Rev. Dr. Barber headlines as Emory co-sponsors virtual conference on chaplains’ ‘soul work’

By Michelle Hiskey | Emory Report | March 2, 2021

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The Rev. Dr. William Barber II is a keynote speaker for the March 8-9 conference of university chaplains. As senior pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, he helped start the Moral Mondays series of protests and restart the King-era Poor People’s Campaign. (Photo by Knightopia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

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Emory will co-sponsor a two-day national conference of university chaplains March 8-9, with the Rev. Dr. William Barber II leading the lineup of speakers. Emory students, faculty and staff can participate in the “Imagining the Possibilities” conference with chaplains from diverse religious and spiritual viewpoints to engage pressing topics on their campuses such as racial justice and LGBTQ inclusion.

“Healing, reconciliation and social change is spiritual work,” says the Rev. Gregory W. McGonigle, Emory’s dean of religious life and university chaplain. “The work of racial healing and racial justice requires more than just an intellectual shift, it is soul work.” 

Participating in planning and co-sponsoring this inaugural national conference of the new Association for Chaplaincy and Spiritual Life in Higher Education (ACSLHE) is part of Emory’s national leadership role in supporting multifaith religious and spiritual life at universities and colleges. McGonigle leads the Emory Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL), which is inviting community members to participate in strategic planning and has been recruiting a team of multifaith chaplains who are Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian.

“The conference highlights why every part of the university needs to be engaged in diversity work, because it is present in so many ways,” says Enku Gelaye, vice president and dean of campus life.

Barber preached at President Joe Biden’s inaugural prayer service last month. As senior pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, he has helped start the Moral Mondays series of protests and restart the King-era Poor People’s Campaign.

“Very few religious leaders are able to inspire political action on the part of large numbers of people who don’t share their church, their denomination or their faith. Yet the Rev. Dr. William Barber [has] motivated legions across the country to engage in demonstrations and peaceful civil disobedience in support of racial, economic and environmental justice as well as the protection of voting rights,” wrote the New York Times in a recent interview.

Conference attendees will also hear from Joy Harjo, the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States, who is Muscogee Creek; Ruth Simmons, current president of Prairie View A&M University and president emerita of Brown University, who led Brown’s Slavery and Justice Initiative; and Varun Soni, dean of religious and spiritual life at the University of Southern California, the first Hindu to serve as dean of religious life at a U.S. university. 

“Having this conference at a time when the nation is trying to heal from such a divisive period in our country provides a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on and recommit to what we really mean when we say, ‘We hold the truths to be self-evident, that all people are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” says Carol E. Henderson, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and an adviser to the Emory president.

“This is the real ‘soul work,’” she says. “It gets us back in tune with the soul of our nation, with our principles and values as a people as we continue to build the beloved community that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worked so hard with others to achieve — one that is diverse, equitable, inclusive and just.”

The conference will also feature workshops by chaplains, whose topics will include:

  • An examination of systemic racism led by a Zen monk chaplain from Florida’s Stetson University, where students joined local citizens in the Zen tenet of “bearing witness” by collecting soil from nearby sites of lynchings;
  • Student-led LGBTQ+ interfaith communities, such as the Refuge at Stanford University, that facilitate weekly gatherings, queer worship and spiritual practice, and activist meetings; 
  • Anti-racism as spiritual practice led by NYU’s Sikh religious life affiliate Simran Jeet Singh, who facilitated programs in fall semester 2020 for Columbia and Trinity Universities challenging white supremacy.

Emory students, faculty and staff can attend the conference at reduced rates by registering at the ACSLHE website. Yale University Chaplain's Office and Interfaith Youth Core are co-sponsors.  

The role of spiritual life in higher education

The conference reflects the recent formation of ACSLHE (pronounced “axle”) through the consolidation of two long-time professional associations: the National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC), and the Association for College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA). McGonigle, who has served in leadership in both groups, says the move reflects the changing demographics of spiritual life on university and college campuses.

“We hope that a renewed understanding of the role of spiritual life in higher education will come out of this conference, along with a deep integration of our work with so many of the issues facing university communities in this historic moment,” McGonigle explains.

Chaplains work in locations that are not dedicated places of worship, and provide spiritual care and religious services where people are in need. But their roles often expand to include community-building, diversity and engagement in social change. In 2019, Emory’s Candler School of Theology began offering a chaplaincy concentration for master of divinity students, and recognized the need to tailor coursework to community needs with classes on topics such as restorative justice and caring for marginalized populations.

McGonigle cited another Emory example of this “soul work” being the Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations. Several ACSLHE conference sessions will deal directly with the issues of colonialism and enslavement that are part of many universities’ efforts to reckon with their untold stories.

“Work by university chaplains is extremely important because college is a time of really deep formation on many levels,” says Adam Russell Taylor 98C, the new president of Sojourners and author of “Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation,” who recently gave the 2021 Emory OSRL Black History Month lecture

“The values that Emory stands for, like religious tolerance and racial equity, are really important to share across the university. There need to be spaces for courageous and candid dialogue about where we fall short of those values, and invite students in.”