New minister seeks the peace of small church Serenity: A former college chaplain looks forward to quieter times leading rural parishioners on life's journeys.

October 05, 1997|By Carolyn Melago | Carolyn Melago,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

After 21 hectic years of guiding college students and churches in crisis, the Rev. Gretchen Van Utt moved to the tree-filled serenity of Sykesville in August. But life hasn't calmed down for the new minister of Springfield Presbyterian Church.

"Right now, it doesn't feel like any change of pace," she says amid unpacked boxes lining the halls of her large, mid-19th-century house. "I'm just trying to meet the people and learn about their concerns."

Van Utt is continuing her transition from activist chaplain at the Johns Hopkins University to permanent pastor of a small, rural church. Organizing prayer services for the congregation of 120, visiting hospitalized parishioners and counseling couples seems vastly different from Van Utt's duties as a spiritual leader for more than 3,000 undergraduates, but she sees a similar mission.

"One of the exciting things about ministry is being a part of people's lives at important times: births, marriage, illness, death," she says. "I'm simply walking with them on their journey."

The 46-year-old minister embarked on her own spiritual journey at Kirkland College in upstate New York in 1969, followed by Harvard Divinity School. Van Utt served as chaplain at Goucher College in 1977, where she counseled students about religious, personal and academic problems.

Van Utt took on what she describes as the "historically controversial" job of chaplain at Hopkins in 1984. "The chaplaincy at Hopkins had always been a very public, very activist office," she says.

The tradition began with Van Utt's predecessor, the Rev. Chester Wickwire, who transformed his position as director of the campus YMCA in 1953 to an advocate for students.

In the '60s, he organized anti-war protests and a vigil outside Black Panther headquarters.

Van Utt continued this tradition but made counseling and volunteer work a larger priority. In early 1991, she reassured students who were fearful of the Persian Gulf war and she spoke at a student-organized anti-war vigil.

"I was concerned about the use of violence to address issues," says Van Utt, a tall, thin woman with short brown hair. "As a very powerful country, we should be wary of doing that."

Van Utt excitedly rattles off a list of other societal ills she stressed during her chaplaincy -- poverty, homelessness, women and homosexuals in the church, and reproductive freedom. Through guest speakers, volunteer work with underprivileged Baltimore children and one-on-one talks, Van Utt challenged students to consider these problems.

"A chaplaincy is a place where those issues can and should be addressed," she says, her silver bracelets jangling as she punctuates her points with hand motions. "To ignore these kinds of life-determining issues -- reproductive issues or poverty or hunger -- is to ignore major faith issues."

But Van Utt is quick to say the problems affecting society were not her only concerns.

"Activism was important to me, but it was a small fraction of what we did," she says. "I think I brought to it more of a personal counseling dimension, but also kept the activist dimension. I think both are important."

In 1992, the campus reorganized Van Utt's office, shifting its emphasis from social issues and volunteering to more religious counseling and holiday activities. Van Utt then decided to phase herself out of the office, working there part time while the campus searched for a new chaplain.

"I wanted to be able to continue religious service and counseling, but I felt there was a lot getting in the way. I no longer felt I could do what I was called to do," she says.

"I didn't see what the big deal was. A university is supposed to be a place where people should be challenged," she says.

After she left Hopkins in 1993, Van Utt began working as interim minister at churches throughout the state. She served at First Presbyterian Church in Annapolis and Good Shepherd Church in Joppatowne, Harford County. Her last assignment was at Granite Presbyterian Church. She also traveled to Guatemala and Venezuela to aid impoverished churches and ministers facing death threats from the military.

But Van Utt slowly realized she wanted to nurture a church permanently.

"I was really happy doing interim work, but it's fraught with insecurity," she says, stressing that interim ministers usually stay for only a year or two -- not long enough to become a major part of people's lives. "I really wanted to create a long-term relationship with a church."

Now she has that chance.

Van Utt can peer out her window to see the church from her house, where she lives with her husband, George, a geology professor at Hopkins, and her cats, Marion and Maria Magdelena. Her office is decorated with religious artwork from New Mexico and a large Peruvian quilt depicting the Garden of Eden.

"We love it here," she says. "You lie in bed at night and just listen to the trees. We haven't had a moment of doubt."

But she knows her job in Sykesville won't be simple. As minister, she too will grapple with the community's problems.

"It's a small family church, and they like it. But it's a growing area, and the church is going to have to grow," she says. "I'll help them realize they can grow without losing that small-church feel."

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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