Reverend McGonigle discusses chaplaincy
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 7, 2014 08:02
The Tufts Daily: What made you want to become a University chaplain? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?
Reverend Greg McGonigle: It’s been a journey. I grew up in the Boston area, and my family is Catholic. I’ve been interested in spirituality my whole life, and so I decided I wanted to go to a Catholic high school. It was, in fact, studying religion in school that raised a lot of questions for me about what I believe, and the relationship between facts and faith. It set me on a journey of exploring different faiths beyond Christianity.
At the same time, I was taking literature classes that introduced me to the Transcendentalist period. I was studying beautiful writings about nature, and how we can connect with the divine through our own minds and through our experiences in nature. That was very appealing to me. When I got to college — I ended up going to Brown University because I wanted to study world religions and because I liked the progressive atmosphere — I found Unitarian Universalism, which is the tradition I now belong to myself. It’s a tradition that has strong progressive ethical beliefs but is open theologically to a lot of different ways of understanding life and the universe.
I found a home in Unitarian Universalism, and ended up going to Harvard Divinity School to continue studying religions. I had initially considered becoming a professor, but I started thinking of ministry as a way to bring together my interests in religion with my interests in caring for people and social justice. I knew I wanted to be in higher education, so I realized chaplaincy would allow me to combine all of my interests.
TD: How did your family react to your change in faith?
GM: My decision to move into a different faith tradition was not an easy one for my family at the beginning. It was difficult for all of us because they’re very committed to their faith and I’m committed to mine.
I never saw my becoming Unitarian Universalist as necessarily leaving Catholicism. Like languages, Catholicism was my first language in faith, and then I took on another — but you never really lose the first one you learned. That’s why it wasn’t a rejection; it was an embracing, an expansion for me. It was still very hard nonetheless, and I believe that process of both becoming confident in my own identity, as well as working through that with my family, taught me a lot, not only about myself, but also about how those sorts of situations can go — an important lesson, especially working now with those in a university setting who are also experiencing big transitions in their lives, about studies, careers, loves, and beliefs.
Q: What kind of work are chaplains engaged in? What is your role here at Tufts and what kinds of programs do you offer on campus?
GM: We do four main things. First, we support religious and philosophical communities. Tufts has about 20 of them, and part of the work of the chaplains is supporting those groups, advising them and helping them to do the things they do. We work with the Freethought Society [and] nonreligious students as well.
Second, we educate about religions in society and the world; we offer educational and cultural programming for the whole university. Third, we promote interfaith engagement. I work with the Interfaith Student Council, encouraging dialogue across traditions, mutual learning, and engagement on social justice issues people care about. The fourth piece is pastoral care; we do direct counseling, we provide support for people when unfortunate events occur, we do memorial services on campus, and we do weddings as well. We do some work in campus and community relations too, and collaborative programming with various academic departments and programs. We’re hoping to do more with The Fletcher School around international issues, and with Tisch College around active citizenship. Those are some of the relationships we’re hoping to build in the next five to 10 years.
Q: What have you seen this semester at Tufts that you would like to change? What would you like to accomplish in the coming years?
GM: I would definitely like to grow some of the resources around the communities we have. We have amazing, vibrant, spiritual and philosophical communities and leaders doing amazing things. In addition to their 20 or so weekly gatherings, all of them offer many one-time programs — speakers, retreats, service projects and musical opportunities. We’re thinking about how we can better support and be a resource for those initiatives.
We’re also trying to cultivate the Interfaith Student Council, and help them to take the lead in getting the university engaged in religious pluralism and religious literacy. A very important part of my vision is that we adopt a collaborative, intersectional, and student empowerment approach — seeing where the energy is for students and focusing our resources in those directions. At the same time we’re increasing resources for faculty and staff — through collaborations with the new Wellness Center [for faculty and staff] — and looking to provide more spiritual resources on Tufts’ Boston and Grafton campuses. We also need to explore support for the spiritual but not religious.