Justice Providence Trip, March 2023

The Providence Justice program was a wonderful experience provided by Middlebury Intervarsity Christian Fellowship that will stick with me forever. Its main goal was for us to see justice through the lens of Jesus Christ.

The trip started with seven of us from the Middlebury Christian Fellowship group heading to Providence, Rhode Island before the start of spring break, in which our car broke down 20 minutes in! Thankfully we got back on the road the following morning after the program’s director Jeremy Ogunba came to pick us up all the way from Providence. On the way Jeremy asked us what we thought our definition of justice was.  We all answered one by one, then he asked us why we were here and what we wanted to get out of the trip. I honestly didn’t know, and this made me wonder why I was truly there.  What did I really want to get out of this?

We arrived at our Airbnb which was in the heart of Providence on Federal Hill, and met with our leaders Petek and Hannah. We began the evening and all the evenings afterward with biblical teachings of justice, learning the different ways Jesus showed justice in the bible, visiting different times he taught us about what it means to show justice.

The following days were the most impactful as they were when we actually started to see what this trip was all for. We began our week by visiting Mestizo Church which is a multicultural church that aims to unite cultures through the message of Jesus Christ. It was amazing to see this and worship together in both English and Spanish. We then went to the grocery store and were given a $30 dinner meal challenge which was meant to reflect the struggles that some families face in regard to the ability to buy food. This challenge was no ordinary one as we had to feed the 10 people that were with us on the trip.  

The day after the trip from the grocery store, we began to do some work at the Providence Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter which aims to better the lives of many people who need a home or a warm meal. It also helps people who are recovering from a drug addiction with a year-long program that helps them reach sobriety. It was moving to hear stories of how God saved many of these people. We also helped at the D.R.E.A.M Center, which was a center that supports immigrants from many countries to find work, seek legal help, learn English, etc. We saw the hand of God at work in this organization.

I thank God for the opportunity to experience this trip and get to know these organizations that are trying to make the world a much better place.

Neftali S. Gomez ’26

Update from Rabbi Danielle in Jerusalem

Shalom to everyone from Israel!  As many of you know, I am on a personal leave this year from Middlebury as my family and I spend the year living in Jerusalem.  Most days my kids go to school in the city, my husband Matt continues his remote work as usual, and I study Talmud and other rabbi-like things at the Conservative Yeshiva, which is a co-ed Bet Midrash (house of study) to learn Jewish texts.

What I didn’t anticipate in planning this year is that this past fall’s elections would lead to a return of Netanyahu as Prime Minister with an especially right-wing coalition. Of the many laws this government has proposed, the one that is getting the most attention is an attempt at reforming or overhauling the laws governing the appointment of Supreme Court judges. If passed, many feel that this would decimate the checks and balances that currently exist in Israel’s national government.  This has led to mass protests that have been going on weekly for 3 months. We are now in the week when the final vote for this law is scheduled, and I just came back from a protest at the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) which the media is estimating at 100,000 people. 

So far every protest I have attended has had a fervent yet joyous feel to it—of people making their voices heard and exercising their rights. I have been lucky enough not to be caught in any harsh crowd control situations and I have not seen any violence on the part of protestors.  One of the most interesting things for me is the experience of literally being surrounded by Israeli flags at these protests.  The Israeli flag can be a contentious symbol on campus and in Israel—for some symbolizing illegal Israeli settlement of the West Bank and oppression of Palestinians, as well as a blind nationalism.  Also, in America, a protest full of American flags is not exactly where I would usually find myself, so it feels odd here too.  However, this movement to preserve democracy in Israel has reclaimed the Israeli flag for itself, and it is a powerful visual symbol of how it understands itself as patriotic.  

These protests are not without criticism—mainly that they have failed to create a common cause with Palestinians in Israel.  The slogan of the anti-occupation block which I often stand with sums up the criticism well: “There is no democracy when there is occupation.”  But just seeing so many people take to the streets against a government that is a threat to minorities does give one some hope that this could lead to a wider protest against the occupation. So despite the disruption of general strikes, the uncertainty we are still in today of what Netanyahu’s next move will be, and the ongoing cycle of violence which primarily impacts Palestinians and sometimes Jews in the West Bank—and occasionally manifests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv—I am still glad we are here at this historic moment. 

