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Religious Groups Set to Exit Interfaith Center, Enter Campus Center by June

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A student pleaded with God to “save” the Interfaith Center in a closing prayer during Cornerstone Campus Ministry’s weekly worship.

Aileen Eagleton, a senior, prayed moments after Rev. Sandy Damhof stood at the pulpit. At that point, Oct.15, the reverend had for several days heard word of a push from University at Albany administration to move interfaith services out of the IFC. Alarmed, Damhof urged the congregation to speak out.

But despite concerns, Student Affairs on Friday announced that interfaith programs will move into the Campus Center by June. It will be the first time campus interfaith services have been provided outside of the IFC in nearly three decades.

With IFC renovation and repairs expected ahead, the spring move-in was set to “minimize disruption” for interfaith programming next academic year.

In a letter to Capital Area Council of Churches, Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, and Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, Michael Christakis, vice president of Student Affairs, said that the university is looking to locate interfaith programming in the Campus Center.

“This location, in the heart of the Uptown campus, is convenient for students to access and allows the University to provide appropriate support services,” wrote Christakis.

The coming transition is the result of a sale last fall that brought the Center under UAlbany Foundation control. An occupancy agreement allowed the faith groups to stay last year, but they will be moved after this school year.

THE REACTION

Administration came under fire after a map, which included a “Potential Temp. Interfaith heritage suite” in Campus Center Room 326, surfaced to campus chaplains. The document was from a Sept. 28 meeting between Student Affairs and Facilities Management over proposed third-floor student office shifts.

The IFC was set to go offline, a Student Affairs official reportedly told chaplains about two weeks after.

Startled, chaplains took to social media with #savetheinterfaithcenter, launched a petition, and encouraged community members to send letters to UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez in protest.


“I think it’s a great learning opportunity for a lot of people—for administration that maybe doesn’t completely understand what we do, for Facilities Management who are clearly clueless about this building,” said Damhof last Monday.

“And in some ways, even students. I think there are a lot of students who may not know what goes on here and so this could be an opportunity for everybody to know.”

Emma Benz, president of Cornerstone Campus Ministry, worked with Student Association senators Mitchell Rybak and Subha Tasnim to piece together a resolution against the move. It passed unanimously.

Jarrett Altilio, senate chair, likened plans to vacate the IFC to SA’s suite changeup over the summer. SA leaders last year were disappointed by the lack of private offices within the west addition. Both decisions, Altilio believes, lacked student input.

“I don’t think the proper amount of student input was ever sought after—not only for SA, but also for this,” he said.

Hillel could be impacted by other Campus Center changes beyond the IFC shift. The Jewish organization, the only faith group with a student office in the Campus Center, appealed for space at the end of last semester.

It did not have a proposed office space on the map. According to Facilities Management, the group’s future placement is still in the works.

The possibility of moving to a collaborative space has been derided by Hillel officials for over a year. Former president of Hillel’s UAlbany chapter, Austin Ostro, last fall argued such action would be disruptive to the organization’s programming.

Ryan Fox, president of the Hillel’s UAlbany chapter, fears fewer students would be attracted to the organization without a student office. Events like Tuesday Schmoozeday, he believes, would appear less welcoming to students in a reserved space.

“It’s a big threat for how we function,” said Fox.


Rabbi Nomi Manon, executive director of UAlbany’s Hillel chapter, is concerned about the future of both spaces. The Hillel office is used as a storage space and gathering space for students. Meanwhile, the IFC is used by Hillel for some larger events such as the annual shabbat dinner and interfaith cookout.

Last week, Manon was determined pushback from the IFC move would prompt administration to adjust plans to put the building offline.

“That is part of the survival mechanism,” she said. “If they know that all these people are rallying behind the Interfaith Center, then they’re likely apt to try to do something down the road because they know how it’s going to go.”

Speaking at the beginning of last week, sophomore and secretary for Newman Catholic Association, John Ziolkowski said, “The university hasn’t said yes or no about anything.”

Ziolkowski stepped into his position for Newman Catholic Association at UAlbany under chaplain Cathy Reid intending to track data that showed how many people used the center and why they used it.

“A huge motivation was keeping the Center working,” the student secretary said.

Abigail Stramm, a graduate student and Newman member, referred to officials in Student Affairs as she said, “I don’t know that they have a strong impression of what’s going on with the students.”

ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE

On the UAlbany website, a frequently asked questions page addresses that the university is staunch on communicating openly between those involved with the IFC, including student organizations. The website was last updated on Friday.

Last November, the webpage addressed that the building’s future would rest on a university analysis of space needs, and included the phrase “of programs and/or offices currently located elsewhere on campus.”

