. Lawrence is a community that is steeped in tradition, but there's something else even beyond that, that makes those traditions important and exists even when those traditions alter or shift and change.
Shaun: Because ultimately all of the students, we want everyone to have a sound education. So how do we get you in that classroom? You know what I mean? With a stellar faculty and then all of the different ways that we are working on this campus and with staff. Getting them in the classroom in whatever way that they can, but then celebrating and supporting them in their lives as students as well, and supporting one another as faculty and staff as well. That's another way we've been holding one another up and faculty development, staff development, all those things, those are realities here on this campus. Sometimes students don't know our journeys as faculty and staff, but we are working to enhance our own lives and enhance the ways in which we are working so that we can journey, first of all, just in our full humanity, in authentic ways, deep in our authenticity, so that it models for them.
Shaun: Walk into one's reality, walk into excellence, walk into the times where you are not at your best yet you are given room to stand up again, just, you know what I mean? To climb again and to lean on one another. And so we do that from Vilas Hall to The Chapel, to the sciences building, Student Center, to you all and New York City. We do it around the world, right?
Shaun: And many different ways that students are studying and becoming greater citizens in this world.
Beth: Well, this is getting to the way that you speak about wanting to educate students is something that I'm interested in learning a little bit more about you. What made you choose universities and wanting to be a chaplain versus potentially working in a certain denomination's church?
Shaun: Let me say this. The university, chaplaincy, higher education chose me, what a gift. And not this sense of, Shaun is so great. Let's go get her. No, I don't mean it in that way. Trust me. I came here very, very green. First of all, I came here in 2003, Reverend Kathleen, University Chaplain, Dr. Dan Sullivan was the President at the time. And one of the initiatives within the chaplain's office to reach out, multi-culturally, to reach out in terms of interfaith in a broader base, religious and spiritual way to connect with people in terms of progressive Christianity. And so when I came here, Reverend Kathleen and the committee she worked with, they were seeking a progressive leader. And particularly they wanted someone who could reach out to people of color, persons of all orientations, gender identities within the religious sphere and spectrum.
Shaun: Because we know that as much as some of us may have been raised in religious and spiritual traditions that we may celebrate, some people have been harmed in and through religion and spirituality. And so how does one offer a way in which people can come to church, people can tend to their spirituality and know that they will be fully received as they are. Not if and when they do thus and so. That they will be good enough. No, you are good enough the way you are now, the way you have come to the universe. I believe who I call God, the others may call the great divine, the universe, Allah, the great ground of being, that we have been created in the image of the creator. And I recognize that that creator, the divine, is understood, worshiped, celebrated, honored in many different ways.
Shaun: And so I came here with a one year contract. And here is what's interesting, I always, as Kathleen used to say, the universe is wild. You just never know. And I would say, you just honestly, never know where life is going to take you. And so I was brought here as the Associate Chaplain to help with the gospel choir that had already been started and then lead this service, which is rooted in the Christian tradition and opened to persons of all religious traditions or persons of none to come and be a part of this tradition. That service now is called The Gospel Service. And so people will even ask me, why is it gospel? Well, first of all, in the Greek gospel, good news.
Amelia: Good news.
Shaun: And so I would suggest that it is about the good news of God's love or the Divine's love for all of us, but also to remind us that we are good news.
Amelia: I like that.
Shaun: Because we're not always told that, we are not reminded of that. I was brought here as another part of the chaplain's office, which has an ethos of welcome and inclusion as a part of that initiative. And so I was brought here in that way. I arrived in September 2003. And I'll tell you, by 2004, I had founded and led our first gospel workshop, which we call God's Spirit and gospel music workshop and concert. I grew up in the Black church tradition with gospel music is just the background of my life. It is just the air I breathe, but I know first of all, not just the power of this music, but I know I'm preaching to the choir now that the power of music, grateful that I was able to come and they allowed me room to, "Oh yeah, you want to do something else with gospel music? Sure. Do that."
Shaun: Well, a number of my friends in Chicago are gospel musicians. Many of them really renowned in the gospel tradition and William Hamilton. He and I, I'll never forget Christmas 2003. And he said, "Well, we should just do a gospel concert." And literally it was birthed right there. I called Kathleen, "Can I bring him?" And she said, "Whatever you need to do." And so we opened it up to anyone who would like to sing gospel music for 3, 4, 5 days. And then we present a concert to the community and the gospel workshop and concert, we had our 15th anniversary in 2019. We had to skip a couple of years because William passed away. And at the end of 2013, it took me a minute to get another workshop leader, a gospel music musician to come here who understood this workshop.