If you want to learn more about what is happening here, the New York Times is reporting frequently on it, you can access the English version of Ha-aretz through the Middlebury College library, and The Times of Israel website has a good live blog that you can follow as events unfold.

Happy Passover to all who are celebrating, and I really look forward to being back on campus starting this summer—meeting those of you whom I don’t yet know, and seeing the rest of you again.

–Rabbi Danielle

The SlowDown

(Noemi Zendejas Rodriguez ’26 reflects on her weekly experience at the Scott Center’s SlowDown program.)

The SlowDown helped me get through my first semester at Middlebury. As a first-gen student, I didn’t fully know what to expect at a college like Middlebury. All I knew was that I had to do my best.

The workload and expectations were thrown at me without a warning. I was trying tofigure out how to stay on top of everything while taking care of my mental and emotional well-being. Besides the academic rigor, I was also adjusting to new people and the environment. It was a huge transition that was slowly dragging me by the feet. However, I learned about the Scott Center after arriving here and visited when I was able to. I felt very at home and welcomed, like a weight lifted completely off my shoulders.  I felt overwhelmed with this huge transition, but the SlowDown helped ease all the new adjustments I was facing.

Every Tuesday, after my first-year seminar class, I head to the Scott Center ready to feel some stress relief. My focus/thoughts shift from worries about assignments to enjoying the moment with coloring, having tasty cookies and tea, and chatting with others. The people at the SlowDown create acomforting and delightful environment. Music usually plays in the background adding to the heartwarming environment. Afterwards I feel ready to get back to everything ahead of me: my assignments and the rest of the week. 

I’m excited to try new activities such as knitting and making bracelets. I would recommend this event, and the Scott Center, to anyone, especially those looking for a place where they can feel at home and at peace.

Reflections on Urbana22

Nathaly Martinez ’24 was one of eleven Middlebury InterVarsity Christian Fellowship students who attended this nationwide conference in December, and reflects on her experience here.

It was at the New England InterVarsity Fall Retreat that I first heard about Urbana 22. It was advertised as a guaranteed life-changing experience with speakers from all over the world. God delivered.

Faith has always been an integral part of my life, but yet my closest friends did not know about it. For the first time, I felt a boldness in my faith I had never experienced before. For the entirety of the trip, I was constantly reminded of the presence of God. On the plane ride there I could hear stories of faith throughout. The woman that drove me to the hotel I would be staying at, Debora, shared her testimony with me and I was not even at the conference yet. The car ride to McDonald’s on the first night was just a group of students hungry for God and chicken nuggets. There were Christians at every corner of downtown Indianapolis willing to strike up a conversation about God and it was the most refreshing feeling.

The first morning, wanting to take advantage of all Urbana had to offer, I woke up early for morning prayer which became a routine during my time there. Here, we were led into guided prayer, which gave me a new appreciation for how I could make my time with God intentional. My days were filled with so many different ways to seek God, Morning Prayer, Service at the Gathering Hall, Small Group Bible Study, a million and one seminars throughout the day ranging from Migrant Ministry & Migrant Justice to Discerning your Call, Prayer Rooms, Intercession Prayer, Prayer Ministry, and Coaching Spaces.

One of my prayers to God before embarking on this journey was that I would find others who had a similar faith background as mine so I could feel encouraged in my walk with God. So I took intentional steps to find my community by signing up for a Spanish Bible study group. When I arrived at table 165, there were only two other students and our group leader while other groups had upwards of seven people. Nevertheless, God is good. That same day God brought two new members to our Bible Study Group, Pabel from Perú and Yeny from Venezuela, a couple in their late twenties who met at Urbana and got married! Slowly, the community I was looking for kept growing and growing even in the short time I was there.

While I did not know it yet, God wanted more from me than to just listen and be inspired. On the evening of December 30th, Rev. Dr. James Choung summed up the entire conference for me in one sentence, “A relationship with God is meant to be personal but not private.” Had I been hiding God and from God? What did I have to be embarrassed or ashamed about? God chose me and patiently waited for me, it was my time to choose Him. Towards the middle of the sermon, the speaker walked us through a guided prayer where we listened for a word from God. As I stood there with a blank mind and open heart, the only word entering my mind was surrender. I knew this was not a coincidence, so when Rev. Dr. James Choung did the call to faith I knew exactly what God wanted from me, to fully surrender, to walk with Him. When I stood up, God released all my fear, anxiety, and self-judgment, and I was overcome with joy and peace only God can bring.

