University chaplain, Catholic campus minister
When I was 8, I was in an adult Bible study at a little church in Freemansburg, Pa. The pastor said, “You have real insight for a kid your age. I want you to give a sermon.” So I prepared “What faith, hope, and love mean to me.” It was about five minutes — a gem worthy of Augustine, ha ha! By the time I was 10, I wanted to be a theologian when I grew up.
I had intellectual difficulties with religion in my teen years, and I was really into playing drums. When I was at Berklee [College of Music], I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I became transfixed. I transferred to Houghton College, which had both a great music program and a solid theology department. From there, I had some pivotal ministry experiences. I worked a summer in a shelter for homeless families. The director, who’s Rev. Jo Claire Hartsig ’78, was a mentor in connecting my faith to service.
I love watching transformations in students — coming to grips with their behavior, with past hurts, and finding reconciliation, understanding, faith, healing. I get to know students so well that even the things they carry around as big secrets don’t surprise me. But I’ve learned how much hurt people carry around as well as a desire for wholeness, and how much hope goes into the enterprise of being human. It’s beautiful to see their capacity for compassion grow.
Preaching is really fun, and really hard. All week, I meditate on the coming Sunday’s readings: how does this connect to campus, or people I’ve intersected with — somebody who’s worried, or obsessed with status, or feeling terrible? Sometimes my sermon is meant to be a comfort. Other times, to say, “Hey, we could do this better as a community.”
I had an incredible experience with six Colgate people on the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage last summer. As you’re walking, you’ll see people have abandoned all kinds of things because they have to carry everything. Afterward, I was forlorn. The Camino was all I could think of. I couldn’t sort out why until my spiritual director asked, “What do you miss most?” Eventually I sorted out that I wanted to simplify my life. I’ve had some success with getting rid of a lot of possessions. It was a joyful thing to start.
I’m in a jazz trio. We’re called OGD, for organ, guitar, drums. I like playing anything in the broad American idiom — jazz, R&B, country.
My wife, Rebecca (psychology professor), and I have two children. Leo’s 18 and on his way to Brown University. Sophie is 14 and on her way to high school.
If I could have dinner with anyone living or dead, I’d invite Francis of Assisi. I want to encounter that kind of sanctity in real life. And Thomas Merton. He’s had a profound impact on my intellectual life. As for living? My wife. I like my wife. The pope. And, I’d love to see what Annie Dillard’s like.
— Rebecca Downing