Old squash court in Walker to be remade into dedicated meditation, prayer, reflection space

Chapel has ‘ceased to function as a viable prayer space,’ Catholic chaplain says

Plans for a “Room of Quiet,” a dedicated space in Walker Memorial that students can use for meditation, prayer, and reflection, are under final review. The space is expected to open soon.

Matthew Bauer, senior director of communications for the Division of Student Life, sent The Tech portions of the MindHandHeart (MHH) proposal for the project.

The Campus Activities Complex has allocated an old squash court (50-305) for the space, with the intention of making “modest renovations to beautify and equip the room” for its new function, according to the proposal.

“There are very few spaces on campus that students can reliably access for quiet and stillness — and none that are dedicated to this purpose,” the proposal said. Libraries, while quiet, are designed for studying; meanwhile, the Chapel receives a high volume of traffic.

“If optimally successful, this project will provide an opportunity to promote and cultivate within our community and culture values for quiet, stillness, meditation, mindfulness and silent forms of spiritual practice,” the proposal continued.

The Tech spoke with Daniel Moloney, MIT’s Catholic chaplain; Tenzin Priyadarshi, the Buddhist chaplain; and Nada El-Alami, the Muslim chaplain — the three chaplains, in addition to Chaplain to the Institute Kirstin Boswell-Ford, who are named on the proposal as having been involved in the project — about the varying needs of their communities with respect to the space.

The Chapel has “ceased to function as a viable prayer space” due to frequent interruptions from tourists, even during scheduled events such as Mass, Moloney wrote in an email to The Tech.

Moloney first raised the issue of needing to find an alternative space to Boswell-Ford in summer 2016. An initial proposition to repurpose the community room in W11 fell through, and the CAC recommended the Walker squash court in December 2016.

Initial project notes detailed a variety of ways the space could be adapted to accommodate different communities, such as having a Catholic tabernacle (requested by Moloney), a statue of the Buddha (requested by Priyadarshi), and a section of the room without any images (requested by El-Alami).

(Boswell-Ford emphasized in a follow-up email to The Tech that the project notes appear to have been drafted in early 2018, and they are less representative of the current status of the project than the MHH proposal.)

Priyadarshi said in a phone interview with The Tech that while the room does not need to be “traditionally religious,” he hopes it will be “warm and welcoming,” with comfortable chairs and meditation cushions available.

He estimated that around 75–80 students actively attend a variety of programs in the Buddhist community, a number that varies year to year. There is a “tremendous interest in the practice of meditation,” including from students who do not identify as Buddhist, Priyadarshi added.

El-Alami estimated that there are around 230 practicing Muslims at MIT. Practicing Muslims are expected to pray five times a day, with many of those times occurring right before or after a class. But the only prayer space currently designated for Muslims is in W11, so the addition of other spaces around campus would help students with the “time crunch.”

To accommodate the Muslim community, El-Alami wrote that the space would preferably include a carpeted section with a barrier in front for Muslim students to focus on their prayers.

Moloney asked his students over a period of three weeks last spring to record when they used the Chapel (specifically, the floor in front of the Blessed Sacrament in the basement) for personal prayer. “I did it to be able to demonstrate the consistent and heavy use that this inadequate space is getting,” Moloney explained.

Twenty-two students used the space during that time, and the average student prayed around three hours per week, according to Moloney. Some were praying closer to an hour a day.

The MHH proposal noted that once the space is sufficiently publicized and well-known, it is expected to receive 30–60 users per day.

As for next steps, Moloney said that earlier this fall, he was told by Boswell-Ford that the project was “coming along” but that “ ‘some people’ want to revisit whether MIT needs a space for quiet meditation and prayer at all.”

“[S]ome decision-makers are getting cold feet about the whole proposal, and are reconsidering the whole idea that people here need a place to pray (‘Shouldn’t we use the space for something more productive?’),” Moloney wrote in a newsletter sent to the Tech Catholic Community Dec. 18.

Boswell-Ford denied that the project was delayed in a statement emailed to The Tech, writing that it has instead been “moving through the appropriate exploration and approval channels,” and they “remain optimistic that it will be completed in the near future.”

Update 1/17/18: An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of MIT's Catholic chaplain. He is Daniel, not David.