Urbana started a fire in all eleven of us with the Holy Spirit being our 12th disciple guiding us through the journey. Every night, we would all cram into a small hotel room and just talk about that one speaker or seminar that spoke to us. The amount of vulnerability in that room fostered a community I had never experienced before on campus. We were scribbling down, brainstorming ways to reach our small campus in Vermont. The stories of students creating Bible study groups for their athletic teams, creating prayer spaces from their dorm rooms, and doing compassionate outreach brought a wave of inspiration for revival on campus to make safe, encouraging spaces for students to grow their faith and live out boldly their relationship with Jesus.

Meeting the Other Face to Face 

A D’var Torah for Parshat Vayishlach
by Rabbi Danielle Stillman

I recently spent a week in Israel/Palestine with a group of fellow rabbis, hearing from different organizations of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians who are working together toward creating a better life for everyone living here. I am spending this year living in Jerusalem, so showing up on this trip was as easy as crossing the city. In other ways, though, the trip filled me with trepidation. Even as someone familiar with the Israeli occupation of Palestine, I felt nervous about opening myself up to the stories of the Palestinians we would meet. 
In this way, I can identify with Jacob, who in Parshat Vayishlach is described as “greatly frightened” (Genesis 32:8) before his impending meeting with Esau: “in his anxiety… he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps.” Well, he should be afraid! Jacob and Esau, two estranged brothers, have not seen each other in over 20 years. When Jacob last left Esau, Jacob had tricked their father Isaac into giving him his blessing, and Esau was planning to kill Jacob. In the intervening years, there is no obvious justice for Esau losing the blessing, and now Jacob must encounter Esau in order to be able to return with his family to his home.

Jacob makes significant preparations to meet Esau. He sends messengers ahead of him with gifts and kind words. He splits his camp to better protect them just in case Esau is still angry and decides to attack. And Jacob engages in spiritual preparation as well — finding himself alone on the riverbank, he wrestles with a divine being and changes his name, perhaps in preparation for this new phase of his life — and a new relationship with his brother.

When the two brothers do meet, there is no attack — just intense emotion. Jacob sends gifts and goes ahead of his family, and as he approaches Esau, he bows low to him seven times. Whether he does so to admit that Esau was wronged when Jacob took his blessing, or simply because he is afraid and wants to pacify Esau, the effect is profound. “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4) Esau is eager to reunite with his brother and to receive him with love. He asks about Jacob’s family and his life. Jacob, for his part, also undergoes a profound transformation upon greeting Esau. Far from being the scheming blessing-snatcher of his youth, Jacob is interested in connection with Esau rather than material gain. When Esau asks him why he has offered so many gifts and tries to refuse them, Jacob explains: “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.” (Genesis 33:10)

In this meeting of brothers, Jacob and Esau are both moved by the sight of each other’s faces. They reaffirm their humanity, and by extension, their relation to the divine. Following their reconciliation, they amicably decide to go their separate ways, but the trace of their renewed relationship remains. We see it later in the Torah when their father Isaac dies, and Jacob and Esau come together to bury him. (Genesis 35:29)

In the grand scheme of the occupation, individuals or small groups coming together might seem like a small thing, but Jacob and Esau’s meeting shows us just how powerful personal moments of meeting and reconciliation can be. In my week of meeting Palestinians, formally and informally, any nervousness I had dissipated as my group and I were received with appreciation, hospitality, and honesty. This made it easy for me to listen to Palestinian accounts of life under occupation with an open heart and mind.

Along with the power of meeting face to face, we can also learn from this parshah about the power of preparation. Jacob makes many preparations before he meets Esau. What kind of preparations, communal and individual, material and spiritual, will Jews and Palestinians need to make in order to meet and reconcile? While the political situation in Israel may feel intractable, and cycles of violence continue, the direct meeting of people who are normally separated fills me with hope. Let us begin making preparations now, in the way we talk about the other, in the way we educate our children, and in supporting these grassroots organizations which encourage meeting. Then when all of us are ready to meet, we can receive each other with respect and recognize each other’s humanity — and maybe even see the face of God there.

Rabbi Danielle Stillman is the rabbi and an Associate Chaplain at Middlebury College in Vermont. She is currently spending the year with her family in Jerusalem, exploring the many possibilities for the flourishing of all the peoples in this land.

