William Gipson


Penn is a secular university. But the University chaplain has made a place — spiritual and literal — for all religions.

Photo by Candace diCarlo


When students set up pickets in front of the Campus Copy Center last month after a fight between an employee and a Penn student, the Rev. William Gipson, the University chaplain, went over to sound out their opinions.

This may sound like an unusual thing for a chaplain to involve himself in. But Gipson doesn’t agree. He sees his job as, in his words, “to care for the welfare of the entire University.”

Gipson is aware of Penn’s secular character — unlike his former employer, Princeton, it was not founded with an eye on training future ministers. But he works to make sure that religion is valued within that secular community. One way in which he has worked towards that goal is to push for a campus religious life center. This fall, he will realize that goal when the Religious Activities Common, a facility he first proposed in 1999, opens in the new student center at 3615 Locust Walk.

Gipson’s work involves him with two hot subjects in academe: community service and the role religion plays in fighting social ills. He helped bring together community-service people from Penn and clergy from West Philadelphia in a program that assists faith-based social service activities.

We spoke with him recently about his job and religion’s place in a secular university.

Q. What was your role in the Campus Copy incident?
Very limited. My role primarily was to make immediate contact with the [protesting] students, which I did, and get a sense of where they were.

…I went to students who were in front of the Campus Copy to get a sense of what they were thinking, and to a person each one said, Something horrible happened here, none of us know yet exactly how it came to be, but we’d like for the University to get to the bottom of this. They were also very clear that even [though] some early news reports had suggested they were claiming this was racially motivated, they said they had no grounds on which to make that assertion. But if indeed it turned out that it was, obviously, it would be something that the University would need to pay particular attention to.

Q. Were you satisfied with how things turned out?
I’m very pleased with the process the University, through its senior administrators, the president and provost, put in place to respond to the concerns of the students. I think it is a demonstration of the fact that we are a caring community and that the University is more than ready to step up to the plate and respond in these kind of situations.

Q. What is the role of a chaplain at a secular campus such as Penn’s?
I think that the role of the chaplain would be exactly the kind of thing that I imagine William Penn imagined that it would be. That is, it would be decentralized, it would view as an important part of its portfolio the advancement and support of all religious traditions and communities.

And [given] the fact that the University of Pennsylvania recruits faculty, staff and students without regard to that whole list of concerns that identify us – not very satisfactorily – in terms of age, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religious background, we’re bound to have in our good company men and women who are people of faith. So there ought to be at least an office and a person who is somehow responsible for advocating for those interests.

Q. How do you go about working with the non-Christians on campus?
There isn’t any real need for negotiation on my part. My sensibility is that God is revealed in many different ways and revealed to different communities for particular purposes, the mystery of which I and no one else has been able to penetrate. And I think that’s all for the good, because it does evoke in us a sense of awe about God.

…We do have many opportunities for interfaith dialogue around a variety of things, from, say, social service, public service, community service, what does that look like for each of these faith traditions, and to bring representatives from these groups together to talk about that really does reveal a lot about what traditions hold in common and also where they have very clear distinctions.

I’m very much at home in engendering those kinds of opportunities, because quite frankly, that has been part of my journey. I grew up as a PK, which is parlance for preacher’s kid, and I always wondered, If my family and the congregations my father served as pastor were so passionate about what they believed, why was it that I saw the same thing in other communities? For example, at the age of 12, I recall a kind of pulpit exchange between my father and the rabbi at the synagogue in Lafayette, Ind., where we lived at the time, and recognized that there was something beautiful and marvelous happening in that community as well.

Q. Why do you think Penn needs a Religious Activities Common?
I arrived at Penn with a vision of a religious life center, thinking that it would be the most appropriate facility to complement the secular, non-sectarian history and character of the University while acknowledging the presence and role of religion in the lives of many students, staff and faculty at Penn.

One of my hopes is that student-initiated interfaith activities from Hillel, Newman [Center] and the Christian Association will be scheduled in the space [as well]. It is my view that the chaplain at a large, urban university must encourage the creation of as many religious groups as the population allows and foster interaction among the groups. The latter is what makes for true interfaith engagement.

Q. What’s the most challenging part of the job?
The most challenging part of the job is how to deal with the fact that this is a secular institution, and my job is really that of a translator almost. To be able to articulate why it is that communities of faith should be on the campus as engaged and involved as they are, and that they require support in terms of facilities for their program and funding for some of their activities, those that are not exclusively sectarian. There is yet a lot of conversion, so to speak, that needs to happen in terms of the appropriateness of religious communities on campus who are explicit about their beliefs. And that’s always a challenge, but it’s a happy challenge because I have many colleagues on campus who really support these efforts.

Q. What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
The most enjoyable part of this job is just being in the amniotic fluid that is the University community. It’s a wonderful place to have a sense that one has been called to do this work. So I get job satisfaction by showing up in the morning, even before I have a meeting or arranging for a program to happen, or inviting some special guest to the University. I have always enjoyed the academy and the church, so this is a perfect job, it really is.

Originally published on May 17, 2001