Protestant Chaplain Leads Services, Religious and Social Discussions

Posted 08/24/06
Classes, sport teams, social groups, community outreach, advocacy groups and studying consume a student’s time and energy. Gary Comstock, university protestant chaplain, believes being part of a spiritual group can provide a sense of calmness to the hectic college student lifestyle.

“Students’ spiritual community allows them to get away from it all, to unwind, to relax, to de-stress,” he says. “It gives them the opportunity to contemplate and reflect and to enjoy some peace and quiet.”

Comstock, one of four University Chaplains, says he’s always “on call” to help students through any issues, religious in nature or not. In fact, most students come to him for relationship concerns – problems with friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents – and with studies, especially stress and feeling overwhelmed by work and responsibilities.

“I think students may see me as a mentor, but probably more often as an older-adult friend, as someone who doesn’t have power over them but has some professional and personal skills to help them tap into their own power,” he says.

Comstock came to Wesleyan in 1990 after receiving his Ph.D and being ordained by the United Church of Christ. He chose college chaplaincy over the parish setting to pursue academic and ministerial work. Since college ministry is a profession with its own array of conferences, organizations, and publications, it accepted by his denomination.

“There are surprises in any kind of ministry, but a parish has a more fixed population and set of expectations,” he says. “The student population is ever-changing; and the 18-to-22-year-old stage of spiritual development is typified by exploration, uncertainty, searching – qualities that I find appealing and rewarding to work with. Students pose a lot of different challenges and also express a lot of gratitude for the help I can provide.”

As the protestant chaplain, Comstock holds an Ecumenical Protestant Service every Tuesday at the Chaplain’s Lounge. He describes the meetings as small and informal, and dinners follow the service.

But Comstock extends his chaplain services beyond those in the protestant branch of Christianity. Although approximately 21 percent of Wesleyan’s undergraduates are protestant, 35 percent do not claim to be part of any religious community.

Comstock holds weekly dinner-meetings for Vespers, a group for people with any or no religious background. In these meetings, Comstock or the students design a different ritual or activity each week that addresses and meets the needs, mood and tenor of things going on during the semester.

“Vespers is uniquely a Wesleyan tradition because it is so successfully inclusive,” Comstock explains. “I enjoy working with students and am always thrilled and impressed by their creativity in creating rituals. Making sure that we do a different ritual each week is a challenge, but it keeps me on me toes and ensures variety and freshness.”

He also sponsors, or takes part in, the Discussion Series, addressing timely or urgent social and spiritual issues. In the past, examples of topics have been community organizing, multi-faith dialogue, many Christian identities, building one’s own theology, body theology, womanist theology and queerness and religion. Next year, the series will include discussions on women in the Bible and religion and social class.

In addition, he has teamed up with the Office of Community Service and Volunteerism to co-found the Believing In Service, a meeting that connects religious beliefs with community service. As part of this service, participants make Thanksgiving and Valentines Day cards for senior citizens, volunteer at soup kitchens, hold work compost-restoration sessions at the Middletown Recycling Center, and sponsor a discussion series with religious and community leaders. This year, the Believing In Service will turn its attention to habitat restoration with small-scale projects to help restore wildlife in urban, suburban and campus settings.

And in conjunction with the other University Chaplains, he helps organize the annual Spirituality Week, which allows the chaplains to highlight and draw attention to all of the weekly religious and spiritual events that routinely occur on campus – those sponsored by the Chaplains and students groups.

Comstock is also a visiting professor of sociology, and has taught Introductory Sociology, Sociological Analysis, Ethics of Leadership, Ethics, Policy, and the Triage Society, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People in Society.

Comstock, who holds a Ph.D. from the Union Theological Seminary and a Master of Divinity from Bangor Theological Seminary, completed the first national study of anti-gay violence as his thesis. This study, Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men, was published by Columbia University Press. It was the first of six books he authored within a decade. Other include A Whosoever Church: Welcoming Lesbians and Gay Men into African American Congregations; Gay Theology Without Apology; Que(e)rying Religion; Unrepentant, Practicing, Self-Affirming; and Becoming Ourselves in the Company of Others.

“I started to write these in the mid-1980s, when queerness and religion was breaking into the academia, and there was a lot of excitement and encouragement generated by the enthusiasm for and interest in such work,” he says. “The issues are still hot, but I’m more interested in what younger and newer scholars have to say.”

Nowadays, Comstock has turned his writing interests to Wesleyan students. Last year, he put together a day-by-day reflection guide each semester for Protestant students – a Biblical passage with brief commentary for each day of classes. For this coming semester, he’s compiled a multi-faith, spiritual, secular reflection guide with favorite quotes submitted by students who attend Vespers.

Comstock had an interest in the church from an early age. He was raised in the Congregational Church, which later joined with other Protestant denominations to form the United Church of Christ. The central tenet of the liberal Protestantism is to have a responsibility to ask continually who isn’t included and to go about finding how to include and be affected by them.

The denomination is pro-gay, and Comstock, who is openly gay, says he never has to worry about being de-frocked or excommunicated.

“Wesleyan, of course, is independent of my or any other denomination’s policies, but there’s certainly a similar emphasis on inclusively here,” he says. “I do feel comfortable being an openly gay chaplain here, but the real fit for me has to do with the multi-faith, inter-spiritual dimension of my work – and, of course, our amazing students who always keep things interesting, challenging, and rewarding.”

Comstock and his partner of 23-years, Ted, enjoy spending time together with their German Shepard, Gus.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor