A campus chapel should help a university define its heart, said Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells in his official exit interview Tuesday.
Wells, dean and research professor of Christian ethics at the Divinity School since 2005, will leave Duke in July to become vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church in London. He discussed how he has worked to create a culture of reciprocity for members of the Duke and Durham community where members both have a claim on the institution and look to the Chapel as a source of comfort.
“The University should be thinking about what its heart is,” Wells said. “If you don’t have a heart, you simply commit yourself to a commodity culture where you are only here to get an investment, a degree.... It’s an impoverished notion of what a university can truly be.” For the Chapel to effectively operate as a church, Wells said that it is important to interact with the people Jesus spent most of his life with—the poor. He tried to accomplish this through outreach to Durham’s more impoverished areas.
“Success is seeing people’s lives change and not just saying so but actually seeing the differences,” he said. “Poverty is a mask we sometimes put on people to [conceal] their real wealth... [but it is important for] a rich person to see how poor they are or for a person coming out of prison to see how rich he is.... That’s what the kingdom of God is about, those kinds of transformations.”
Wells has been acclaimed for his efforts to engage individuals with different religious beliefs and his open acceptance of gay and lesbian members of congregations, said Frank Stasio, who conducted the interview as host of NPR’s “The State of Things.”
During his time at Duke, Wells said he has been “stretched and humbled.”
“You are not going to get a more challenging and rewarding experience than preaching week by week in Duke Chapel,” he said. “Through articulating my faith, I have been deepened in my faith... and have grown in confidence about the trustworthiness of the Christian gospel.” In addition to serving as the public face of the Chapel, Wells has taught classes and focused his efforts on promoting student ministry and engagement with Durham, Stasio said.
The exit interview, the final event in the Dean’s Dialogues series, was an especially poignant way to mark the end of Wells’ time at Duke, said Beth Sturkey, director of development at the Chapel, who introduced Wells and Stasio. Wells established the series to enable dialogue around deeper issues that shape the world.
“Wells has been a vital presence in the Chapel, on campus and throughout the Durham community,” Sturkey said.
During his time at Duke, Wells has spoken with conviction about things that matter to the Duke and Durham communities and has been successful in respecting individuals’ different religious and spiritual views, Stasio said, noting that Wells acknowledges that he does not have all of the answers.
Wells recalls being particularly satisfied when his non-Christian colleagues use his pieces to articulate present-day issues in their courses.
“I’ve really tried to recalibrate the relationship that the Chapel has with student life... particularly in teaching undergraduate curriculum,” Wells said. “I haven’t done this by teaching religion but by teaching about issues that people really want to think carefully about, like poverty and violence.” Several individuals who attended the event said Wells has been successful in his efforts to converse with the community he serves.
“He’s been a huge part of our lives,” said Jennifer Snyder, a clinical nurse at Durham Regional Hospital.
Stasio noted that Wells has been particularly effective through his desire to listen to others and his ability to lead others by showing others that no one is perfect and that even he can be a “justified sinner.”
Layne Baker, a charter member of the Duke Chapel congregation, said she appreciates Wells’ ability to connect his own faith to other people.
“The talk tonight was memorable and historical,” Baker said. “It was just tear wrenching to hear about his own personal faith journey.”
Wells said he hopes to apply much of what he has learned during his time at Duke in his future work at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Serving as dean has taught him to hold himself to the highest standards and has helped pique his interest in how the church can adopt innovative approaches to issues regarding social disadvantages.
“I’d love to say this church... is not just faithful but has innovative approaches to social disadvantages,” Wells said. “We can do that while being fully committed to the historic Christian faith, and that doesn’t happen very often.”