interview by Susan M. Corbett
This week, our focus is in the Northeast with another university chaplain. David Bryce Yaden, who graduated Rutgers in 2009, is a researcher at The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the Positive Psychology Center under the direction of Dr. Martin Seligman. David also works in collaboration with UPenn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience where he studies the neuroscience of self-transcendent experiences with Dr. Andrew Newberg. He provides healthcare business consulting services as well as public health education with a focus on end-of-life care and stress management with Lourdes Health System. You can follow David on Twitter @ExistWell.
Susan M. Corbett: What could you tell us about a typical day for you as a Humanist chaplain at Rutgers?
David Bryce Yaden: Our work at the Humanist Community of Rutgers is always different. Right now, we’re organizing a conference called Common Ground, which will be held at Rutgers University on October 8th. The event is free and people of all belief systems are welcome. The idea of the conference is to demonstrate that there is so much that so many people agree on despite differences in our belief systems. As human beings, most of us crave meaning, connection, and moral approaches to life. We invite Humanists in the area to come and discuss some of the most fundamental questions we can ask about what it is to be human.
We also work to support other secular groups on campus, to work with chaplaincies of all faiths, and to organize interesting and informative events throughout the year.
SMC: Are there some specifics about Rutgers that you feel make chaplaincy work there is different than at other universities?
DBY: Rutgers University is one of the most diverse places on the planet, so inclusivity has been a major theme here at Rutgers. We work hard to make sure every student feels welcome and supported.
SMC: I’m fascinated by your work as a research fellow at The University of Pennsylvania in the Positive Psychology Center. Does the research that you do help you in your work as a chaplain? If yes, could you give us some examples?
DBY: My research regularly informs our discussions. I study experiences and practices traditionally associated with religion and spirituality from a scientific perspective. This gives me a deep appreciation of the many psychological benefits that religion and spirituality offer, and we attempt to bring some of that into secular contexts. For example, we discuss the value of meditation for mental and physical health. We also discuss self-transcendent experiences, in which people feel a profound sense of unity with other people and their environments. Such practices and experiences can benefit anyone, regardless of their particular belief system.
SMC: What kind of skills would you say a chaplain needs if they are to successfully work with students from so many diverse cultures?
DBY: One important skill is to respect differences among people while appreciating human commonality. There are so many differences and yet so many similarities between us all. This balance is a skill that one learns over time; you can see it in masterful teachers and therapists, for example. Approaching students with a humble and sincere intention to support them through the ups and downs of life is essential.
SMC: Can you tell us about a time when you feel your ministry and work really made a difference, either to you or your students?
DBY: A number of students have come up to me to say that our meetings were the first time on campus that they felt truly at home. That means so much to me! At Julien Musolino’s (Rutgers Professor of Cognitive Science) lecture, for example, a number of students expressed their gratitude that we provided a safe space to discuss interesting yet deeply challenging and controversial ideas (and the free pizza always helps, of course!).
SMC: If someone was considering becoming a chaplain, what advice would you give them regarding the pitfalls and the pleasures of this vocation?
DBY: I think that some people become chaplains with the idea that they will change people’s minds about the nature of reality or that they will provide just the right word, phrase, or reading to give someone complete solace. But those cases are very rare. Much more often, your role is to simply care by listening to stories about the inevitable tragedies of life, as well as celebrating the good times, while serving the community.