Shaun: And this workshop is not for people who have been singing gospel music all their lives. This workshop is not for people who are necessarily Christian, but people who want to gather here and sing this music and watch the amazing happen. Not all gospel musicians could fit within the framework that I had created here in that we would not be tapering it down to, do believe in this way. Do you believe that way? No. The question is my thing is let us gather and allow spirit to work and see what happens and let people experience the particularity of, yes, this tradition, but find themselves in it.
Shaun: Let me tell you, I had a homiletics professor, Reverend Dr. Frank Thomas, who said, 'When you push your particularity far enough, it goes universal. When you are authentically yourself, people can find themselves." So it's not a matter of me trying to become you, me trying to... But you know what, if I am in a workshop and it is choral music, I'm going to find myself amongst the best of this. I'm going to find myself. When people are authentically themselves teaching it to me. Something that is not a part of the tradition in which I grew up. You see what I'm saying there?
Beth: Oh, I lived this with you, Shaun.
Shaun: Yes, you did. Yes. You did.
Beth: The biggest way that I lived this was in 2009 and the Laurentian Singers.
Shaun: Yes indeed.
Beth: Well, before that, I joined St. Lawrence University in the fall of 2006, immediately was accepted and joined into the Laurentian Singers, which meant that I had wonderful interactions with you almost from the beginning. And one of my favorite things that I learned, I grew up in the North Country, is a very homogenous area. And what I loved is that you got to teach me the true essence, in my opinion, of what spirituality is, which is togetherness.
Beth: And coming together and you did it through music, which is a language I love to express that through. And when we went on tour together in 2009, we sang... The first beginning portion of our program was, I think, was early American music.
Shaun: That's right.
Beth: And then we switched, in the second half, we had-
Beth: ... spirituals. And if you looked up at the makeup of our choir, you're looking at 95% White American students who probably haven't had that background, the gospel background, the Black church background. And then you had a couple of international students and then a couple students of color that were this 26 member group.
Shaun: That's right.
Beth: And I felt more bonded to my choir mates who I'd sang with year in, year out, six hours a week, on tours in that moment because of the connection and the way that you came about and teaching that. I think about all the things that you have done. Is it safe to say you started the MLK Service as well?
Shaun: No, the MLK Service, they were doing Martin Luther King Service before I got here and had speakers coming sometimes. And so Rance and Dr. Margaret Bass, and Kathleen, Barry Torres, they were doing that before I got here. One of the things that when I came, moved to me where I began working with all of them. And then I changed the focus to one of the formats that I created with the MLK Services, created something called Let Freedom Sing the Martin Luther King's Sacred Song Service because when talking about Martin Luther King, one necessarily is speaking about the Civil Rights Movement. And one cannot talk about the Civil Rights Movement without talking about its music. Initially, the gospel choir, we were just singing all of the music and then we had speakers and then I realized, we want unity in this space.
Shaun: That's when I said, "Let's gather all of the campus choirs, all campus choirs to sing." And each choir sang a song. We would have, and we do have Martin Luther King recitations and quotes in between each choir and then we learned a couple of songs where we all sing together. And the richness, first of all, the Singing Saints, Singing Sinners, Upbeats, Laurentian Singers, Ad Hoc, Gospel Choir. We are singing separately. But then coming together, just the visual is very powerful. That is a conflict. That's a struggle that we have right now because singing is hard in the pandemic. It's one of the riskier expressions because how highly transmissible, especially this variant is; however, we have better protocols, too. Better masks, we understand the ways in which we have to be distanced. So what has been profound is when you have all of the choirs come together to sing, then they invite their friends.
Shaun: Right. And sometimes their friends say, "Do we do this every year?" Yeah. We do this... "Oh, I've got to come next year." You know what I mean? Things that maybe they hadn't attended before. And so it's just a wonderful expression of unity.
Shaun: That's how we have been doing the Martin Luther King Services. And now it has really expanded so much, Ashlee Downing-Duke with really handling all of the service projects. And the way, when you talk about Martin Luther King, it should be a day of service as well. And panels about reconciliation and racial identities, et cetera. So we have a number of things. And so there will be Martin Luther King events the 14th through the 17th.
Amelia: So for those listening to our podcast, actually this podcast will be released on the 14th.
