By Sara Fullerton
The Willamette community offers a variety of resources to help students navigate their time here, and the chaplains’ office is one that provides support in numerous forms. Many Willamette students identify themselves as spiritual but not religious, so the chaplains may not seem immediately accessible. However, upon talking with the two chaplains on campus, Karen Wood and Gary Ellison, it becomes clear that their work transcends the limits of affiliation.
Wood said that their work is about “helping students make meaning, in religious and in non-religious contexts.”
They are devoted to offering intentional community spaces for self-care and reflection. Their services range from one-on-one counseling appointments to daily mindfulness meditation groups. The weekly convocations held in the Cone Chapel are also facilitated by the chaplains, although their involvement has been re-imagined in recent years as the gatherings have become more student-led.
Wood has been inspired to pursue her work ever since the chaplains at her own undergraduate university “helped [her] make sense of the world.” Ellison and Wood know that college years are often about the mind-bending, exhilarating, staggering work of finding purpose and direction in life. They support and facilitate conversations about those major topics that are important and exciting, but often overwhelming when left to ponder alone.
“We work not just with students, but also faculty, staff, [and] alumni. Anyone can access us for . . . a listening ear, feedback, supports and connection” Wood said. She wants students to “access [their] own wisdom around their experiences.” She said it is never her job or intention to “label” or “name” something in a spiritual or religious context unless she is invited to do so.
The chaplains of all people know what it means to have too much to get done in a day. After all, there are only two of them serving the entire Willamette community. They both strive to model mindfulness rather than just going through the motions. In this way, they consciously push back against the “I’m crazy busy” culture, as Wood said.
Ellison says for him, it’s about “claiming the time and space,” which means “maintaining an openness to opportunities as they arise. So it can be in the parking lot, in the Bistro, it can be walking across campus.” He recognized the potential in just “a few moments here and there” to have a real impact, and responds by approaching each moment with curiosity about what it might bring.
To bolster their own practices of mindfulness, Wood and Ellison shared a few of their favorite ways to be present. Wood seeks out backpacking trips in areas such as the Grand Canyon, the High Sierra and the Rockies, where there is no cell service and there’s no choice but to “unplug.” She steeps in the ideas of writers and poets like Mary Oliver, Rebecca Solnit, Roxane Gay and Parker Palmer. Ellison finds inspiration in musicians like the Grateful Dead and Santana, whose sound is the product and integration of vast diversities of musical traditions.
To Wood and Ellison, pursuing meaning is both about being present in the small moments and engaging in larger community and social justice efforts. When I asked the chaplains about how their own perspectives have changed since they were in their twenties, Wood said that a major shift has been the revelation that “social change for the good . . . isn’t something that can happen overnight as a result of my own actions, but that it does happen.”
When she reflected on the social rights developments of recent years, from marriage equality to widespread public awareness and discourse around rape culture and sexual assault, she marveled that she never would have been able to conceive of such progress over the course of her own lifetime.
Wood said that while her guiding values have held constant throughout the years, she now has a deeper understanding of which priorities align with those values.
“I thought the most important thing to be was smart. In retrospect, I think it’s more important to be kind. I realize in an academic setting this might be counter-cultural. It certainly was at Harvard. But kindness and relationship has proved to be way more rewarding than intelligence, ambition and achievement.”