q&a with the chaplain
The Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, Chaplain of the University, has been Director of the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, a faculty member, and a friend to students since 1990. Here’s our conversation with her.
CY: What are some of your proudest achievements from your time at Brown?
JN: I think the deepest honors of this work have been the privilege of working with people in really intimate, deep moments. Some of those have been extremely heartbreaking. The passing of some very dear friends, colleagues, members of the community. There are things that the chaplain here does that have been harder than anything I imagined I could do. I was an athlete growing up. I thought hard meant organic chemistry. This was different. But not all of these very deep moments have been sad.
I’d point to, for example, the Baccalaureate. When I got here, I looked at the ceremony and saw some wonderful speakers invited, but the ceremony made no sense to me. Why on earth a Pakistani Muslim student should graduate singing “America The Beautiful” … it didn’t make sense. We needed a different ceremony.
Without knowing anything about Brown, I was young enough to grab the ceremony and sit down with my colleagues, and we didn’t know whether we were allowed to, but we redid it anyway. I thought it should start with the Muslim call to prayer. We had Chinese lions. At this point, to walk into Baccalaureate is to actually see Brown—it’s all of us. And I think it’s appropriate to have it in First Baptist, in the discipline of that space. That church has Native American sensibilities largely ignored at this point: it sits on the four compass points.
It’s such a problem every year getting everyone to fit into that space, especially the poor lions, but I think it’s emblematic of Brown. How we’re a problem to one another. Our history is a complicated container that makes us want to get out of it, but as long as we can get in there and shut the door we can capture something of who we are. Changing Brown’s ritual culture has been a deep concern of mine. I’m interested in the way identity is embedded in the structural reality of institution and what it is that can make someone say, “This is my place.” All other aspirations are phony if you’re not willing to recreate that structure.
You’ve done most of your work in academic settings—Vassar, Mount Holyoke, Harvard, Dartmouth–and since 1990 you’ve been at Brown. Why universities for this kind of work?
Universities seem to be places that people set their hearts on from a very young age. And I think that for me, setting my heart on things has always been central to my personality and to my sense, for example, that life has a calling. Not everyone says that. But in universities, you often hear people saying “I feel called” to do this or that. Being in a setting where that’s what people are working on has felt to me like an invitation to be earnest about things.
I did find that in congregations when I worked in them, but this felt to me like the right mix of the secular and the sacred. As much as my heart is moved by sacred texts, I know them to be human constructs. The iconoclast in me does worry about their dogmatisms. I think there’s a 19th century hymn by Fosdick that says “new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth”. Reading that, I sort of thought, what, why would somebody put “uncouth” in a hymn? But it’s true. There are things that, in one generation, seem absolutely true. And the way they’ve been insisted on, enforced, dogmatized, socially normed, they’re now a source of injustice. A source of oppression. A source of harm.
That’s what interests me the most, intellectually. How does something go, in one generation or season or time, from being valorized to being really problematic? It strikes me as very important, and suggestive of the fact that the passage of time is not just some iterative process but some process of change by which new light and insight is truly dawning in some ways.
CY: At universities, what would you say are the most effective means towards producing change?
JN: I would say passion. You need authenticity and passion if you’re going to make change, since you’re going to have to win other people to your idea. So the passion is what fuels the intellectual precision of an idea, and universities are really interested in precision. Passion without precision is kind of a blunderbuss. You get somebody saying “I hurt!” and you have no way to help them, and it’s loud, and you notice, but it doesn’t get anything done. So what change needs is the energy of the very young, which is honed by wisdom and argument, and in that process if folks with passion keep driving it forward, that’s when you see something that’s quite akin to birth.
Universities hold that promise, but we often go away having learned the things our elders knew, without having been invited to bring that fired-up idea we’ve got into being. I’m an enormously political person. As much as the spiritual, poetic, and ritual worlds appeal to me, I don’t have much patience when it’s all decorative. It needs to be about driving some new notion of justice forward.
CY: Tell me more about issues of justice that matter to you.
JN: A lot of my work has been with feminist issues, reproductive choice, and gay issues. This summer, a friend asked me about the Supreme Court decision, and I told him I did my first gay wedding in 1984. I don’t do weddings because they’re legal. I’m very, very happy to see the state acknowledge these marriages, but really, religious communities have not asked the state’s permission about marriages in the past. It’s kind of been the other way.
As for campus issues, I am praying that these initiatives across the country on sexual assault are going to make a difference. Rape has been around a long time. There’s no procedure that will ever be a reply to the trauma of someone who has to get through that. I’m so not naïve about that. Lack of fairness, protracted procedures, both for those accused and those accusing… the whole thing has been a mess. This is one of the only offices on campus with absolute confidentiality, and some of what we’ve seen is enough to—well—it’s just wrong. Categorically wrong. Wrong on the part of very good people doing wrong things, and not even seeing.
Maybe your generation will literally do something different. What if a college campus could actually be a kind of incubator where different ideas about this can be fought over and worked out? My generation stopped a war that made me cry every time I met a Vietnamese student. Universities are the strangest, funniest pots of people where really big things get worked on. Maybe this is one of them.