Staff Q&A with Charles Howard

The Rev. Charles “Chaz” Howard’s official job as University Chaplain is to oversee religious life on campus, but in times of need he offers something much more personal to the Penn community: a friend.

“I am here to be a shoulder, to be an ear, to be a friend, to be a fellow sojourner, to be an advocate, a faithful presence,” he says.

A 1996 graduate of Penn, Howard began his career at the University as a work-study student, and served as associate chaplain before he was appointed University Chaplain in 2008; he succeeded his mentor, William Gipson.

Howard says his time as a Penn student was trying in many ways. He lost his father his freshman year, and says Gipson played an important role in caring for him and helping him through his grief, as did Harold Haskins, former director of the Office of Student Developmental Services, Brian Peterson, currently the director of Makuu Black Cultural Center, and several other faculty and staff members.

"We take care of folks here,” Howard says. “All these folks touched my life. I don’t think I thought at that moment that I wanted to become a chaplain or I want to work in higher education, but I think I began to recognize the significance of staff administrators on 18-22 year olds.”

The Current sat down with Howard to discuss the responsibilities of his office, religious diversity at Penn, why he entered the ministry, and the importance of alleviating stress.

Q: What are the roles and responsibilities of the University Chaplain?
A: Formally, I oversee religious life at Penn. We work with over 50 different campus ministries. We advise these groups. We mentor. There are a lot of wonderful groups. I think they represent every major world religion and every denomination. There is also the ceremonial role of the medieval chaplain. I give the welcoming prayer at Convocation and Commencement. I’ve done a lot of weddings and, sadly, a lot of funerals as well. I’m involved with crisis response. We work with the Vice Provost for University Life’s assist team. We work with Public Safety, and we help respond when a tragedy strikes, like the earthquake in Haiti. [Associate Chaplain Steve Kocher] and I both teach, and we also try to educate through programming.

Q:What do you teach?
A: I teach a course in the Graduate School of Education called ‘Cross Cultural Education.’ I also teach an undergrad course called ‘Black History of Penn.’

Q: Is the chaplain an inherently Christian position or can any member of any religion hold the office?
A: No, my counterpart at USC is a Hindu man. At Stanford, the associate chaplain is Jewish. I think that, historically, simply because the majority of people in America are Christian, every chaplain at Penn and the majority of chaplains in the Ivy League have been Christian. I think that’s changing. Literally as we speak, that’s changing. I think the analogy is if you think about Steve Bilsky, the director of athletics here. He doesn’t coach each team, but he’s familiar with the basketball team, and squash, and field hockey, and lacrosse. Even though he isn’t one of the coaches, he loves all those teams and cares for them. The same thing goes for us. It doesn’t matter what religion the chaplain is, he or she needs to work with every major religious group that we have here.

Q: What made you want to become a man of the cloth?
A: My mother told me that I had mentioned it as a possibility when I was younger. Part of it was the historical figures that I looked up to. I love history and I love theology. People who jumped out at me and grabbed my imagination, obviously Dr. [Martin Luther King, Jr.] Adam Clayton Powell, St. Francis, Gandhi. I don’t think I thought seriously about what I wanted to do post-college until the summer before my junior year. That was the first time I began to think about what I was being called to do. And that’s one of the things I try to challenge students about today, trying to discern what we’re supposed to do, or discern what the world is calling you to, rather than just doing what people expect you to do or just doing what you think you’re good at. That discernment process might surprise you.

Q: Was it something that came to you gradually or was it like an awakening?
A: I think it probably hit me right before senior year. I did feel my calling. That sounds grander than it needs to. I think most people entering the ministry feel something drawing them that way. I certainly did feel that.

Q: How do you train to become a chaplain?
A: I think most of it is just life experiences. Anyone who has really suffered has the potential to be a powerful caregiver, and that’s not something that is taught. I think there is an art of pastoral care. I went to seminary for three years. The seminary taught Old Testament, New Testament, Hebrew, Greek, preaching class, stuff like that. I loved it. I had a great three years at seminary. When I studied for my doctorate, I studied practical theology, which is different than ministry prep. I suppose it’s akin to studying to be a doctor versus studying health and science. Probably the most powerful training I had was when I was an intern and a resident at [the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania] in pastoral care. I had a mentor there, a man named Ralph Ciampa. He’s retiring this year. He is the director of pastoral care and they kind of throw you in there. Day two they assign you your floor; you’re the chaplain to the cardiac unit or the trauma bay. I was a 24-year-old student who was spending my summer there, and suddenly I had a name badge and I was the chaplain of this floor. You get the page to go upstairs to a family whose grandmother died and they want somebody to offer last rites and a final prayer. Or you get a page from the trauma bay and a young brother who is just like you has been shot and you have to call and tell his mom that he died.

Q: What do you say in those situations?
A: There are no words. You just sit there and you put your arm around them. And you hope. You say a prayer. You grieve with folks. What do you say to someone who says, ‘Why would God do this to me?’ I don’t think any theology class can prepare you for that, to speak to a mom whose kid is on life support. It’s dangerous when a minister tries to speak on behalf of the divine. I think it’s dangerous and unwise.

Q: For what reasons do students come to the chaplain’s office?
A: I think it’s nice to be heard. I’m not good at much, but I like to listen. I think one of the great opportunities we have is affirming students. I think people appreciate someone who cares. I think that sometimes people want to talk about heavy stuff. I think that sometimes people just want to dream and this is a space where we like to dream and imagine, look forward, hope.

Q: Do you work with any atheist groups?
A: Yes. One of the groups we work with is the Penn Secular Society. We work with agnostic students, atheist students, students who are unaffiliated and believe in a higher power.

Q: How would you describe the faith community at Penn?
A: We’re extremely religiously diverse. We have a large and vibrant Catholic population; we have a large and vibrant Jewish population; we have a large Hindu population. We have, I think, one of the strongest Muslim student associations in the country. We have a very diverse and active Protestant population and Evangelical population. There is a very large portion of our population that we can describe as people of faith, probably larger than most of our peers.

Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Early on, a lot of institutions were not admitting Jewish students for anti-Semitic reasons. Penn did. The result is, we have a long history of Jewish students. A lot of institutions were not admitting Catholic students because of anti-Catholic reasons. Penn did. We accepted international students before a lot of other schools did, particularly South Asian students. That early history of courage and wisdom has resulted in a student body that is religiously diverse.

Q: Is there one issue that Penn students seem to struggle with more than others? Most of them seem to have a lot on their plate.
A: I don’t think we deal with stress well as a culture. I think it’s difficult for our students to learn how to deal with stress. And I think there are different ways to deal with stress. The best way to deal with stress is by lowering the stress level, so rather than taking seven or eight classes a semester, try taking four or five. It’s a hard load and they survive, but at the same time they’re in four different clubs, they’re in a singing group, they’re pledging a frat, they have a work-study job, and they’re trying to hang on Friday and Saturday nights. That’s very stressful. Ideally, you dial all that back.
If you [can’t do] that, you want to have healthy outlets to relax, such as meditation, hiking, dancing, or getting off campus and going to a game or a movie. The danger is when we don’t respond to stress, or we respond to stress in unhealthy ways. And that’s not just students, that’s faculty and staff.

Rev. Charles Howard