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Friday, August 25, 2017

A chaplain for all

College chaplains move toward multifaith ministry
Today's chaplains are moving out of the chapel and on to the quad in their focus on ministering to all of a university's students.

While living at a monastery in India, Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan took turns cooking meals for 150 people. So when he became a chaplain at Georgetown this past school year, the Hindu monk priest knew how to stretch the allotted budget for hosting his "Free Food Friday" open houses on his New South Hall floor. 

Sharan says his Friday open houses, where he serves seasonal, organic vegetarian snacks, are not as legendary as the Thursday night "Brownies and Quesadilla" ones hosted by Jesuit Father Chris Steck, who is the longtime Jesuit-in-residence living on the floor above him in the same dorm. But the goals of the two men, as well as that of the other Georgetown chaplains-in-residence, are the same: to serve all students at Georgetown, whatever their faith.

"We are mindful of being present to all the students, making sure they have someone else to bounce their ideas off of, cognizant of the fact that a lot of their information comes from their peers," Sharan says. The food socials are a hook to show that chaplains are nonjudgmental sounding boards always available to students. 

A chaplain for all
When he was hired in 2016, Sharan became the first Hindu priest to serve as a chaplain at a U.S. university. He says it shows that Georgetown is Catholic in its roots but prioritizes supporting students from all faiths. There are Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, and interreligious chaplains on the campus ministry staff and a diverse range of chaplains-in-residence.

That diversity reflects a national trend toward multifaith chaplaincies and religious life offices at U.S. universities. 

"You're starting to see even smaller schools with modest resources trying to figure out a way to offer something to their students that are coming from . . . minority religious populations," says Sharon Kugler, who is the first female, first Catholic, and first lay chaplain at historically Protestant Yale University.

The tricky part often is figuring out which religions get a chaplain, religious dean, or other leader on campus to represent them.

"I think that none of us have cracked the nut of how to be sure that everyone's traditions are represented and valued," says Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, the senior associate dean for religious life at Stanford University. "At what point do you say there's a critical mass and they need to be served?"

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