As an undergraduate at Vassar, the Rev. Alison Boden, the new dean of religious life and the Chapel, was not very active in her church and “never darkened the door of the religion department.” But the drama major and onetime professional actress embraced her academic and spiritual interests in religion after college, studying theology, human rights, and social change while earning a master of divinity degree and a doctorate. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Boden has worked on college campuses for 16 years, most recently as dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. She spoke with PAW’s Brett Tomlinson.
What made you change your career path and become a minister?
When I moved to New York to try acting, I realized I didn’t know anybody in the city, and I remembered that I always had made many of my really good friends at church. So I found my way to Riverside Church on the Upper West Side. While I was there, I learned about an opportunity to become a volunteer on the pediatric AIDS ward at Harlem Hospital. ... It was very painful in a lot of ways, it wasn’t easy or sentimental, but it was a really profound experience on a lot of levels, including a spiritual level. I experienced the presence of God there in a very powerful way, and I hadn’t anticipated that at all. It made me curious, both as a person of faith and theologically. So I went to Union Theological Seminary, without intending to be a minister. In my third and final year in seminary I realized that my love of the academic community — of the intersection of the life of the spirit with the life of the mind — was a point of passion for me, and I’ve only ever been a college or university chaplain.
Has your experience in drama carried over?
A little bit. I have pursued acting opportunities in totally amateur ways on the campuses that I’ve been a part of. At Bucknell, the then-Catholic campus minister and I mounted a production of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. — he played the Satan character, I played the God character. For the last five or six years I was in the annual faculty follies presentation at the University of Chicago. Last November, I was a speaker/ actor in the annual Latke-Hamantasch Debate that our Hillel program put on.
In your career, what have you learned about the role religion plays in students’ lives?
Since I started doing this in 1991, there has been a real surge in interest in religious and spiritual life on campuses, among students primarily but also among staff and faculty. Across the country, people in this line of work have noticed that as well. A lot of students will come to college knowing that they are interested in [religion and spirituality], but many more come and say things like, “I’m missing something, and I’m wondering if it’s a spiritual life.” ... Some students decide to affiliate quite strongly with the community that their family was historically a part of. Many more look for something totally new, and others decide that they are going to piece together bits of this and that and create what works for them. ... The stage of life that [college students] are in can really promote this kind of questioning and discernment, this curiosity.
Khalid Latif, Princeton’s first Muslim chaplain, recently left to become a chaplain for the New York Police Department. Do you plan to continue a Muslim chaplaincy?
I’d like that very much, and hopefully, in the future, more positions like it for representatives of other religious groups that just aren’t represented with staff here yet.
Universities seem to be paying attention to students’ religious practices. For instance, some have installed footbaths to enable Muslim students to wash their feet before prayer. Could colleges be doing more?
Probably. We’ll just continue to learn as people from, I’ll call them “minority religions” just because they aren’t as numerous as Jews and Christians, continue to come to our campuses. This summer, bathrooms in [Murray-Dodge Hall] are being fitted to be accommodating to Muslim worshipers. Princeton already does a fine job, and we’ll make sure that we stay at the top of our form in this, in issues like dining and ablutions for worship.
What are your goals in your new job?
The obvious one is to enable religious and spiritual life for all people. And I don’t just mean all religions, but faculty, staff, and students — everybody who is Princeton. ... I also want to encourage people to think critically about religion, whether or not they practice it and particularly if they don’t. ... I think of religion as having incredible potential to motivate people toward positive social change. Religion gets a lot of press for being a negative motivating factor in people’s lives. The quiet thing is that more often than not, it is an enormously positive factor.