Rev. Frederick “Jerry” Streets is wrapping up an historic tenure as Yale’s primary religious official. But before that, he grew up in Chicago, “reading the Bible, listening to the blues and enjoying the taste of barbecue.”
Streets, the first African-American and Baptist to hold the position of University chaplain, will conclude 15 years of service to Yale this year to make way for newly appointed chaplain Sharon Kugler. At once a religious leader, professor and administrator, Streets leaves behind a legacy of promoting amity between different faiths in addition to his deep involvement with the New Haven community. He must now give up the reins under the University’s term limit for the chaplaincy, a rule that some say is unnecessarily depriving Yale of a highly productive leader.
Members of the Yale community commemorated his career on Sunday with a multi-faith morning service in Battell Chapel, followed by a panel on religion in public life and a reception at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life. Many said they will miss Streets’ soothing presence and genuine interest in student concerns.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he thinks Streets’ thoughtful and caring interactions with students will be sorely missed.
“We could always count on him to be so wonderful and helpful to students having difficulties or facing times of crisis,” Salovey said.
Although Streets’ departure and replacement by Kugler — a lay Catholic — represents a break from the University tradition of hosting an ordained Protestant head chaplain, many in the religious community said Streets has helped the Chaplain’s Office to expand multi-faith dialogue at Yale. During his tenure, the campus has seen a rapid growth of religious diversity within the student population. The change has been characterized by increased activity within groups such as the Muslim Students Association and Indigo Blue, the Buddhist student organization, in addition to various Christian groups.
Jewish Chaplain Rabbi James Ponet, who has worked closely with Streets over the past 15 years, said the Sunday service — a “buffet of religious voices” — reflected Streets’ efforts to expand multi-faith activities and awareness.
The service opened with a chant in Sanskrit by Buddhist chaplain Bruce Blair, followed by a reading of a psalm by Ponet, a prayer from the Koran by Associate Chaplain Shamshad Sheikh and a scripture reading by Associate Chaplain Callista Isabelle. The morning service also featured multi-faith reflections on “Exile, Hope and Healing” led by other Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran and Muslim religious leaders on campus. In addition, the service included a musical performance by the a cappella group Shades and the singing of Streets’ favorite hymns.
During the afternoon panel event, which was attended by about 50 Yale community members, Streets discussed struggling with his “outsider” status early in his career as an African-American Protestant leader.
“I carried a dubious identity,” he said.
During the 1960s, Streets grew up on the South Side of Chicago amid ethnic and religious diversity that helped shape his interest in social work. He cited Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he met as a teenager when the minister spoke at his church, and his local pastor Rev. W.N. Daniels as two of his foremost idols growing up.
“Each of them challenged me to strive to do my best, and most importantly, try to help others,” he said.
During the service, many of the associate chaplains spoke of Streets in turn as a spiritual “mentor” and “guide.”
“He shared and opened the chaplaincy to other religions at Yale and oversaw the end of Protestant hegemony,” Ponet said.
Often cited as one of Streets’ most significant achievements at Yale, the undergraduate multi-faith council — a group with faiths ranging from Protestant to Baha’i — was originally established as an advisory board to help the chaplains understand the religious landscape of the student population. The functions of the group have since expanded to promoting open dialogue between students of different faiths through various interfaith activities such as discussions and film screenings.
“The undergraduate multi-faith council is a wonderful way by which students learn from one another and, in the process, gives us as chaplains insight and advice about the complex and important nature of the religious and spiritual concerns and interests of students,” Streets said.
In addition to his chaplaincy and pastoral duties at Yale, Streets currently serves as the senior pastor of the University Church. He also works as a professor in pastoral theology at the Yale Divinity School and a professor of social work at the Yale Child Study Center. Streets is also active in the greater New Haven community; he has been a member of the New Haven Board of Police Commissioners, the State Judiciary Selection Commission and Read to Grow, and served as co-chair of the Ward One Democratic Town Committee, among many other civic organizations.
Streets served as acting master of Trumbull College in the 2002-’03 academic year, and he is often spotted at various events thrown by student organizations.
“I actually don’t know how he does it all,” Ponet said.
After graduating from Ottawa University in Kansas in 1972, Streets received his Master of Divinity degree from the Yale Divinity School and went on to pursue a professional education degree at the Harvard University School of Education. He received his master’s in social work and doctorate in social welfare at Yeshiva University in New York.
Before coming to Yale, Streets served for 17 years as the senior pastor of the Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport. Since being appointed University Chaplain in 1992, he has represented Yale across the globe by lecturing and leading workshops on issues of global justice and mental health. In the process, his travels have taken him to Argentina, Bosnia, Colombia, Cuba, Ghana, Italy and West Africa. Streets served as a delegate to the first worldwide conference of religious leaders to convene at the United Nations.
Citing Streets’s wide-ranging activities and popularity as chaplain, some students expressed skepticism about the University’s term limits on the position.
Emily Philips ’08, a student worker at the University Church, said although she understands why deanship positions are circulated through the Yale community, it is unclear why term limits need to be implemented for a religious leader on campus.
“[Streets is] someone who has done so much and is still doing so much,” she said. “It’s sad to cut it short for an arbitrary reason.”
Philips said Streets is well-known among students for his ability to “fix everything with a big bear hug.”
Pamela George, assistant dean and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, said she has appreciated Streets’ contributions to the African-American community and will miss his ability to relate personally and deeply to individual students.
“He is a calming influence, and his wisdom and insight of student development and spiritual growth has been richly received, inspiring, and effective,” she said.
The outgoing chaplain will be on sabbatical for the upcoming academic year, though he said Yale has invited him to stay on as an adjunct member of the Divinity School when he returns to New Haven. Streets has received a Fulbright Scholarship to teach and do research on practical theology in South Africa, where he will be working with families whose children have HIV or AIDS.
He and his wife Annette Streets DIV ’84, a social service administrator, and their three grown-up children all currently reside in Connecticut.