Chaplain Saifa Hussain’s article in Informed Comment blog

In her recent post in the blog Informed Comment, Chaplain Saifa Hussain highlights a queer-affirming and sexually-sensitive approach to Islam in her review of Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflections on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims. As pride month closes, the Scott Center hopes to carry over this energy into the upcoming academic year and build resources for queer students of faith. Stay tuned for updates on this closer to the Fall!

Rabbi Danielle’s Devotional in the Vermont Senate Chamber, April 1, 2022

Good morning.

The ancient rabbis, whose tradition I endeavor to carry on in some small way, were famous for spending their time in the House of Study.  They valued the study of scripture, which they called Torah, and they studied the laws of Judaism that govern how one should live.  They engaged in this study almost exclusively through lively debate, sharing arguments and counter arguments, bringing stories and citations as proofs for their claim. The Talmud, in which these debates were collected in written form, records both the majority and the minority opinions. The laws that we follow, and the ones that were not adopted. All of this is studied in the Jewish tradition to this day, indicating an inherent respect for pluralism.

The rabbis used to say that anyone who does not engage in the study of Torah (the five books of Moses), Mishnah (the law), and Derek Eretz (literally “the way of the land,” in other words, the right way to behave) is not part of society. 

Debating this statement, the later generation of rabbis asked, “Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered that action is greater.  Rabbi Akiva answered, Study is greater.  Everyone then answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.”

In this chamber you are charged with engaging in both study and action. You are asked to learn, to listen, to open yourself to new knowledge with curiosity and consideration. And you are asked to take action. Becoming informed is not the end goal.  Once the experience of your constituents is known, you are responsible to act on this knowledge. You have the opportunity to create real, meaningful change. Witnessing is a powerful act in and of itself, but for the ancient rabbis, and for us, it is not enough.

May the decisions you make today be informed by study: by facts, by information and by people’s real experience.

It is then that the actions you take will make a difference in the lives of the people you serve here in Vermont. 

And may this study and action always be joined with Derek Eretz, the right way to behave.

The Listening Role of College Chaplains

“Chaplain” is a funny title. It can conjure up images of a Christian pastor kneeling next to a fallen soldier at war or sitting by a sick person’s bedside in a hospital — something you might see in a movie about a far-off time. Often, these are limited and outdated images.  

Who exactly are the campus chaplains at Middlebury, and what do we do?  We raise this question now because “College Chaplains” is one of the resources that is listed when tragedy strikes on campus or elsewhere in the world, and we are certainly all dealing with the repercussions of many such tragedies this semester. Yet we worry that the title “chaplain” itself may be a barrier to some people in utilizing us as a resource.

The college chaplains at Middlebury consist of three full-time chaplains who are trained in and practice three different religious traditions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. We also employ part-time affiliate chaplains in different Christian denominations including Congregationalist, Baptist and Catholic, as well as a Zen Buddhist chaplain. 

However, we hope that our religious identities will not be another barrier to seeking us out. We are first and foremost very good listeners to anyone who comes our way. We believe that listening — truly listening — is one of the most powerful ways to be with someone who is struggling. And this is no small thing. We are equipped to be there in this listening capacity for anyone who wants it, regardless of their religious or non-religious background. We each work with students from any number of backgrounds. We are also equipped to work with people within the specific religions that we represent if that is desired. The content of our meetings with students is confidential unless there is imminent harm to self or others.

Our office space this interim year, The Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life at 46 South Street, is somewhat far from the center of campus.  We welcome you there, but we are always willing to meet students closer to where they are. Please email or call to find a time to meet.

Saifa Hussain (she/her/hers), the Muslim Chaplain and Interfaith Advisor, can be reached at sthussain@middlebury.edu or 802-443-5983. Mark R. Orten (he/him/his), the Dean of Spiritual and Religious life and Chaplain of the College, can be reached at orten@middlebury.edu or 802-443-5886. Danielle Stillman (she/her/hers), Rabbi and Associate Chaplain can be reached at dastillman@middlebury.edu or 802-443-5762. Find the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life at go/scottcenter or in person at 46 South St.

Right Now in America

May 31, 2020.  We at the Scott Center speak in favor of our full humanity. Always. But especially in moments like this. When prejudice or bias denies anyone of their right to fully participate in society and be included in every aspect of their being without fear or shame or shrinking, this is morally wrong and we stand against it. When this happens, we all suffer. When people are physically harmed or murdered because of their identities, we call this evil. We say no. In the name of our common humanity, we say, no more.

