Having led the Christian Association for 20 years, the Rev. Beverly Dale—known to many simply as Rev. Bev—has a serious legacy of progressive Christianity to uphold.
Officially incorporated in 1901, the Christian Association stated its mission as promoting “spiritual welfare of the students of the University of Pennsylvania by encouraging Christian fellowship and cooperation.” Almost immediately, it began advancing progressive social causes. It opened settlement houses for immigrants and the poor and ran summer camps for needy children near campus. In the 1940s, the CA established racially integrated mentoring programs for inner-city youth, 15 years before Brown v. Board of Education. In 1975, the CA established the first gay and lesbian peer counseling center in the Delaware Valley.
In 2000, the CA sold its iconic building at 3601 Locust Walk and moved to its current location at 118 South 37th St. a year later. The Current spoke to Rev. Bev about her 20-year tenure and the issues the CA is focusing on today.
Q. What brought you to Penn?
A. Before I got here in August of 1989, I worked two jobs. I was an advisor to sociology graduates at Illinois State University, and I was a pastor of a church about 20 miles away from the university in a rural area. They were two separate jobs that I loved, but I wanted to have both those experiences in one job. I wanted to put those elements together.
Q. The Christian Association has a rich history of being a progressive organization. Was that the case when you arrived on campus?
A. What I found was that the Christian Association reflected what was happening nationwide, ecumenical campus ministries were suffering financial decline and participation decline. I wanted to put some God talk back in the building and make apparent the link between justice seeking and the Christian faith.
That had always been in our history, but had been lost … It was lost because the mainstream churches were declining and not putting money into campus ministry, and the local churches that had previously supported the campus ministry were now inner-city churches and their attention had turned away from the campus and was now more on homelessness, which was ripe in 1989, and other social issues. That is where their mission dollars were going.
Q. So you decided to sell the CA’s original building, now called The ARCH, to make sure the funding for the association would continue?
A. When I came here, the Pennsylvania United Ministries in Higher Education was slowly being gutted, and it didn’t last for another five years. That was the common pot funding campus ministries. Fortunately, we had this building that could be converted into dollars for the ministry. In that sense we were still ahead of the game. Selling it was a long and complicated process.
Q. What were your primary goals for programming and outreach then?
A. My personal goal was to be true to my calling, which was to help the church address sexuality issues. So, I began shortly after I got here developing a women’s ministry primarily with staff and some graduate women. That was going on as we were also trying to get other kinds of programming happening with undergraduates.
Q. What was the focus of that ministry? What were you speaking about?
A. There were a number of things. One was to honor the uniqueness of women’s spiritual journey. Secondly, to create a space for women on a variety of spiritual paths to feel comfortable being spiritual at Penn, which is very difficult for some people.
Q. What were some of the other programs you provided?
A. We have always been attentive to racial justice issues and [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] issues ... We became regulars at rallies calling for justice for the LGBT community, or highlighting areas that were problematic in terms of race relations.
Part of my focus was to educate the Penn community that you could be a Christian and be a feminist and be gay-friendly. People needed to know that Christians were concerned about justice and making a better world. That had been the history of the Christian Association, but the message needed to be reinforced because it was pretty much gone.
Q. Christianity today is perceived by many to be largely right wing and conservative.
A. That perception is out there, thanks to our media. It’s not a snappy headline to write about the hundreds of thousands of dollars that churches are giving for the earthquake victims in Indonesia. But if you have 60 people making a big deal about Black History Month, screaming and yelling, suddenly that’s where the media goes.
So, what do I do? I just keep being me, showing up with the clergy collar at places and saying things that people are surprised to hear. But I represent a long line that, well, goes back to Jesus. I’m talking about the Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dietrich Bonhoeffer strain of social activism. Being involved in creating a more just world has always been a strain of Christianity.
Q. Have you seen student interest increase over these 20 years?
A. It’s changed. When I came in 1989, students were not as forthcoming about their spiritual interest or religion. Thanks to the constant loud noise of the evangelical right wing, now students are, yes, much more willing to identify as a spiritual seeker or a religious person. They are far more likely, however, to identify as: ‘I am spiritual but not religious.’ I didn’t hear that a lot 20 years ago, but I hear it now.
Q. What are some of the more popular programs going on now at the CA?
A. On Nov. 14, we are having our first sex symposium for young adults called “Young Christians Living In the Hook-Up Culture.” It is going to address some of the issues we discovered last year in focus groups. We discovered young adults do not know how to talk about sexuality, and certainly don’t have it grounded in any kind of faith tradition that allows them to be sexual people.
The symposium will help them think through how to say ‘yes’ and how to say ‘no.’ We also will have a workshop on LGBT-friendly black theology, which for many people is an oxymoron, and a session about healing after sex goes wrong. We are going to have a plenary session about reproductive freedom, and we’re going to have some discussion on Biblical passages around sexuality. It’s an all-day event at University Lutheran at 37th and Chestnut and you don’t have to be a Christian to attend. We want to also do some sex and sexual assault talks this year, perhaps partnering with the fraternity system and other groups as well.
Another point of entry for people to the CA is our African initiative. ‘Open Minds for Africa’ we call it. We have regular dinners that focus on an African nation and feature speakers, presenters, once a month. The dinners are open to whoever is interested. Another point of entry is a program for students who want to get involved in teaching inner-city children peace-making skills through the arts. That’s a weekly program.
Q. You are going to have an open house during Homecoming to celebrate your 20 years?
A. Yes, and I’m hoping to see a lot of people I haven’t seen for a while. That will be neat. We are asking people to chip in some donations based on how many years they’ve known me. It would be nice to have a fund created for the sexuality ministry of the Christian Association. It’s not a fundraising event, but if people would like to give that would be nice.
Originally published on October 29, 2009