As I write, I’ve just returned home from a candlelit prayer vigil at our school chapel. Two weeks ago, a student only in our Class of 2014 died, under as yet unknown though clearly tragic circumstances. I was contacted out of the blue by a former student who wished to organize a service for their friend in the chapel where they used to worship together. He sounded shy about asking, but when the school and I quickly embraced him and offered all we could to help, he was profoundly grateful that we were taking the time to respond to him with such enthusiasm. It was a small, simple, yet intimate opportunity to gather in the presence of God, in a place which was so much a center of spiritual, emotional and also collegial gravity for those friends. In a way, as one student remarked, it felt like “a home away from home.” Like a parish church, I suppose.
It was a humble yet potent reminder that schools are not simply places of education, athletics, and anxiety. In the case of Episcopal Schools, and others similar, they’re real places of faith, wisdom and compassion. They’re also, in many respects, a home away from home, even when they’re a day school.
I’ll never forget a former colleague of mine in university chaplaincy, once saying he didn’t feel as though he had “the cure of souls” on college campuses like a priest would in a parish. In parishes, you’re there to preach as well as teach, evangelize as well as educate. At college, you don’t operate like a church because, although there’s a chapel for certain services, students and faculty have their own, real worshiping communities separate from campus life.
I could appreciate some elements of what he said, but certainly not the whole picture.
Of course, colleges, like schools, are there to nurture in a broad, holistic fashion first and foremost, to all faiths and none. However, isn’t that what a parish is? A diverse community, all looking for something different, and there, in the midst of circumstance, a person of faith and hope communicates that faith precisely through the love and compassion their God taught them to embody in the moments their neighbor needed it most? Maybe this is just the way I see ministry, but if anyone was going to find faith through meeting me, they’re not going to if I simply “hit them” with The Bible. Faith is relational and reciprocal: it’s the essence of what it means “to be.”
Isn’t that how we discover anything of meaning and value? You’re living your life, something happens, you engage with it, and, at some point, someone asks, “What does this mean to you?”
And this is not simply a chaplain’s business. It’s everybody’s: faculty, staff, and students.
That is what that vigil meant. Wherever those students were on their journey, they could return to that place where someone first asked them, “What does this mean to you?” and waited for the answer… That is why we go to chapel.
The Rev. Edward Thornley
Middle School and Upper School Chaplain
All Saints’ Episcopal School, Fort Worth TX