Early last week, the FAQs page showed the last portion was deleted, and only included the notion of analyzing space needs. The Albany Student Press met with Nolan and Christakis Friday morning and received a print copy of the FAQs page. By the afternoon, the FAQs page was updated.

The updates address that interfaith programming will be in the Campus Center by June 1 and will continue through the Office of Intercultural Student Engagement. Chaplains are assigned as university volunteers, and were copied on a followup letter Christakis sent to previous faith group owners regarding the shift.

The letter was written after Student Affairs met last week with local heads of the three faith groups for the IFC: Deborah Riitano, Robert Kovach, and Rev. Donald Rutherford.

Interfaith Follow-up – October 2017 by Tyler A. McNeil on Scribd


“Now, as the new president, I’m very happy with where this process is working,” said UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez on Wednesday. “We’re communicating with the Interfaith Board and addressing this issue with them and proposing or talking about what our strategy is moving forward.”

Rodríguez said the recent response to the IFC shift has been plagued with misinformation, making the topic more challenging for the community to understand.

Some of those affiliated with the IFC didn’t know what was happening to the interfaith programs last week. Thomas Simcoe, president of the IFC Board, said on Thursday that the board wasn’t aware of university plans for the space.

The board, part of the corporation that previously owned the IFC building, approved the transfer to the UAlbany Foundation last fall.

“We hope the Interfaith Center will continue to be used for Interfaith Center purposes,” said Simcoe.

Christakis made clear that the IFC building transition was a “business transaction.”

“A hope is a hope. He can hope all he wants,” said Christakis, speaking to Simcoe’s concerns.

With the sale, the building is now part of the university’s space inventory. Allocating that space is part of the long-term planning, but it was not included in Campus Center reconstruction plans because the IFC Board didn’t approach the university about the sale until midway through construction.

Rumors spread over the IFC being vacated last spring. Reid claimed that Christakis assured her the space would remain for interfaith purposes moving forward. Christakis said that the university assured the Interfaith Board that there would be programming space, especially for chaplains.

Under the coming changes, chaplains fear that lack of access to a permanent kitchen, meditation room, chapel, library, and private office for spiritual counseling could hurt interfaith services ahead.

Addressing this concern, Christakis said, “The kitchen space I can’t give a good answer to because it’s not something that’s within the realm of possibility.”

Using the kitchen space, the faith groups have community meals each week. Participants in Cornerstone and Newman push six tables together to make one table that seats roughly 20 people.

Junior Emma Thrasher sought out the IFC her first Sunday as a freshman. Sharing a meal around a table and seeing everyone’s expressions symbolizes her Christian faith, Thrasher said.

In terms of where groups can go for these meals when the IFC closes to the faith groups, Christakis pointed to the Campus Center’s Assembly Hall, Boardroom, and Ballroom.

As university volunteers, the chaplains can receive office space. Christakis indicated that the three chaplains would likely be in the same location.

However, the lack of sanctuary space that may accompany such rooms is not something that the university can address. According to Communications & Marketing, the institution cannot provide religious sanctuary space.

THE SALE

Future use of the 1.4-acre property is up in the air. The UAlbany Foundation, which bought the IFC last November, plans on donating it to the university through SUNY Central procedures.

The Albany Collegiate Interfaith Center reached out to the university with the idea of selling the building in March 2016. After eight months of negotiations, the board closed a sale with the UAlbany Foundation for $250,000.

The ACIC is the tax-exempt corporation that previously owned the center and now has no role with the IFC property. Operating under that corporation, the IFC Board approved the transaction.

Board president Thomas Simcoe said the sale’s cost followed an assessment based on necessary repairs the university recognized.

For years, IFC officials struggled to maintain the building. The IFC’s condition posed a financial threat as nonprofit revenue streams slid over time.

“If you have a boiler that fails, a roof that fails, you have pipes that freeze—you’re just a couple of building emergencies away from not having any money in the bank,” said Simcoe.

Each faith group contributed $10,000 each year to keep the building afloat. Over time, the IFC relied more heavily on the university for support, according to an article from university media relations on Oct. 16.

This is the first year the IFC has been overseen by university staff. Long-time IFC director, Donna Crisafulli, retired last year. Since then, Ekow King, director of Intercultural Engagement, has taken reigns with interfaith programming.

THE LAST SHIFT

For most of its history, the IFC has been run off campus grounds. Founded in 1965 as the Albany Collegiate Interfaith Center, the IFC operated out of a half-century old lodge for two decades.

The lodge was damaged by a fire in 1985. Prayer books and office supplies were destroyed. Staff were relocated to the Campus Center for two years. Religious services were scattered across campus.

Albany Student Press: Summer Issue, 1985, Chapel House Fire by Tyler A. McNeil on Scribd


University officials thereafter proposed grabbing the property to build a fieldhouse. In exchange, the IFC staff would gain land near Fuller Rd.

