Finding Faith at College: An Interview with University of Denver Chaplain Gary Brower

College can be a liberating yet confusing time for many students. This is true not only academically and socially, but also spiritually. When University of Denver (DU) Chaplain Gary Brower arrived on campus, he set about helping students and faculty develop their faith and strengthen their spirituality.

By Jeff Calareso

Gary Brower and students

Gary Brower arrived at DU in 2007. Prior to his tenure, DU had been without a chaplain since the 1970s. He quickly began a series of projects designed to reach out to a wide spectrum of students and faculty, including those from all religious backgrounds.

Q. Can you tell our readers a little about your professional background before arriving at the DU?

A. After graduation from seminary, but prior to ordination, I spent about seven years working in the paper industry. I realized that that wasn't going to be my life's work, and decided to go to graduate school. While at Duke University, pursuing my doctorate, I became the interim Episcopal Chaplain at Duke, a position I held for a year and a half.

After leaving that position, I was chosen to be the Episcopal Campus Minister at the University of North Carolina - Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College, where I spent about two and a half years. In the summer of 1996, I took over as Executive Director and Chaplain of Berkeley Canterbury Foundation, the Episcopal Campus Ministry at the University of California - Berkeley. I was there 11 years before coming to the University of Denver.

Q. Before your arrival in 2007, DU was without a chaplain since the 1970s. What led to that protracted absence?

A. I'm not entirely certain why the position was eliminated in the 1970s. If there are records that explain it, I've not been able to find them. Nor have I been able to speak with anyone who knows for certain what happened.

Q. To what extent have you defined your own role at DU and how supportive has the administration been regarding your efforts to engage students?

A. One of the reasons I took this job was that it gave me the opportunity to create a position from scratch. And I've sought to engage the entire university community, trying to break down the barriers that separate the students, faculty, staff and administration. I try to program very little that focuses only on one population.

With regard to the administration's support, I couldn't ask for anything better. I very rarely have heard the word 'No' when I've asked for, or proposed, something.

Q. What types of unique spiritual issues do you find university students facing?

A. They mirror, I feel, the wider population's issues. The phrase 'spiritual but not religious' is as applicable to this age-group as to the wider society. On the other hand, certain issues are appropriate to college and university students, newfound freedom being at the core. Without the structure (or strictures) of parental control, there's a lot of experimentation going on - sexual, substance, religious, etc. The consequences of that experimentation, or the questions raised by it, often run into a student's previously held religious and spiritual beliefs.

Q. What types of issues do you work on with faculty and staff at DU?

A. My work with faculty and staff runs in a couple of directions. I provide opportunities for spiritual and religious exploration and conversations across religious boundaries that are often not found in their own religious settings. I also do counseling on all sorts of issues, ranging from work-related to life and family issues.

Q. One of your stated goals is to get students out of their comfort zones. In what ways are you doing this and how have different ideas been received by students?

A. Certain programs have succeeded in prodding students to think differently. One example from this year was a series called 'Immigration in a New Light,' which was put together by my intern from Iliff School of Theology. She gathered speakers who could speak from their own experiences regarding immigration - folks who came to the U.S. for all sorts of reasons. The purpose was to put a human face on the issue. In their feedback, a number of students not only spoke about how much their understanding was stretched, but also how much they appreciated the opportunity to have a sensitive issue discussed outside of the 'political' discussions.

Another example of the way we get students out of their comfort zones is through community service opportunities. Working with less fortunate folks does open many eyes, putting a very human face on issues that may not be as apparent.

Q. Let's talk about inter-faith dialogue. How are students of different faiths and backgrounds responding to your efforts?

A. I am not finding much difference at all between students of different faiths when it comes to responding. The difference is between those students in general who respond and those who don't; I have no real idea why those who do not respond don't. My suspicion has to do with normal collegiate demands on time; 'given so many possibilities, which is most attractive?'

As far as inter-faith dialogue progressing, I'd say not as well as I'd hoped. Some of that has to do with the demographics and some with interest. I'm a little less concerned with 'dialogue' and more interested in getting students from various backgrounds doing things together.

Q. One of your programs is a book group in which students have discussed Twilight and other novels. Can you tell our readers a little about how you approach popular novels from a spiritual perspective?

A. The book discussions range widely both in topic and attendance. I try to find books - both fiction and non-fiction - that raise religious, spiritual and ethical questions. That said, I don't necessarily try to focus the discussion on those issues, but rather to shine a different light on familiar topics. With Twilight, it was pretty easy to find provocative themes: good and evil, love and acceptance of the 'other' and the lure of immortality.

We also discussed To Kill a Mockingbird. The co-facilitator had taught this book before, but had never looked at it with 'religion' in mind; she was surprised to find it throughout the story. One of my ongoing efforts is to get folks to see that religion and spirituality are not bracketed from other parts of our life. When readers see it in novels where they hadn't previously noticed it, then I feel I'm doing my job.

Q. How would you suggest students looking to help their communities as you have done go about it?

A. I think the best way is to shelve one's own doctrinal position and to find ways to engage another person one-on-one. Find the place of common ground, and work towards it. Find that place of passion, and then find others - regardless of beliefs and ideology - who share it.

Q. Is there anything unique about the current time or generation of university students that makes issues of spirituality and faith particularly important?

A. Well, the world has gotten smaller. We live, work and study cheek-by-jowl with folks who are different from us in so many ways: religious, ethnic, socio-economic, etc. But we also live in a world that seeks to divide us from one another based a lot on those same differences. This generation is less comfortable with those divisive efforts, having grown up differently than their parents. Also, many of this generation are the product of their parents' generation's non-affiliated way of 'being religious,' and therefore have less grounding in the historic religious traditions. Many of them are looking for something that transcends the immediate, the material. Faith and spirituality helps provide that sense of meaning, but also a sense of connection that transcends differences.

Q. How have the troubles with the economy impacted people's faith? Do you find more students turning to spirituality?

A. The economic difficulties certainly have had an impact on people's faith. For some, doubts increase as a particular kind of faith is tested - such as a faith in a God that rewards hard work or spiritual 'excellence': 'I've been a faithful (fill in the blank); how could God let this happen to me?' For others, their faith is a bedrock during difficult times: 'I believe this will work out; God has better things in mind for me.' That said, I can't say I've seen any evidence of the economy having an impact on students' spirituality.

Q. Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers about your work on the DU campus?

A. This is an exciting place to be! There are so many opportunities to engage folks at critical times of their lives. And most of that engagement isn't necessarily 'theological.' It's simply about being present and offering a safe place and welcoming heart. That attitude comes out of my Christianity, but we have no corner on that market - anyone can do it, anywhere, anytime.

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