Role of chaplain's office overhauled by Hopkins Tradition of activism likely to be reduced

April 19, 1992|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Staff Writer Staff Writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article. f

Johns Hopkins University officials have told the school's chaplain they plan to strip her office, with its long tradition of liberal activism, of much of its power as part of a larger reorganization.

University officials say they are responding to students, who want more pastoral counseling and religious activity and a less-controversial role for the chaplain.

"It's an end of an era," said the Rev. Gretchen van Utt, who was told this week that a long-discussed reorganization was going ahead. She was given until later this week to decide whether she wants to continue in her post.

Since her arrival at Hopkins in 1984, Ms. van Utt, a Presbyterian minister, has followed in the footsteps of her predecessor, the Rev. Chester Wickwire.

"These changes will gut the chaplain's office," Dr. Wickwire said, by stripping away some of its autonomy and by distancing it from the community, especially because a program of extensive volunteer work in city neighborhoods would no longer be under the aegis of the chaplain.

Like many chaplains in major U.S. universities, Dr. Wickwire campaigned in the 1960s for political and social causes -- organizing students to stand vigil outside Black Panther headquarters on Gay Street at one point, and staging protests against the Vietnam War.

When Dr. Wickwire came to the campus in 1953, he was actually director of the YMCA office on campus. In 1970 the university purchased Levering Hall, which housed the office.

Ms. van Utt also took political stands, and joined a demonstration last year against the gulf war.

She said Friday that she has not decided if she will remain in the new organization, in which she would retain the title of chaplain. But she added that her newly defined job could give her an "important role" focusing on pastoral and educational needs.

She said she also could continue to participate in political and community activism in some form.

Susan Boswell, the dean of students, said the changes reflected "the need to have more issues of religious life addressed" on the campus of 3,057 undergraduate and 1,265 graduate students.

Students, she said, expect more counseling and "large, interdenominational programs around religious holidays."

The chaplain would still be free to speak out on political and other issues, she said. But the university has to be careful not to appear to take sides, Dr. Boswell said.

Citing the gulf war as an example, Dr. Boswell said some students may have had a family member serving in the conflict. "We have to be sensitive to all viewpoints and not promote an agenda that shuts any of them out," she said.

Under the new setup, which is to take effect July 1, the chaplain will be part of a larger organization, Dr. Boswell said. "It will be more difficult for students to feel alienated by a particular office," she said.

The chaplain's office has initiated an array of seminars on political and social issues, and student volunteer programs.

The chaplain arranges occasional ecumenical worship services around specific holidays and supports the work of denominational clergy working with students, but has no chapel for regular Sunday services.

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