During a recent week at Harvard Divinity School, a royal delegation from Nigeria strolled down the first floor of Andover Hall and into the Braun Room to meet with Dean Graham and HDS faculty.
Later that same afternoon, a best-selling author and HDS alumnus spoke about his new book to a crowded Cambridge bookstore. Two days earlier, a prize-winning film screened on campus.
Sandwiched in the midst of these high profile events, four HDS alumnae sat in front of an audience of mostly HDS students in a dimly lit Andover Chapel on a Tuesday evening and told personal stories of what it means to be a chaplain, including the day-to-day realities of the role.
The panel discussion on March 11, "So You Want to be a Chaplain?" was organized by the Office of Career Services and the Dean's Office to inspire student interest in the field of chaplaincy by affording them the opportunity to meet and hear from HDS graduates presently serving as chaplains.
"If I had to tell you what it is that the chaplains at Brown University do, we start out by being concerned to care for the institution and for everybody in it," said Janet Cooper-Nelson, Chaplain of the University at Brown and a member of its faculty.
Speaking to the role of university chaplains, Cooper-Nelson stated that the need for colleges and universities to operate on a continually growing scale is taking a toll, in some ways, on the types of discussions—including ones around freedom of expression—within institutions, but "chaplains do well to bring together conversation partners and to try and model a kind of discourse when disagreement is a characteristic of an institution."
While working toward her master of divinity degree at HDS in the late 1970s, Cooper-Nelson was awarded the Billings Preaching Prize and the Hopkins Scholarship. In 1996, she received the Rabbi Martin Katzenstein Award from the HDS Alumni/ae Association.
Katrina Scott, MDiv '05, serves as the oncology chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). She started out wanting to be a university chaplain, but after completing a summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, she "fell in love with grumpy old men," and decided to pursue a hospital chaplaincy.
For Scott, a Humanist and follower of the nontheistic Ethical Culture religious tradition, there is something therapeutic in hearing the stories of patients.
"You're just kind of hearing that person's story; you're holding their story," she said. "I think my gift is curiosity. I can hear the most mundane little story and be totally fascinated."
Scott described having the luxury of time to minister to patients. She spends 15 minutes or even as much as an hour with them. As the oncology chaplain, she can sometimes see people once a week for six months during their treatment.
"The majority of time it's a ministry of presence; it's a ministry of listening," she said.
Lieutenant Cynthia Kane received her master of divinity degree from HDS in 1996. When it was made known during her graduation ceremony that she would be pursuing a chaplaincy in the U.S. Navy, the announcement was met with a collective gasp. Kane explained her desire to serve as a military chaplain as "this odd calling that we don't hear in the hallowed halls of Harvard."
A non combatant who describes herself as a peace-loving pacifist, Kane is the deputy director of the Spiritual Fitness Division, Navy Region Southwest.
"The United States has seen it fit, since the very beginning of the founding of this country, that service members need spiritual care," Kane said. "So that's what we do as military chaplains. We take care of the spiritual element of our service members."
Chaplains, Kane explained, serve both a mission and an institution. Their feet are simultaneously in two different worlds. Yet regardless of the institution they serve, chaplains care for everyone under what Kane described as a "cloak of care."
Kelly Raths, MDiv '05, is chaplain to just under 900 inmates at the Oregon State Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility approximately three miles to the east of Salem. According to Raths, 500 inmates are within six months of their reentry into the community, which heightens the need for transition programs.
"How do we connect folks who, a lot of times, really do find God behind bars?" Raths asked. "I want somebody who has found a real affinity for Seventh-day Adventists to have the Seventh-day Adventist community waiting to receive him before he walks out the door."
As their release date approaches, some inmates will buy a bus ticket to go see their parole officer, but afterward, a sizable portion of the men do not have any place to go. So working with communities to establish a network of people of different faiths is an important aspect of Raths's chaplaincy.
"Part of the reason why my work is so compelling is because it feels like there's very much a public policy piece to what I do," said Raths, who once served as a volunteer with the Harvard Prison Education Program.
The intimate panel discussion was moderated by Kent French, MDiv '07, who now serves as pastoral resident at Wellesley Congregational Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, as part of the Lilly Endowment's Transitions into Ministry Program.
Angela Herrera, a third-year master of divinity student at HDS, listened to the women from her seat in the front row in the chapel. She recently told me that her foremost interest is parish ministry, and she thought of the event as both a networking opportunity and a chance to hear about the varied experiences of HDS graduates now serving as chaplains.
Herrera said that she walked away from the event realizing she needs to gain a little bit of experience in as many areas of ministry as she can.
"I was surprised to hear how different their work was," she said. "One of the things that attracted me to parish ministry has also attracted me to chaplaincy, which is being with people during transitions in life."
—by Jonathan Beasley