Interfaith, Aviation, and Aerospace: Reflections on the Role of Chaplaincy at an Aeronautical University

In March, I had the pleasure of presenting at the inaugural convening of the Association for Chaplaincy and Spiritual Life in Higher Education (ACSLHE) alongside campus partners from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The presentation focused on how chaplains and spiritual life professionals can discover and utilize meaningful data to demonstrate the value of their work in higher education. In particular, we discussed how findings from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) have informed Rev. David Keck’s chaplaincy work at Embry-Riddle. Two of Rev. Keck’s students, Lucy Ambrose and Joelle Bobinskyjoined us to talk about how religious literacy and interfaith skill-building are helping them prepare for their future careers. After the conference, I asked my co-presenters to share their personal reflections on topics we covered in our session. 

Our session at ACSLHE focused on how chaplains and spiritual life professionals can discover and utilize meaningful data to demonstrate the value of their work in higher education. How do you use data at Embry-Riddle to demonstrate the importance of interfaith work as an aspect of chaplaincy on your campus? 

Rev. Keck: We have been using data in two ways. The data we gained from participating in IDEALS was very helpful in demonstrating student expectations for college. If over two-thirds of our incoming students expected to learn more about different traditions and cultures, then shouldn’t our educational and experiential opportunities reflect that? 

The other way we are using data is by conducting research on what our students’ future employers are saying about the importance of interfaith formation. They may not use that phrase, but the companies many of our students are going into – primarily those in the aviation and aerospace sectors – are large companies with clients and employees from all over the world, and they clearly value employees who know how to navigate cultural and religious differences. Here, we make the same point as with student expectations – shouldn’t our educational priorities reflect this value?  

When were you first introduced to the idea that interfaith competencies are relevant for professionals in the aviation industry? 

Joelle: I think the first time I was introduced to that idea was in Rev. Keck's Religion, Conflict, and Peace course. He repeated a story told by another professor at our university who, when he was a commercial pilot, was alerted about a suspicious-looking man who was moving rhythmically and speaking in a foreign language. After asking the flight attendant a few more questions about the man's appearance, he soon realized the passenger was simply an Orthodox Jew who was praying before the flight took off.  

What is one aspect of religious diversity you expect to encounter in your career upon graduation, and how have you been prepared to do so during your time at Embry-Riddle? 

Lucy: After college, I want to help combat human trafficking as part of my work in homeland security. This will include helping others know the signs and be aware of human trafficking. I will most likely be working with people of different cultural backgrounds and possibly victims from different countries. Therefore, it is of high importance that I am experienced in understanding cultural and religious differences. So far, working at the Center for Faith and Spirituality with Rev. Keck has prepared me the most in getting to know people of different religions and having meaningful conversations with them.  

If you could offer one piece of advice about interfaith engagement to incoming college students, what would it be? 

Rev. Keck: My one piece of advice would be that interfaith engagement is a great way of deepening your own personal commitments to your own traditions, values, and beliefs. Sometimes, students seem concerned that taking another religion seriously means weakening their own faith. I consistently see the opposite. Sustained encounters with other traditions help people appreciate why they believe what they believe. Interfaith formation is developing the capacity for living “both/and,” not “either/or.” I learn that I can both remain deeply committed to being Presbyterian and respect the devotion evident in Muslim prayer practices.  

Joelle: Don't be afraid to ask friends questions about their religion or worldview. I have found that most people love talking about themselves and they are typically more than happy to share, especially when your intention is to learn and not debate. If you're nervous about saying the wrong thing, admit your ignorance and ask for help in using the correct language. The best learning happens when you push out of your comfort zone! 

Lucy: My one piece of advice would be to not be afraid to get involved if you do not practice a specific religion or are not a religious person. Being that I do not regularly indulge in religion, I did not know at first exactly what interfaith meant or included. However, I want students to know that you can engage in interfaith no matter what your background is. The main idea is for people to learn about each other's religions and cultures and for everyone to be inclusive and work together. Expanding horizons and getting to know new people and what traditions and religions they cherish can benefit people in any career field. In addition, being involved in interfaith can be beneficial personally rather than just professionally. Having a more open mindset and learning from people can spark relationships and connections. 

Lucy Ambrose is a freshman at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University—Daytona Beach studying homeland security. 

Joelle Bobinsky is a senior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical UniversityDaytona Beach studying civil engineering and global conflict studies. 

Rev. David Keck, PhD, has served as chaplain at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical UniversityDaytona Beach since August 2014.  

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.