Chaplain fosters religious pluralism

Glancing around the office of Rev. Frederick “Jerry” Streets DIV ’75 gives one the impression that, after over a decade as University Chaplain, he has yet to find the time to properly move in.

His desk is colonized by stacks of papers, books and trinkets — his keyboard is nearly submerged. The bookshelf is topped with mementos from his travels (he has worked in Bosnia as a counselor for war victims five times) and is lined with tomes like “Catholicism” and “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

“The Phantom Tollbooth”? The choice seems odd for a non-fourth grader.

Tollbooth tells the story of Milo, a perpetually bored child who arrives home one day to discover a mysterious gift, a magical tollbooth, which transports him to a dreamlike world. Once there, Milo embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason and restore order in the bizarre world. Streets, in a certain way, seems to model himself on Milo.

“Life comes in when you search for coherence among the world’s ambiguities,” Streets said.

Typing the 52-year-old Streets’ name into the online phonebook yields a laundry list of titles: University chaplain, pastor of the Church Of Christ, assistant professor at the Yale Divinity School, acting master of Trumbull College (a post he held last year), and member of the Clinical Social Work adjunct faculty at the Child Study Center. Tack on Streets’ position as a senior consultant at the Harvard University Program in Refugee Trauma and you get some idea of how he divides his time.

As University Chaplain, Streets is responsible for facilitating the religious life of the Yale community. Practically, he aims to combine efforts to increase dialogue between the myriad campus faiths while actively agitating for social progress.

“Yale has always been aware of and valued the spiritual and religious dimensions of the institution’s life, but it hasn’t always been clear on how to best meet them,” Streets said. “We want to foster religious pluralism on campus.”

During his tenure as chaplain, Streets has tackled issues of bigotry and religious intolerance. One of his current pet projects is Jews and Muslims, or JAM, an interfaith discussion group. Streets is also campaigning for the creation of a “Religious Life Center” to pool the resources available to campus religious groups and foster inter-group cooperation.

Yet for all his roles, there is one for which Streets is probably best known: crisis counselor. When a 19-year-old man fell from a window in Durfee to his death in October, Streets arrived at 3:30 a.m. to help those devastated by the tragedy.

“Sometimes in those situations a student will turn to you and say, ‘Why did this happen? Why did God let this happen?’” Streets said. “Sometimes it means just being present.”

Streets does not only handle issues of faith. During labor negotiations last November, Streets refused to take a partisan stance and led a small procession of campus religious leaders, union and University representatives on a silent walk around Yale to demonstrate support for the negotiation process. Only one undergraduate showed up.

Drew Days LAW ’66, a friend of Streets, said the chaplain follows his conscience with or without widespread support.

“He has brought a heightened level of social consciousness to the community in his sermons and activities,” Days said. “It’s a part of the tradition of this particular chapel. It’s always been very active, and this sometimes ends up getting the chapel into fights.”

As rain drizzled down that day, collecting on the lenses of Streets’ slightly oversized glasses, the silent walk seemed noble but quixotic. Streets said he sees it differently.

“A long tradition of silence and non-violent protest has a way of contributing to dialogue about an issue,” Streets said. “The attitude of taking a neutral stance in the union crisis wasn’t an attempt to be milquetoast.”

Streets is not easy to typecast. The bouncing, emotive preacher who leads the Church of Christ — he’s an American/Progressive Baptist — every Sunday morning is shy and bashful when he talks about himself. As he described his background, his voiced softened, becoming barely audible. His nervous hands toyed with two rubber bands, first stretching them, then wearing them like a bracelet, then stretching them again.

He grew up in Chicago, the son of a bread salesman and a housewife. When he was seven, his parents divorced, amiably, and the young Streets was raised mainly by his father and grandmother. At 14, Streets decided to become a minister.

“It was a very deep feeling that I was being invited by God — I know that sounds corny,” he said, laughing.

After graduating from Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kan. and the Yale Divinity School, Streets worked as a pastor in Bridgeport for 17 years. He later earned a doctorate and master’s degree at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He took over as Yale’s University Chaplain in 1992, the first African-American ever to be appointed to the position.

Immersed in the black urban church environment of the 1950s and 1960s, Streets took on the role of social activist minister.

As a teenager, he met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King, his professional model and a guide for much of Streets’ preaching. A bust of King literally watches over Streets’ shoulder. King’s influence is even apparent in Streets’ speech patterns. His energetic crescendos are straight out of the “I Have a Dream” playbook.

“If through the shadows and reality of life’s grimness and grandness and your claim to be the beloved of God lies the death of them all, then what makes our living have worth and why should we follow you?” Streets exclaimed in last Sunday’s sermon, his hands viciously judo-chopping the air.

Trumbull students have a positive view of their former master. Known to students as Master J., Streets took over the role for one year while Trumbull’s current master, Janet Henrich, took a leave of absence.

Trumbull College student Cyd Cipolla ’04 said she thought Streets embraced the job enthusiastically, learning names quickly and trying to promote college spirit.

“He went out of his way to make us feel like we weren’t losing a master,” Cipolla said. “I don’t know how he did it.”

For Streets, his tenure as master did much to reinforce his commitment to Yale.

“In that role one can make a contribution directly to students, and they in turn contribute to you,” Streets said. “I made a couple of friends, students that I hope to hear from for the rest of their lives.”

Rev. Frederick
Alexander White
Rev. Frederick "Jerry" Streets

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