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College Chaplains Warm to a New Campus Role

As students, faculty, and administrators have struggled to define the role of religion on campus, campus chaplains and ministers have often felt tossed about by changing expectations.

Especially tricky has been the role of chaplains at private schools where church affiliations have weakened, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness. On a campus that is likely to encompass every faith from Bahai to paganism, how does today's chaplain function?

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Lately, chaplains say, their jobs have become both more challenging and more exciting as growing numbers of students manifest a longing for a spiritual center - even as they firmly reject any kind of organized religion.

Here are some comments on the changing role of chaplain:

The Rev. John Colatch, Chaplain at Allegheny College, Meadsville, Pa.

Until recently, says Mr. Colatch, an ordained Methodist minister, "the last great heydays of chaplaincy were during the Vietnam War when chaplains were helping people declare themselves as conscientious objectors." When the war ended, he says, the office "went into a slump."

But today, he says, there's been a strengthening of the position. "Schools like Columbia University and the University of Southern California didn't have chaplains for a time but now they've reinstated the position," he points out.

At Allegheny, he says, just before he arrived the position was reexamined and rather than serving as an administrator with some part-time duties as a chaplain, Colatch was invited to be become "a full-time chaplain who could minister, do Bible study groups, retreats, and so on."

But he adds, such work doesn't mean pushing the Methodist faith, despite the school's original connection with the church. Instead, it means finding a way for students of all faiths to become comfortable with spiritual exploration.

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The Rev. Jewelnel Davis, Chaplain at Columbia University, New York

The first time Columbia University approached Ms. Davis about the chaplain's job she said no thank you. She perceived that what Columbia was really looking for was "a secular chaplain," with administrative rather than ministerial duties. "That wasn't me," says Davis, who is a minister in the National Baptist Church.

Eighteen months later, Columbia approached her again. This time, during her interview, she read from a book about college chaplains printed in 1911: "The purpose of the religious work under the direction of the Chaplain is to awaken, to refine and suitably to express the fundamental feelings of reverence and desire for worship...." That, she explained, was the job she wanted. And that was the job she got.

Davis sees her fundamental duty as "creating a space where men and women can ask enough questions about meaning, about life, about the past and present." Today's students are especially hungry for such dialogue, she says. "So many have grown up in a family where there wasn't religion. They ask: 'Is that all there is? Is it just economic gain?' They come in and ask me, 'Can you give me something?' "

Rev. Mark Duntley, Dean of the Chapel at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Ore.

Lewis and Clark was originally created as a Presbyterian school, but today, says Mr. Duntley, apart from his presence, as a Presbyterian minister, "almost no vestiges remain."

"Today's students are different," he says. "They don't have a high preponderance of religious affiliations and there's a certain reluctance to be involved in a formal way with religion." Often these students struggle, he says, because "they understand that there's a spiritual side to life but they don't have an arena for it."

Duntley seeks "to help people not to be so hard on religion." Ironically, he says, on today's "politically correct" campus, no one would dare to utter a negative word on the basis of gender or race, but many feel free to any form of organized faith.

"We need to make the academic community come to grips with the spiritual," he says. "It's not to be ridiculed and dismissed but to be understood."

Rabbi Joshua Gutoff, Jewish Chaplain, C.W. Post campus, Long Island University, Brookville, N.Y.

Students today are not seeking in religion what their parents or grandparents may have sought, says Mr. Gutoff, who is a Jewish chaplain.

"What people are looking for is not a discipline or cause to pull them out of themselves," he says. "Instead, they are seeking an inner validation. Everybody needs a map, a compass."

Gutoff's job includes ministering to students of all faiths, in addition to leading Jewish worship services.

One of the goals he sets for himself is to "be with people of all faiths who are in different processes of self-discovery, and to become a positive force." His principal hope is to someday see his students become adults who "make the sacred visible in the way they treat the world and others."

While Gutoff insists that being a chaplain today in an atmosphere of religious diversity and questioning is "marvelous fun," he says he does worry that many arrive at college with little religious background.

The Rev. Lucy Forster-Smith, Chaplain at Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn.

When Ms. Forster-Smith began working as a Presbyterian campus minister 18 years ago, she recalls that, "We had to work pretty hard to get a small handful of people who would come to the ministry."

Not today, she says. "Students are really interested in connecting with me and bring with them some remarkable questions." If anything, she says, today's students demonstrate a sense of "spiritual urgency." They seem to need "a deep centering place inside of themselves," she says. "They feel alienated from this fast-paced life and the limitations of the technological and scientific world they've been handed."

At the same time, she says, she deals with a strong bias against Christianity. She and her colleagues joke that on today's campus, "it's easier to come out as gay or lesbian than to come out as a Christian."

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