Shaun: Oh, how wonderful.
Beth: Happy Valentine's Day.
Shaun: I guess. Happy Valentine's Day, indeed.
Amelia: You've talked so much about all of the different things that you've been involved with in your time at St. Lawrence and I'm curious, is there something that just comes to mind of one of your favorite memories or favorite ways you serve the St. Lawrence Community that just always just brighten you up?
Shaun: Wow. There are a number of things. Let's see. But that's just like me. Oh, yeah. Here's one thing and then here's the fifth, anyway. The thing that just gives me so much joy is the blessing of the animals.
Beth: You love the blessing of the animals.
Shaun: Yes. Our service is the ways in which we gather on Sundays and the one on one council and the ways in which I get to journey with people. I also love that we recognize on Earth Day, just the honoring of the Earth, but also with St. Francis of Assisi through the Roman Catholic tradition and what it is, is the Chaplain's Office, we partner with Newman Club on campus. And so we present it together and it is a way of honoring all of creation. And so there are people in the community of faculty and staff who bring their animals to the quad. I love that the writing club comes and they bring horses and sometimes the dogs are barking going, "What is that?" It is fascinating. People who have service animals on campus. There have been rats and mice from the biology lab and things like that.
Shaun: It is just fascinating. I think my favorite year is when a professor brought her a bearded dragon, so that was new for me.
Beth: Oh. That is different.
Shaun: When I walked up, that is one of the most fascinating years was when arraign location has always been the chapel. Now we had some interesting moments when someone brought goats and the goats were trying to, of course, ascend. That was interesting watching the goats. Let me tell you, as a chaplain here, I have had some experiences. Kathleen and I, we used to always talk about, "And here's another thing they didn't teach us in seminary. And here's another..." We could just... Often I said, "We need to come up with a list."
Shaun: But as a matter of fact, there is a Facebook-
Beth: You could write a book.
Shaun: ... There is a Facebook group called "Things They Didn't Teach us in Seminary". So where ministers gather and name some things.
Amelia: It's so true. It's so true.
Shaun: But let me say this, you didn't ask me this particular piece, but one of the things that brings me the most joy and it's because it opened my heart up as well, is this notion of, yes, I am a minister. I'm an ordained minister. I'm a chaplain. And so I journey with people in that way in their religious and spiritual lives. But what about the people who do not necessarily see themselves as religious? And when you talk about spirituality, I have journeyed with a number of people who do not see themselves as spiritual because they are not adherence of a certain religious tradition.
Shaun: But we used to talk about how we shamelessly took this from Wellesley many years ago. Our loose definition of spirituality is that which moves us towards wholeness. That changes it, doesn't it? That which moves us towards wholeness. And so I think everyone is trying to seek wholeness in their lives. And I believe spirituality is fundamental to all of our lives. That which moves us towards wholeness, that shifts it for us. That's a pivot from those who believe that the only way to be spiritual is to be religious to tend to the rituals of attending church, mosque, temple. Spirituality does not necessarily equal religion. Though spirituality may overlap with religion or belief in God, the divine, reground of being, the universe. And so that has been the great joy of really helping people. Not me, here, I have the answer for you. No, no.
Shaun: Just helping to pull out what is already there. This sense of people are trying to be grounded. This definition, this way of accepting one's self as a spiritual being, first of all, it diffuses resistance because it does not use theistic limitations. It makes room for people. It's open ended. It levels the playing field for persons who are atheists or agnostic because first of all, I firmly believe that just because one is not in a religious tradition or something doesn't mean that you're not a seeker. You know what I mean? And so it allows seekers to enter into the experience as an equal participant. And also it's simple to remember this. Here being in the North Country, people are always doing what? They're always hiking.
Shaun: And when I first got here, I'll never forget when I was being interviewed and they told me, "Oh yeah. And you can kayak in the morning before you come to the chapel." And I was like, "I can kayak in the morning..." Because I saw kayaks on a lot of folks' cars. You can canoe. But what's so fascinating is the folk who are hiking, people who are at the river, people who are hiking and they reach the summit, you cannot tell me these are not spiritual experiences. I have opened my being in the ways in which I experience and watch others experience their spirituality. Yes, it may include going to mass on Sunday or Saturday, but it may also be that you have gone to the river, or maybe you are doing yoga. Maybe you are doing mindfulness, exercises, and meditation. There's so many different ways that we are living out our spiritual lives.
