Campus & Community / News

DU chaplain does more than preach

DU Chaplain Gary Brower takes students to nearby farms to glean, or pick leftover produce after harvest. The fruits and vegetables then get donated to local assistance agencies.

They’re reading books they never would have, gathering to share concerns about how their jobs impact their value systems and participating in service projects such as washing cars, gleaning fields and building houses.

DU Chaplain Gary Brower is behind these efforts to get members of the University of Denver community together, sharing, and doing for each other and the larger community. As chaplain, Brower is part morale officer, part counselor and part facilitator.

He says he trained for this position for years by directing a foundation and working as a chaplain and campus minister. When Brower assumed the role of University chaplain in 2007, he says DU had been without a chaplain since the 1970s.

“It gave me the opportunity to build a position from scratch and to work within an institution. If I wanted to do something that required music, I could call the music school. It gave me the opportunity to pull anything that I wanted together and expose people to a lot of different things,” he says.

The Student Life division’s strategic plan called for reinstituting the Office of the Chaplain as part of its programming to respond to resurging student interest in spiritual matters and to prepare students for a global world with myriad belief systems.

The chaplain must coordinate religious life at the University, facilitate inter-religious dialogue, engage the community in moral and ethical conversations and provide a safe environment where students, faculty and staff can explore and ask questions.

Brower performs these duties through programming that may seem hodge-podge on first glance: reading groups, community service events, the Soul and Role discussion group, and ceremonies such as remembrance of the dead.

With the exception of Soul and Role, which is geared exclusively to faculty and staff, programs are designed to appeal to everyone on campus.

Brower’s efforts to are part of his not-so-secret mission to “de-silo DU.” Like many large institutions, there is a tendency at DU to stay within one’s comfort zones, he says. By bringing people together and having them meet others, Brower hopes to build a sense of community and break down walls.

“All of those kinds of things help bring this 15,000-person city or town closer. I say [to participants] ‘We will never be in this configuration of people again. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; we better make the best of it,’” Brower says.

The book discussion group, which has covered subjects such as politics, animals, neuropsychology and terror, has brought the most people together. Titles included the classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Lippincott, 1960), Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown and Co., 2005), and Seeds of Terror (St. Martins, 2009) by Gretchen Peters, a student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Discussions typically draw 6–10 people and are facilitated by an expert while Brower focuses on the book’s religious or ethical implications.

Susan Sterett, associate dean of DU’s Divisions of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor in the political science department, has attended five or six reading groups, including Twilight. Although her daughter had enjoyed the series, a vampire novel wasn’t her usual fare. But Brower piqued her interest, saying the novels contained spirituality and religion and telling her it was about the only book he could guarantee most DU undergraduate women had read.

“It was a nice way of keeping me connected to the students and getting a different take on Twilight than I would have gotten otherwise,” Sterett says.

Through Soul and Role, a program co-developed with Morgridge College of Education faculty member Paul Michalec, faculty and staff talk about how professional demands conflict with personal or spiritual beliefs. Poetry gets discussions rolling. A poem about a snowstorm, for example, might prompt the question: What was life like before the snowstorm blocked the view of your goals?

Diane Burkhardt, a faculty services liaison at the Sturm College of Law Westminster Library, finds appealing the opportunity to step out of work roles to consider issues that come up in fulfilling university responsibilities.

“For me, there is a lot of value in a group of people who are interested in and committed to reflection as part of their daily lives. [Brower] has a real kind of evenhanded approach and a very accepting, inclusive, non-judgmental approach, so it’s possible for everyone to participate in a way that’s meaningful to them,” Burkhardt says.

In recent years, Brower has organized gleanings, where participants from DU have gone to local farms to pick the vegetables that remained in the fields after harvesting. This unmarketable produce that otherwise would have gone to waste was donated to local assistance agencies. In 2010, the mild weather allowed farmers to use all of their crops, but Brower hopes to do more gleanings in the future.

“Gary has such a plethora of experiences and variety in his background that he is able to share and connect with most anyone. His life is not ‘all religion’ — that is to say that he has experiences that college students can relate to,” says student Joel Portman, coordinator for intergroup relations at DU’s Center for Multicultural Excellence. When he graduates from a dual-degree program in June 2011, Portman will have a BA in international studies and an MBA

While he’s continuing to “de-silo DU,” Brower has more plans in the hopper. He’s involving students in planning activities through a student advisory council. He’d like to start a community-wide conversation about DU’s vision statement: “The University of Denver will be a great private university dedicated to the public good.” Although he loves the statement, it’s full of assumptions — not the least of which is that everyone agrees on what “public good” is. Brower says he wants the conversations to do more than get people thinking about public good, but to motivate individual change.

“I believe in a great private institution dedicated to the public good,” Brower says. “That captivated me from the get-go. I think I was really fortunate to find a place where I had spent my life training for this position without knowing it. And here at DU, I’ve been given the support as well as the guidance to live out who I am professionally.”


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