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Interview: University Chaplain Gary Brower on faith and college life

Gary Brower is an ordained Episcopal priest with nearly 20 years of campus ministry experience. He oversees DU’s Center for Religious Services, which encompasses 20 campus religious and spiritual organizations.

x"Until I got here, there wasn't someone devoted to keeping the conversation about religious diversity alive within the larger context of diversity," says University Chaplain Gary Brower. Photo illustration by: Wayne Armstrong

"Until I got here, there wasn't someone devoted to keeping the conversation about religious diversity alive within the larger context of diversity," says University Chaplain Gary Brower. Photo illustration: Wayne Armstrong

Q: What is your function on campus?

A: I help students, faculty and staff (but primarily students) find the faith tradition that they are interested in. I have conversations with students who are seeking a religious home.

I also try to ensure that all religious groups on campus are treated fairly. I spent a lot time last year trying to make sure that religious groups on campus got treated like all the other groups on campus. They shouldn’t be treated separately just because they are religious groups. So, for example, I encouraged the student senate to agree to fund religious student groups just like any other group.

Another function would be to sort of mainstream religious concerns — to make sure the religious voice is not left out. For example, the Center for Multicultural Excellence is concerned about diversity. But until I got here, there wasn’t someone devoted to keeping the conversation about religious diversity alive within the larger context of diversity.

Part of what I do is bring people together across boundaries. I’ve done some work on some interfaith projects where I deal with students who may be actively involved in their traditions, but they are interested in learning from students from different traditions. Last fall we did an interfaith Habitat for Humanity project, and we had Jewish and Muslim and Protestant folks out there working together.


Q: Many college students are living away from home, family and community influences. Do you see faith as a priority for most students, or is it something that goes on the back burner?

I would say probably it goes to the back burner, especially if you look at the statistics. Eighty to 85 percent of students claim to be spiritual in one way or another — that’s nationwide, and it’s probably the same here. But if you look at the people who are actually involved in their tradition while at DU, I’m sure it probably wouldn’t even approach 50 percent.

I think two things happen. One, their connections are looser. So, they might attend church occasionally as opposed to regularly like they may have when their parents were schlepping them to and fro. Or, they may shift and move into the spiritual but not-religious realm (as opposed to being spiritual and religious). And then, of course, students away at college are frequently exposed to religious diversity for the first time, and they begin exploring that. But that doesn’t always take institutional form. The statistics also show that students are engaged in a lot of conversations about religion, but these happen in dorms and outside the classroom and not necessarily with religious professionals.


What is the greatest need of today’s college students in the area of faith?

A: A safe place to talk. My experience has been that many students don’t feel free to talk about religious issues in the classroom, but they want more opportunity to talk about these issues there. It’s hard to even come out to their friends. In many ways, it’s easier to “be out” as a lesbian or gay person on a college campus than a person of deep religion or faith. And I’ve even heard that from any number of gay or lesbian students (on lots of different campuses) who are also people of faith.

I think the main reason is that we have a lot of stereotypes about what religious people are. People don’t really want to come out with that part of who they are. Not only may they open themselves up to ridicule on the one side, but on the other side (and this isn’t only true of students), they aren’t really confirmed in what they think. Being asked to defend their position is really tricky at a time when so much is in upheaval. You may have grown up believing one thing, and now that it is called into question on a college campus.

Somebody said the other day, “We used to not be able to talk about sex, politics or religion. Well, sex is on prime-time television, politics is all around us, and religion is the last of the barriers to be broken.” I think it is one of those really private pieces, and we don’t have good ways of talking about it. I’m not so sure that it’s a question about the acceptance of religious diversity. It’s a question of whether people are willing to talk about or have a place to talk about questions of faith without feeling like they are going to look weird to their friends.


Q: DU hasn’t had a chaplain since the mid-1970s. What significance do you see in DU’s decision to reinstate the position in 2007, when you joined the University?

I think it was recognition of two things. It was recognition that universities need to deal with the “whole student” and devote resources to it. We deal with the socialization stuff in the residence halls, and we deal with health and counseling, and certainly we deal with the intellectual life. Then, we devote funds to diversity education, gender violence awareness and alcohol awareness training, and then we just have bracketed this other part that can either be a support or it can inform all of these other pieces — that being the religious and spiritual side. And so, I think the significance is that a “whole student” includes that religious/spiritual side.

I also think there was a recognition on the University’s part that there wasn’t really anybody dedicated to deal with that, and it wasn’t fair to expect the religious studies department or the campus ministries to do it — partly because neither religious studies nor the campus ministries attract everybody. There wasn’t anyone looking at it from a University standpoint.

If DU is going to adequately prepare leaders, then those leaders need to be able to negotiate questions of religious diversity. Ignorance of [religious diversity] has had such a huge impact. I think that if I do my job well, more students will be better prepared.

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