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Priest, Adviser, Friend

Joyce Tompkins came to Swarthmore as a part-time Protestant campus minister in 2004, employed not by the College but by Partners in Ministry. Now, she’s not only full-time religious adviser to the campus Protestant community but adviser to just about everyone on just about anything. She’s also a priest at the town’s Trinity Episcopal Church. Anyone needing to feel uplifted should read her online Spiritual Reflections, which include titles such as “Lessons From Trees,” “Free the Chairs,” “A Brooklyn Story,” and “Whoever is Not Against Us is For Us.” Recently, she sat down for a chat with acting editor of the Bulletin Carol Brévart-Demm.       

How has your job changed in the last decade?

Initially, I was a part-time campus minister for a small group of students identifying mainly as Protestants. I loved that work because there was a vacuum there. There was nobody to make decisions—no staff, no program—so I just started to make it up. And the students are so bright, so passionate about what they do. They care so much about the world. I have such a sense of hopefulness working with them. I feel very lucky.


Which aspects of your work do you find most rewarding?

The interfaith work has probably been the most rewarding. This is a fertile place for that because of its Quaker heritage. Also, students at this age are just very interested in exploring lots of different possibilities. They’re so bright and thoughtful. I believe that my task isn’t just about working with students who happen to identify as religious but rather about everyone’s spirituality, which is a huge spectrum—from people who might not even use that word to describe it, to very devout students with a regular prayer practice, and everyone in between.


What kinds of events do you plan to bring people together?

Interfaith activities are probably the largest facet of my work: interreligious dialogue, storytelling, text study, fellowship and dinners, speakers around various issues, but also intrafaith dialogue, bringing people from within the same faith tradition together. We sometimes disagree, so we’re trying to work harder on that area—especially in Christian life, our largest religious group—but we’re also working with the Jewish and Muslim communities on this. I’m also involved in diversity training, teaching students, staff, and faculty about religious diversity and religious literacy. Religion is also a component of wellness, so I’ve worked with the wellness coordinator, CAPS, admissions, and dining services around food issues as well as with the premed adviser and premed students who are hospice volunteers.


How does Swarthmore’s Quaker heritage influence your work?

Quakerism is so quiet and behind the scenes here, but, implicitly, it’s part of everything we do. I’m very drawn to some of the practices of the Quakers—the silence, the Collection. I’ve worked to find ways to raise up the Quaker values for the College in more explicit ways, because I feel it’s a part of Swarthmore that isn’t sufficiently explored. It grows on you over time. It seeps into your bones.


Do you feel supported in your role at Swarthmore?

In recent years, I’ve felt encouraged about the increase in support for religious life on campus, thanks largely to Liliana Rodriguez, former associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and community development, and my two lovely colleagues for the last two years, Jewish adviser Kelilah Miller and Muslim student adviser Ailya Vajid. The work we’ve done has borne much fruit, and I think the campus at large is better for it. It’s like being a farmer, planting seeds, waiting for them to come up, then suddenly they do. It feels like that—a lot of good growth.