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3 Questions: Thea Keith-Lucas on ministering to the MIT community

Chaplain to the Institute and associate dean of the Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life reflects on the office’s priorities and how the community still surprises her.
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Headshot of Thea Keith-Lucas as she stands near a mountain ridge
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“I'm one of over 20 chaplains who serve MIT, and it's a real privilege in this role to help bring the incredible gifts of our chaplains to the community,” says Thea Keith-Lucas. “I don't do any of this work by myself. ORSEL is a big team.”
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Photo courtesy of Thea Keith-Lucas.

MIT Chaplain to the Institute Thea Keith-Lucas feels very much at home working on a college campus. Keith-Lucas grew up in Sewanee, Tennessee, on the campus of the University of the South, where her father taught.

Keith-Lucas served as MIT’s Episcopal chaplain from 2013 to 2020, and was recently promoted to chaplain to the Institute and associate dean of the Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life (ORSEL), roles that she had been filling on an interim basis since September 2020. Before arriving at MIT, Keith-Lucas worked at a parish in Randolph, Massachusetts, with a diverse congregation comprising white, Afro-Caribbean, and Nigerian families. She later worked as the rector of a church in Danvers, Massachusetts. She holds a master’s degree in theology from the Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2006. In her free time, Keith-Lucas likes to hike, go camping, and play board games with her husband and two children.

On Sept. 13 Keith-Lucas will be installed in an official ceremony to take place at 4 p.m. in the MIT Chapel (Building W15), with remarks from President L. Rafael Reif, Chancellor Melissa Nobles, and Vice Chancellor and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson. A reception will follow at 5 p.m. in the Kresge Oval. In this interview, she speaks on her priorities as chaplain to the Institute and on the joys of being a part of the MIT community.

Q: You’ve been at MIT for nine years, the last two of which were as interim chaplain to the Institute. What do you like most about working with the community and what surprises you the most?

A: I think the surprising thing is that, if there's any kind of human being that exists, you will eventually meet someone here at MIT who fits that category. I think when I started here, I thought, "Oh, religious life has such incredible breadth at MIT." We have a Baháʼí chaplain and Zoroastrian chaplain, and I get to learn from them, and that's amazing. And then the longer I'm here, the more I discovered that there are folks among us from traditions that we don't have a chaplain for. We have folks who are Sikh, Coptic Christian, and others who practice African traditional religions. So that keeps my job interesting. It's a constantly unfolding challenge to figure out how to serve all the folks who are in our community.

I think the essential quality of MIT people is curiosity. So, I find it delightful. I recently talked with a grad student who told me about the research they were doing to help cure arthritis. It was fascinating. I think that happens every week. You meet somebody and whether it's their research or something they do for fun, there's something that they're deeply curious about and very willing to tell you about. There are just these constant learning opportunities. 

I think curiosity is also a way that people here are really welcoming. I've found folks curious about me; students who don't have a grounding in any religious tradition just ask, "What does a chaplain do, anyway?"

That spark of curiosity I think is really important. I think it's healthy, too. When difficult things happen, when there's something we're struggling with personally or a system that's hard to navigate, stopping and asking more questions is just a great strategy, and I think it comes pretty naturally here.

Q: What are your top three goals for the coming academic year?

A: We're the Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life, and having those three guideposts helps me organize my thinking every year. I think we've made some good progress connecting the work we do around religious diversity with the work our colleagues do around the Institute around inclusion and justice and belonging more broadly. I just want to keep strengthening those connections, deepening those conversations. Last year, we held joint programs with the Institute Community and Equity Office celebrating our Jewish and Muslim communities on campus, and I would love to keep doing programs like that and broaden it to some of our other communities.

In spiritual life, we have a partnership we're working on with Physical Education and Wellness to create a new course focused on social connection. The MIT Reads book this year is “Together,” by Vivek Murthy. We’re joining that effort through this course, which dives into the research on how human beings connect and then uses that to help students map their social worlds and make their own plans for how they want to improve their social lives and their communities.

In ethical life, we have a long-standing program called Radius, which focuses on promoting ethical reflection, particularly about issues in science and technology. This is a great time to reintroduce Radius to the campus and to invite more folks into conversation and community around our ethical values.

Q: MIT students are known for having very busy schedules — with classes, work, research, and outside activities. How do you get them engaged with the spiritual community? What do you hope our students take away from their experience of religious life at MIT?

A: I have a demonstration that I've done for students with exactly this question, and it starts with a jar, an apple, and a bunch of pebbles. If you put all the pebbles in the jar first, then there's just a narrow band of space at the top and you can't stick the apple in the jar. But, if you put the apple in first and then pour in the pebbles, everything fits perfectly. And there's a basic principle there that you want to put your big item in first so that there's room for it and then you fit the other stuff around it.

We try to remind folks that spirituality, whether you're religious or not, is about getting to know who you are in your deepest self and your truest self and then connecting from that place, whether it's to other people or the natural world or, for some people, to an experience of a higher power. Spirituality is the sweetness of life, like the sweetness of that apple. It's a really big part of you and it doesn't make sense for that to go in your life last, as an afterthought. 

Anyone can try a spiritual practice, which could be as simple as meditation or taking a walk outside or taking time to have a real conversation with somebody about things that matter to you. Then, when we feel grounded in our values and connected to our best selves, it’s easier to do everything else. 

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