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Profile: A conversation with the new chaplain

Kathleen Forrest


On June 30th, Willamette University announced Rev. Ineda Adesanya as the new university chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life. Adesanya will officially start on August 1st, following the July departure of former chaplain, Karen Wood. While Adesanya will be introduced to students via university announcements and throughout the Opening Days ceremonies, it’s worth taking some time for a more in-depth and personal introduction.

Adesanya uses she/her pronouns, and wants students to feel comfortable being on first-name basis. “I’m gonna have the students call me ‘Ineda’ cause it's more welcoming. Reverend is Christian, or faith-based, and Ineda is open to all,” she said.

Adesanya was born and raised in a Protestant Baptist family, and has continued in that tradition, but not without exploration and awareness of other faith traditions. “I attended different things when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and poked around in different things but never really leaned into anything other than the Protestant faith tradition for myself, and consider myself to be a follower of Jesus Christ,” said Adesanya.

In addition to her undergraduate work at Berkeley, Adesanya has a MA in religion and psychology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where she is also completing her doctorate with a focus on a womanist approach to Christianity. And, as one might imagine, it has taken a great deal of focus. When asked about her reading habits and recommendations from the past year, Adesanya chuckled and said, “Unfortunately you’re talking to a PhD candidate who’s only reading things that have to do with my dissertation.”

All the same, the book that wins the place of favorite dissertation reading is Remnants by Rachel Elizabeth Harding and Rosemarie Freeney Harding. “It’s sort of about mothering, it’s a book on spirituality. It’s informing my look into African-American spirituality, particularly across faith traditions. Her mom was a Mennonite but Buddhist leaning. She [Rachel Elizabeth Harding] is an initiate into the Candomble orientation, and her father was a Protestant Christian. The ways in which they describe their spirituality are very different,” said Adesanya.

In addition to her work as an academic, Adesanya has been a chaplain at graduate level theological schools, and Willamette by comparison will be the largest community she’s worked with. On anticipated differences and challenges between the communities Adesanya said, “My work should be, if it's done well, accessible to all people. No matter their age, no matter their level of formation, no matter their level of education. So I don’t really see a difference, I’m gonna hold you the same way I would if you were working on a religion masters. My work is not tied to the content of my institution, it's tied to the hearts of the people.”

The content of the institution, the Willamette community, and specifically the relationship with the university chaplain, is something that drew Adesanya to apply in the first place. She said, “The way you all cherish Karen, your former chaplain, was really important to me… That’s what I was looking for, not just someone to plug a spot on an org chart, but a space where I would feel useful, valued, respected, and where I could really contribute in a meaningful way.”

Adesanya has been asked not to teach the first year, and she will instead focus on getting to know the community and the other aspects of the position. Of note, she did say that she intends to continue Convocation, a class run by the Office of the Chaplains that facilitates conversations surrounding spiritual and ethical issues. “The first convocation would be ‘let's have a conversation, about where we’re going and what we wanna do, and how we want to use that space so that we develop it together’. So that I’m not just kind of imposing upon the student body my ideas, but we’re doing it together,” said Adesanya.

Along with Convocation, there are a wide range of areas where Adesanya wants to understand the Willamette community before creating any concrete plans to shape it. “I have to get to know the community, we have to do this together for it to be true,” she said. An idea she did gesture at is to, “highlight other holy days, other important celebrations, other than Christian… even if there’s only two students on campus, I want them to feel like this is a big deal to all of us.”

Adesanya also recognizes a need to reach out to students who identify as atheist or agnostic, and does not see a lack of ‘faith tradition’ as inherently meaning a lack of spirituality. “They still have a heart, they still have an interior self, they’re still these little balls of energy riding around on earth, there’s still this larger energy. As long as there’s an acknowledgement of that energy, there’s a space, that’s their spirituality,” said Adesanya.

For spiritual issues facing contemporary college students, Adesanya recognizes the past year as having a lack of what she called ‘threshold celebrations’, as well as other losses from the pandemic. “I expect a lot of unrecognized grief in response to the pandemic… And that’s where I’m expecting to be able to help folks manage what they’re feeling and realize what they’re tense about, and what’s going on,” said Adesanya.

The past year has also marked an important step for racial justice and political activism, with more people acknowledging the sociopolitical issues and the push for reform. Willamette students in particular are often politically active and engaged, (especially with the state capitol being literally across the street) and Adesanya shares in that interest. Adesanya is currently under contract for a book entitled: The Spirituality of the Radical Reformers: Insight for Radical Reform Today. On its content she shared: “My question to myself, or my thesis is what can we learn from their chutzpah, their determination, their willingness to put their lives literally on the line, rooted in their faith, that would lead to a sustained faith tradition called Protestant Christianity centuries later? What can we learn from that to make our efforts today more sustainable?”

Outside of these longer term projects and goals, Adesanya has a much shorter to-do list for her first month or so at Willamette. At the top of it: “To read and to walk.” Referencing the previously mentioned Opening Days ceremonies she said, “There are things the institution already has on my calendar and I’ll fall in, but for me I want to walk and just see and meet people.”

The Office of the Chaplains is located on the second floor of the University Center and is available as a resource to all students, faculty and staff.

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