Shaun: And so I like bringing that to people because then now we can have a conversation. It's different from, "Oh, I'm sorry. No. I'm not... Sorry. I don't go to church." Or, "I'm not Christian." So therefore then people think the conversation is over. And my thing is, "Wait, wait, wait. But what else are you doing? And what other ways are you trying to move yourself toward fullness?" And then the conversation opens up. And then here we are, maybe it's four or five people in a circle and we are everything. We are Muslim and we are Hindu and we are Christian and we are nontheistic persons or here we are. And we're able to have this conversation because first of all, all of our lives are important in all the ways in which we come to the divine, the ways in which we engage the sacred, are quite essential and matter. And so I think that's been very rich for me.
Beth: I love that so much. One thing I learned as a performance and communication arts major on St Lawrence's campus, is that the way I've interpreted all of this, whether it's spirituality or whatever, is that we are meaning makers as humans.
Shaun: Come on now, that's it.
Beth: And we strive to create meaning out of anything, out of an inanimate object, out of theory, out of whatever. And we tried to communicate it to other people in ways that they may also understand it.
Beth: But everybody is individual in the way that they experience it. So if I say chair, we're all going to think of a similar thing, but we're all going to have a different chair in our head. Right?
Shaun: Yes, indeed.
Beth: And what I love, what you've said here today, what you continue to say on our campus is that, that should be celebrated, but it should be accepted by other people. And we should come together and listen. And I don't think that there's a better way to end a conversation than by saying... I think, especially in these times when it's hard to come together, whether it's divisiveness in the nation or if it's the pandemic, or if there's just random, horrible things going on, one of the best things that we can do is find meaning in other people and respect and accept that and try to move forward better together.
Shaun: Yes, indeed. Thank you for that sermon. See what I tell people all the time, don't be surprised when you hear that in a sermon one day. Okay?
Beth: Of course.
Shaun: Thank you for that sermon nugget. That's right.
Beth: Take it with my blessing.
Shaun: That's right. And I'll be saying, "as Beth Dixon said the other day..."
Beth: What's great about that is, you know probably, inevitably some of that was taken from things that you have told me over the past 15 plus years. So in a way, feel free if you want credit me. If anything, it was an amalgamation of the things that so many people at St. Lawrence have told me. But Shaun, thank you so much for your time with us today.
Beth: We really appreciate it.
Shaun: What a gift this has been to be with you all, thank you for...
Shaun: I consider this an opportunity. I love the Laurentian Community. I'm grateful to be a Laurentian for life as well.
Shaun: And it's a gift to be here. Thank you.
Shaun: It was a gift to have you. Thank you so much, Shaun.
Amelia: Thank you, Shaun.
Shaun: Blessings to you.
Beth: And there we have it. What a wonderful conversation with Shaun Whitehead. I got so much out of the conversation, but Amelia, what were the biggest takeaways that you had?
Amelia: Oh my goodness. I absolutely loved this interview and listening to Shaun. And I think the biggest takeaway for me is just the deep calling that Shaun has to make herself and the work that she does accessible to all Laurentians, regardless of background or belief. All Laurentians are precious and make up this campus and this world community of Laurentians. And that is what really stuck with me. As I walk away, and just the amount of joy that she brings to her role.
Beth: I've always responded so well to the things that she says and puts out into the world. Regardless of who you are, I feel like you can take something away from her, which is wonderful. And in this conversation, I mean, we spoke a lot of time actually talking about grief. Those are things that we almost sometimes hush, hush put under the rug and I'm really happy that we, let's lift the lid off the jar a little bit here and let's talk about it. And hopefully this really resonates with a lot of people. I know, I feel somewhat rejuvenated after talking about all of this. So if anything, you all got to listen into a really nice therapy session for the two of us.
Amelia: We had a great time. We hope you did, too.
Beth: Absolutely. So we will be back next month and I am so excited to see who our next guest will be.
Amelia: You'll just have to tune in and find out.
[Theme Music Plays]
Beth: Scarlet & Brown Stories is edited and produced by Amanda Brewer, Megan Fry Dozier, Dennis Morreale, Beth Dixon, and Amelia Jantzi.
Amelia: Our music was written by Christopher Watts, inspired by Eugene Wright, Class of '49.
Beth: Subscribe to Scarlet & Brown Stories on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
Amelia: If you have a story you'd like to submit to us, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.