New dean of the chapel focuses on interfaith community service

The Rev. Gail Stearns in Washington, D.C., during the kick off ceremonies for the White House Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.

It’s a fitting thing that the Rev. Gail Stearns brought along her canoe when she made the move to Orange to become the new dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel and Fish Interfaith Center at Chapman University.

Because no sooner had Stearns settled in this summer than she and leaders with
Student Civic Engagement
launched themselves into President Obama’s
Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge
. The White House program calls on colleges and universities across the nation to tackle community problems together and for each to choose an issue or cause. The Chapman team chose water.

“One of the things I love about the water theme is that it speaks to every kind of value system, whether it’s religious, scientific or humanistic-based. Water is just so essential to our connectedness,” she says.

Stearns traveled to Washington, D.C., early in August for a series of meetings and seminars along with representatives from some 250 other schools chosen for the project. Schools were chosen based on the quality of their proposal for participation.

Chapman’s program, led by Chris Hutchison, director of Student Civic Engagement, will be introduced to students during this week’s orientation and during a special celebration Sunday at the Interfaith Center that will incorporate a water ritual and a variety of readings. Opportunities for service work with several local organizations working on clean water issues will be planned throughout the school year. There are also plans for a water conserving contest among the residence halls, and students will be able to check a water meter website to see how they’re doing.

Reflecting on service will be a core part of the program, too, said Stearns, formerly director of
Interfaith House, The Common Ministry
, a nonprofit organization serving the community of Washington State University.

“A key question, which we will pose to our students each time they engage in service connected with this initiative throughout the year, is ‘How are you inspired to serve?’ We will ask them to tell us their Hindu story, their Jewish story, their Humanist story, their Christian story, or whatever story brings them to this point to be serving others. When we hear those stories, we learn that all traditions and all people, religious or not, are inspired to serve,” she said.

But participation in the White House program is just one of many endeavors Stearns envisions for the center as its new dean. She also hopes to develop a meditation program, encourage additional arts performances in the center’s facilities and help contribute more interfaith views to academic symposiums, panels and events that intersect with issues of faith and religion.

In addition to working on this week’s orientation activities, Stearns is helping to coordinate “An Interfaith Experience,” a 9/11 remembrance scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Fish Interfaith Center and co-sponsored by the Interfaith Peace Ministries of Orange County. The event is open to the public.

And there is also that canoe waiting to hit the water. Stearns says she looks forward to finding new courses for it, too.

Dawn Bonker

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