Can't Keep Him from Singing

June 30, 2015
Noah Van Niel
Noah Van Niel, MDiv '15

Noah Van Niel is strong.

During his time as an undergraduate, Van Niel played for the Harvard Crimson football team throwing blocks as a 250-pound fullback.

He's also strong in voice, having performed and studied as an operatic tenor at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and separately in New York and Florence.

But what's more, Van Niel is strong in faith.

Shortly after Commencement in May, Van Niel was ordained and moved to Hingham, Massachusetts, where he began serving as curate, or assistant priest, at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church. But his path to ordination and to HDS began after asking himself some tough questions.

"I found myself at a certain point really not feeling fulfilled by what I was doing, and I started asking a lot of those big questions about who am I, what I want to do with my life, and what matters most to me," said Van Niel, who received a master of divinity degree this year. "The answers to those questions started to revolve around my faith."

It was around that time that Van Niel decided to apply to institutions including HDS in order to pursue ordination as an Episcopal priest. He found himself drawn to HDS because of its diversity.

"What sold me on HDS was a real chance to engage my faith with people who may not share all my same presuppositions and assumptions about how things are. For me, I knew that was going to be a more formative environment than if I went to a place where everybody was an Episcopalian, or if I went to a place where everybody was Christian," he said. "It's proven to be a place where the diversity of the student body and the diversity of the faculty have helped me to hone my own identity and my own faith and theology."

Noah Van Niel spoke at the Morning Prayers service at the Memorial Church on April 14, 2015.

Part of Van Niel's formation has come through experiences with his fellow students, having deep conversations on campus (including in the Rock Café), through the ability to take courses via the Boston Theological Institute consortium, and through HDS's Field Education Program.

During his three years at HDS, Van Niel worked at an Afro-Caribbean Episcopal parish in Cambridge and at the historic Old North Church in Boston.

"Field education can put you into situations that are diverse and challenging, and yet do so in a framework that holds you in those places. You have mentors here, you have teachers here, a meaning-making class that helps you to talk through and make sense of some of the experiences that you're having, and I think that's essential. The fundamental act of taking your experiences in life and trying to make some meaning out of them is what it is to live thoughtfully in the world," he said.

Van Niel refers to the field education work he did as a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital as "one of the most important things I've ever done in my life." Having to work as a chaplain in medical units, including an in-patient cancer unit, raised difficult questions for Van Niel.

"It was fascinating for me to come back into the classroom after a summer of doing that and then try to figure out how it is that what we're doing here is as important or can contribute to the world in a way that sitting by someone's bedside as they take their last breath will. I wrestled with that for a while and eventually came to my own answers about it, but it's a question I still live with," he said. "That divide between the theory and practice world—the more and more we can meld those two things together the better."

In addition to the academic rigor that took place during his time at HDS, Van Niel considered the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life as another crucial component for providing formative opportunities. He credited the office with offering students ways not to forget the impact and importance of their work.

"There is a spiritual dimension, and for some people, a very profound spiritual truth to everything that we're talking about. The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life goes a long way in acknowledging that and tries to find ways to incorporate that into the education here," he said.

At HDS, Van Niel was a Williams Scholarship Fund recipient, an award supported by the Society for Promoting Theological Education and given mainly to MDiv students who have expressed a commitment to pursuing a career in ministry. He was also a Hopkins Shareholder, an award made annually to six MDiv students based upon demonstrated ministerial promise. If it were not for the financial aid associated with those awards, Van Niel would not have been able to attend HDS, he said.

"All the great things I described as constituting my experiences here were only possible by the fact that I had the financial support," he said. "I am very grateful for the School's generosity."

While Van Niel is no longer studying to become an operatic tenor, he still sings. In thanks for all of the support and gifts he received from the faculty, staff, his fellow students, as well as other groups, Van Niel decided to put on a recital of sacred vocal works on May 23. He was accompanied by HDS music director and lecturer Harry Huff.

Singing and performing have more and more become a part of his spiritual and religious life.

"I didn't use to experience them in similar ways, but the deeper my spiritual life has grown, the more I have been able to find my vocal performance as a way to access that," he said. "My vision of music in my ministry involves me deepening that connection and finding ways to use my vocal abilities to convey those thoughts, feelings, and truths that words alone, or even music alone, cannot. If my voice can be used to bring people in to a deeper relationship with God, then, to borrow a famous hymn lyric, 'how can I keep from singing?' "

—by Michael Naughton

This story was originally published May 18, 2015.