Our Stories

Consulting the Divine -- and Monty Python

He's one of the first administrators students encounter when they arrive on campus, and one of the last they hear from when they leave.

The Rev. Charlie Wallace, University chaplain, welcomes the new class every fall during matriculation with inspiring thoughts about Willamette's history and what the students will discover during their years here. And as they cross the commencement stage at the end of their journey, Wallace is there again to offer words of encouragement and send them on their next adventure.

Some rarely encounter Wallace in the interim years, while others look to him and associate chaplain, the Rev. Karen Wood, as their spiritual advisors, teachers, confidantes. Faculty, staff and administrators often frequent the chaplains' office as well, looking for guidance on everything from personal dilemmas to how to address social justice on campus.

"I wear many hats," Wallace says. "I teach a few classes in religious studies. I try to connect the institutional church with the campus, I try to be a good colleague in Campus Life, I'm a liaison for the various student religious groups, and I'm available for liturgical and pastoral work.

"It's no easy balance. You're working with people who are strongly religious, people who are vaguely religious and people who are anti-religious. You have to learn how to work with people on all those levels and encourage them on their own paths while maintaining a sense of community in the process. We try to offer a welcoming space at the University that encompasses all the students, faculty and staff."

Founded in 1842 by missionary Jason Lee, who came to the Oregon Territory to establish a Methodist mission for Native Americans, Willamette University still maintains a relationship with The United Methodist Church. However, that relationship is more historical, one that is evident today in the University's chaplains' office and religious studies department.

"We try to connect people with their spiritual growth, whether or not they're Methodist," Wallace says. "We don't demand any faith statements. That's the difference between a Christian college and a church-related college. As a church-related college, we don't say you have to follow the Methodist faith to attend."

The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church still appoints several of Willamette's trustees and holds its annual summer meeting on campus three years out of every four. Wallace is Willamette's fourth chaplain; before that, the university's presidents often were ministers. "After the mid-20th century, universities and colleges began to appoint chaplains because the president became more of the administrative front of the university," Wallace says. "When Willamette started having non-ordained, non-Methodist presidents, the church naturally wanted someone to represent the ministry.

"Oregon is much less religiously oriented than other states in the union. We try to represent religious tradition at some level, but also to engage others and help them move forward on their own path."

In 2001 Willamette received a grant to start the Lilly Project for Theological, Spiritual and Ethical Exploration of Vocation. The program allows people across campus to engage in research, service and discussion to help students discover their vocation or calling in life -- whether that's a calling to faith, to service or to some other end.

"With the Lilly Project, we engage people with what their talents are," Wallace says. "We help students 'make a life' as well as 'make a living.'"

Today's students tend to be "spiritual, but not religious," Wallace says. But that doesn't mean religious groups are absent from campus. About six religion-affiliated student organizations are currently active, including several evangelical Christian groups, the Newman Club for Catholics and the Jewish Student Union.

Wallace, who has been a United Methodist minister since 1973, has worked on campuses for nearly 25 years. Among the qualities that students find endearing is his easy humor. Visitors to his office will find Monty Python posters -- "They have an odd and interesting view of religion, among other things. The ministry of silly walks is my favorite," he says -- and he often peppers his prayers and speeches with pop culture references and jokes about the campus. He once even tried to rap during an invocation. "The rapping isn't really working out. But I got some props for trying anyway," he says.

"Using humor is a good way to represent things that are different than they ought to be. Humor -- when it's not putting people down -- can be healing and redeeming, and it can wake people up."