Dr. Gail Stearns
When Gail Stearns recalls a visit her mother made to her kindergarten classroom, Chapman University’s Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel and Associate Professor of Religious Studies can see a connection between the state of her desk as a 5–year–old and her resulting career path.
“My mother was horrified when she opened my desk, because it was a complete disaster inside,” says Stearns, an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA). “My kindergarten teacher wasn’t concerned at all, though. She laughed and said–‘That’s just Gail.’ Instead of sitting at my desk organizing my paperwork, I was out in the school yard talking to the other students.”
When Stearns recalls her mother’s visit, she thinks about the Bible story of Martha and Mary. As Martha bustled around the kitchen preparing food for Jesus who had come for a visit, Mary sat at his feet and had a conversation with him.
“My mother was upset at the state of my desk because she is at heart a ‘doer’ like Martha,” says Stearns. “While today I’m an organized person and I ‘do’ a lot of tasks associated with being an educator, administrator and writer, deep down my true vocation is a pastoral one that involves just ‘being’ with people. Like Mary, I welcome a meaningful conversation anytime.”
For Stearns, who joined Chapman in June of this year, her work focusing on faith development in young adults and how life’s challenges lead to questioning and eventually to a deeper understanding, has led to many meaningful conversations. Her goal, which dovetails with the university’s, is that of an interfaith environment of religious tolerance and understanding among the Chapman community.
“My aim is not that students agree on religious points, but that they would have a religious understanding of one another,” says Stearns, author of Open Your Eyes: Toward Living More Deeply in the Present (Wipf & Stock, 2011). “When students learn about each other’s religions, they respect each other’s differences and find that we all have more commonalities than we realize, and this leads to peace. At a discussion following 9/11, it was heartwarming to see the light bulb of understanding go off for students as they concluded that God is indescribable and far bigger than any religion.”
According to Rev. Nancy Brink, Stearns is a pioneer in the area of interfaith work. “Gail has gone beyond thinking of interfaith as comparative religion,” says Brink, the Donna (Ford) and Fahmy Attallah Endowed Director of Church Relations at Chapman. “Yes, we need to understand how we’re alike and different, but on a deeper level it’s about building community that is tolerant but even more deeply is respectful,” she says. “We don’t have to all be alike but we do share this nation in common, and the more unified we are, the better. Gail is particularly clued into students’ questions, and she often knows what they need before they do. She’s very patient and respectful of people’s different paths.”
Susanna Branch is Academic Events Coordinator at Chapman and agrees that Stearns’s work is groundbreaking. “Her extensive experience in interfaith matters provides expert development of the legacy left by her predecessor, the Rev. Dr. Ron Farmer, and has put Chapman at the forefront of all university interfaith programs in the nation.”
Stearns developed her spiritual values growing up in Iowa in the Presbyterian Church. She attended Luther College in Iowa, spent a year studying in England and then attended the McCormick Theological Seminary. After graduating at age 26, she became pastor of the Faith Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, where the experienced church elders gave her valuable guidance and taught her the power of community. In 1989, she moved to Pullman, Wash. where she earned an interdisciplinary Ph.D. with emphasis in gender theory from Washington State University. After graduation, she taught in Women’s Studies and Religion in their Honors College and directed The Common Ministry at WSU in the Interfaith House.
Although Stearns has only been at Chapman a short time, her extensive background in interfaith work has allowed her to make an impact in Chapman’s commitment to the advancement and support of spiritual values, says Chapman’s Chancellor Dr. Daniele Struppa. “Gail has already increased the visibility on campus of what we call the ‘spiritual pillar’ of Chapman education. She is open to different traditions and yet possesses solid theological clarity. Her most important contribution will be ensuring that we facilitate those students searching for transcendent truths as part of their spiritual path.”
Stearns has found a key to bridging the gaps between various religions and helping students find their spiritual paths is to focus on service and similarities.
“Many opportunities exist on campus for students to participate in service work,” she says. “It’s also helpful for them to share their own unique spiritual experiences with one another. My ultimate goal is to guide students to search for meaning in their lives and a sense of what makes them feel whole.”
Fish Interfaith Center
Named in honor of the Rev. Dr. Merle and Marjorie Fish, the Fish Interfaith Center is home to the Wallace All Faiths Chapel and the Wilkinson Founders Chapel and is easily located on campus by the 60–foot Chapman Light Tower. At the base of the tower is the story of Chapman University’s founding by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the vision of C. C. Chapman.
Rather than consisting of angular and perpendicular lines, the walls of the Center exhibit curves, and the building has a floating roof design. The Center’s architecture reflects the diverse, fluid nature and purpose of the building, which also houses artwork based upon themes of water, nature, light and the cosmos.
“A lot of the art in the Center is meant to be evocative and create a unique experience for each visitor,” says Rev. Nancy Brink. “The feeling in the building is peaceful and reverent, yet open and accepting.”