People are murdered every day around the globe for their beliefs or non-beliefs, for their identities: geographic, ability, age, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious, racial and others. Trauma and injustice are so much a part of our lives lately that it seems there is always something to say about it.

Right now in America, however, the reality of racial injustice especially is on full display. The long-abiding disparities are evident everywhere, from the assurance of employment and access to healthcare during a global pandemic, to treatment by those charged to protect and defend, to the enactment of real change by elected officials. And yes, now, even the disparity of access to justice, simple justice, is in full view. This is a moment when the particular disparities of racial injustice and the plight of being black is right in front of us in plain daylight, even while for many it never went, or goes, away. Trauma and injustice of all kinds are everywhere, but right now racial inequality (again) is looming large in the current upheaval.

Right now in America, we all are witnesses to the horrific murder of George Floyd, one tragic event in an irrefutable pattern of systemic abuse of power enacted along racial lines that has gone unchecked and unaccountable in this country for a long time. We can name Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade among others only recently. This is wrong and it must stop, and we must do more than only say it. Speaking up and speaking out in general terms, therefore, is not enough. We must be specific, and so in recognition of this moment, again as a staff:

We acknowledge our complicity when we are silent and should speak. We commit to saying more.

We acknowledge our advocacy for some while ignoring the plight of others. We commit to wider attention and focused action.

We acknowledge our ignorance of the history and current circumstances of black lives. We commit to education and learning.

We acknowledge our distance from those who are in deep pain right now, especially our black siblings. We commit to listening deeply enough to be changed by what we hear. We commit to observing requested boundaries, even while showing relentless affirmation, solidarity and co-celebration.

May this be a moment of acknowledgment. May it be a time for deep reflection and commitment. May we all together be part of change for the better.


The Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life at Middlebury College:

Saifa T. Hussain, associate chaplain

Ellen B. McKay, program coordinator

Mark R. Orten, dean, director and chaplain

Danielle A. Stillman, associate chaplain

Caring for Yourself and Others in Times of Trouble: Some Spiritual Tips and Tools, by Alexander Levering Kern, Northeastern University

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe some more. Take time in your day, at any moment, to take ten deep even breaths. Carve out 5-10 minutes to meditate or practice  mindfulness or contemplative prayer. Start here, now, wherever you are.

Ground yourself in the present moment. Focus your awareness on something real, enduring, or beautiful in your surroundings. Look up often. Discover the wonder and awe that is already here.

Acknowledge your fears, anxieties, concerns. Offer them up in prayer, if you pray. Write them in your journal. Share them with others. Feel what you feel, honor it, and know that it is not the final word.

Remember you are not alone. Ever. You are surrounded by care and support. Reach out.

Create and sustain community. Show up for one another. Listen compassionately. Practice empathy. Even while avoiding “close physical contact,” message the people you care about. Stand with those most vulnerable and those who suffer the brunt of prejudice and fear. Check in on folks. Call your mother, father, guardian, mentor, little sibling, long lost friend.

Unplug, judiciously. While staying aware of developments, do not let the Corona-chaos govern you, but forgive yourself when and if it does.

Practice kindness. There is a temptation in health scares to view others as potential threats. Remember we are in this together. While practicing health guidelines and appropriate caution, remember to engage one another. Smile when you can. Bring good deeds and good energy into our world.

Stay healthy through sleep, diet, exercise. See healing and wellness holistically – mind, body, and spirit.

Make art. Discover, imagine, engage your hopes and fears, the beauty and ugliness of our world. Write, paint, sing, dance, soar.

Practice gratitude. In the face of crises, make note of the things for which you are grateful: your breath, the particular shade of the sky at dusk – or dawn. The color blue, the color green, the gifts and strengths you have other people in your life, the ability to laugh. A pet.

Connect with your spiritual, religious, humanist, cultural, or other communities. Find strength and solace and power in traditions, texts, rituals, practices, holy times and seasons.

Pray as you are able, silently, through song, in readings, through ancestors. Remember the long view of history, the rhythms and cycles of nature, the invisible threads that connect us all.

Practice hope. Trust in the future and our power to endure and persist, to live fully into the goodness that awaits.