Students find home in chapel basement

Stephanie Teng

Students who call themselves Chapel Dwellers unwind in the warmth of Thompson Chapel’s basement.

Warmth greets anyone who enters the basement in Thompson Memorial Chapel. The heavy wooden doors shut away the cold, and the air is comfortably heated. At the end of the corridor, a bright room beckons, filled with happy chattering, lighthearted chuckles and the faint tunes of “Peace, Be Still” being played on the piano. This symphony of life is created by none other than the College’s so-called Chapel Dwellers. 

It is simultaneously easy and hard to define precisely who the Chapel Dwellers are. The group’s name is in some respects self-explanatory: Chapel Dwellers are a cohort of students who frequently congregate in the basement of the chapel. Upon closer inspection, however, the identity and purpose of the dwellers becomes more difficult to pin down.

“[It] is a constant question among some of us,” Jeremy Shields ’20 said of the definition of a Dweller. According to Shields, who is one of the oldest members of the group, there are two main types of visitors to the chapel basement. One is dubbed “chapel regulars,” who visit the space at regular times throughout the week, usually for religious services or organizations. “And then there are Chapel Dwellers, who come here for no particular reason and remain,” Shields said.

Ashlyn Oh ’23, another Dweller, agreed. “For me, the definition of a Dweller depends on what you do here,” she said. “You can spend hours at a time in the chapel, doing Bible study…[but] to be a Dweller, you have to be the kind of person who takes naps here, does work or just kind of sits here and waits for life to happen.” 

“[It’s] like a home base,” Joshua Hewson ’22 said. “It’s basic refuge. It feels a lot like an entry — just an easy place to make friends and meet people you can see on a regular basis, [and] not a complicated place where you have to coordinate to find people.”

The constant availability, snug decoration and relaxed atmosphere sets the chapel basement apart from the rest of campus. The visitors say it brings them a soothing effect and can help them forget about the stress of school and the cold outside. Above all, it brings like-minded people to the same space to enjoy each other’s company.

Unlike most other student organizations, the Dwellers do not share a clear, common purpose. Each member originally came to the chapel for a different reason. Some came to explore religious studies, some came to meditate and some sought a quiet corner away from bustling academic life. Yet all stayed for the same reason: to share their life with others. In Shields’s words, it is “an alternative spiritual environment” where both religious and non-religious students come to find a sense of belonging. 

“I think love can happen here,” Omar Kawam ’20 said. “Deep love and relationships are built here. You can have conversations about theology, about religion, about things on sensitive ground that you don’t usually talk about. But you talk about them here, you get passionate and when you leave, you grow as a person.”

Building such a steady, open community is no easy feat, according to Shields.

“When I became a sophomore, I realized I felt unmoored at Williams,” he said. “I didn’t really have my own particular community or space [where] I felt right at home, so I took the initiative to cultivate the chapel in a certain way where I want people to understand that this was a place where they can spend the kind of time that I was spending and do the kind of things that I was doing.” 

Throughout his four years at Williams, Shields has seen growth in the Chapel Dwellers as well as in himself. “One can come to rely on an environment as comfortable and as safe as this, in positive and negative ways,” he said. 

“I am really happy this community exists, but I am also happy to have learned that I have lots of other friends in other spaces,” Shields said. “Now that the community has a life of its own, it feels good to see how [the group] thrives on its own too, and I don’t need to oversee everything.” 

“I do feel proud of it,” he added. “A little bit.”