Chaplain’s Office takes an activist role

Amid a presidential race laden with religious rhetoric, combining politics and religion is nothing new. Nearly 80 years after the first Yale University Chaplain was charged with overseeing religious and spiritual life at Yale, the position has evolved into an increasingly active force on campus and beyond.

In 1926, the role was as concrete as delivering a sermon to the student body in Battell Chapel every Sunday, but 78 years later, the Chaplain’s Office has evolved into an umbrella organization responsible for promoting multi-faith dialogue and fostering moral leadership on campus.

“The role of religion in society is more complex [now], and it is more challenging for institutions to find out the role of religion in a university setting,” Yale University Chaplain Frederick Streets said.

Streets said he sees three parts to the chaplain’s role on campus. First, he said, the Chaplain’s Office must “assist the University in providing the religious support that students need.” Second, the chaplain must model a way for the University to use religion to comprehend social, national, and global spheres, he said, and third, the chaplain must facilitate discussion of ethical issues.

Of the five chaplains, including Streets, in the University’s history, Streets said William Sloane Coffin, whose Vietnam protests put him in the national spotlight, did the most to shape the Chaplain’s role today.

But the role of an activist has changed since Coffin, Streets said.

“The image of being an activist today is not the same as it was in the ’60s,” Streets said. “It’s not one issue. It’s the way you get the University thinking about issues of morality and justice, and it’s also about trying to embody that action.”

Streets, who personally participates in a number of activist-based initiatives, including the Clergy Leadership Network and the New Haven Board of Police Commissioners, said he tries to exemplify some of the more important moral issues.

“I try to point to those social and ethical issues in a way that inspires students to get involved,” he said.

Sarah Heiman ’05, a former member of the Multifaith Council, said she thinks Streets has effectively promoted discussion of ethical issues on campus and taken personal action on political issues.

“I think it’s absolutely essential for religious people to take political stances, and it is good he is not shying away from it just because he is in a position of power in the University,” she said.

Heiman said she thinks Streets and the Chaplain’s Office have “been really essential to bringing faiths together.”

But Christopher Ashley ’05, a member of the Yale Christian Fellowship, said he has found Streets to be “somewhat reticent” when it comes to fostering ethical dialogue.

“If anybody is going to be able to effectively raise questions of moral leadership, I think someone with Street’s background may be uniquely suited for it,” he said, adding that he thinks the Chaplain’s Office could take “a more self-conscious role as the University’s conscience.”

But Ashley said Streets has done well to accommodate the growing number of religious groups on campus.

“The YCF could not function without the Chaplain’s Office, and we are very grateful to them,” he said.

Christopher Ornelas ’07, a member of Lotus, a Buddhist society, said Lotus has not talked much with Streets, something he hopes will change as Lotus continues to seek a regular location for their meetings.

“I would like for the Chaplain to look out for all the little groups and to make sure they get all the help they need,” he said. “For our group, that’s especially important.”

Space is an ever-growing problem for religious groups on campus, Streets said. The Committee on Religious and Spiritual Life at Yale is currently searching for several solutions to this problem, he said.

Yale University Chaplain Frederick Streets, whose position involves encouraging multi-faith religious dialogue on campus, poses at work in his office.
Alexander White
Yale University Chaplain Frederick Streets, whose position involves encouraging multi-faith religious dialogue on campus, poses at work in his office.

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