Lewis Welch, vice president of the University Affairs at the time, told the Albany Student Press that the proposed Fuller Rd. site would attract more students to the IFC, with a future residence hall (Freedom Quad) expected nearby.

The idea never came into fruition. Instead, the new IFC was constructed nearby.

Former chair of the IFC board, Gary Kriss, said in a 1987 ASP article that the building’s design was intended to be more accessible. The previous building was situated on a hill.

The building cost over $500,000. Its construction was supported by contributions from across the area. Students at the time started a fundraising organization for the new building, Students Assisting Chapel House.

After three years, the building was completed.

Father Bob Longobucco of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, a 1987 graduate of UAlbany, was involved in the IFC as a student during the last shift.

Longobucco was an IFC chaplain from 2001 to 2006. For him, the building promotes diversity and inclusion.

“Can any place in the world have a place where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews worship together?” he said.

BEYOND CAMPUS

Aileen Eagleton, vice president of Cornerstone Campus Ministry, has regularly visited Damhof’s office for spiritual counseling since her freshman year.

“Counseling is a big part of it as well as just having a place that’s kind of like a home,” she said. “I consider this like a home.”

Last week, Newman focused on mental health at their Thursday night service, bringing in a representative from Middle Earth.

A similar focus was evident at SUNY Oneonta last week.

In a Tuesday service, Oneonta’s Newman Catholic Association held a discussion on self-care as part of their October mental health focus.

Peter Derway, the catholic campus minister at Oneonta, said that the group’s focus each month is based on what students are interested in. Derway, employed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, is the leader at both Oneonta and Hartwick College.

However, Derway doesn’t have a designated space at either Hartwick or Oneonta. Currently, no students are enrolled in Newman at Hartwick, so the campus minister does his programming at Oneonta.

Previously, Newman had a building off campus, Newman House, but it closed last spring because of low student turnout and costly repairs, Derway said.

Back in December 2015, Derway created a Go Fund Me to address the cost of repairs and operational costs but only raised $760 of the $15,000 goal.

These costs prompted the parish at St. Mary’s Church to take back the house last spring.

Derway said his thinking at the time was, “Okay, do I not have a ministry because I don’t have a house?”

The campus minister said he’d still be able to do his job despite not having a designated worship space. He now reserves a room in Oneonta’s campus center for this purpose, but he has his own office in that building to give spiritual direction.

Faith groups at Oneonta do not share the same space like groups at UAlbany have done with the IFC.

“I wish we had a center kind of like UAlbany has,” Derway said, indicating his desire to have a designated space that facilitates interfaith discussions.

Matthew Noyes contributed to this reporting.

Correction: A printed version of this post mentions the IFC under university control early on. The IFC is currently under the UAlbany Foundation’s control. Through SUNY Central procedures, this land is planned to be donated to the university.

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Elise Coombs, a Syracuse native, is the editor-in-chief of the Albany Student Press. She is the co-Vice President of the UAlbany Mock Trial team, a member of Presidential Honors Society, and a peer mentor for the pre-law section of Writing and Critical Inquiry. After her time at UAlbany, she plans to go to law school and become a First Amendment lawyer.

1 Comment

  1. Wendy Dury-Samson
    October 24, 2017 at 2:43 pm — Reply

    Can we please save this very unique building which serves a purpose that no other space on the Campus can?

    I have served on the Board of the Cornerstone Protestant Campus Ministry for over 10 years, and I’m a graduate of UAlbany (BA 1988, MA 1995–English). The Interfaith Center is symbolic and representative of the kind of world we should aspire to create–one where persons of all faiths can peacefully share space in a quiet, natural environment. Having some office space in the Campus Center is not conducive to improving the spiritual lives of students, nor is the lack of a kitchen good for feeding their souls. The idea is not to have students purchase food, but to have the ability to create and share meals together, or have local, like-minded churches and faith communities share what they bring in. This is not allowed in the Campus Center. The value and benefits of maintaining this unique and special place on the campus as a WORSHIP Space (which is also not feasible or apparently, allowed, in the Campus Center) for students far outweighs turning the building into more office space (or whatever the University is planning on doing with it). “Interfaith Programming” involves worship.

    This is a very unique and meaningful, sacred space. Holy even. The Campus Center environment doesn’t allow the groups to carry out the mission and purpose of an Interfaith Center. Can we please keep one small corner of the campus where spirituality and faith can be nurtured? Or must every inch of ground be devoted to making a profit in some way off the students who devote so much of their own and their families’ resources just to get their education here? Is there nothing in the Foundation’s mission that values this aspect of student life?

    Sincerely,

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