Inland Empire CoR Meets Secular Chaplain Bart Campolo

The Inland Empire CoR was excited to welcome Bart Campolo to one of their recent events. Bart is an openly secular speaker, writer and community organizer who currently serves as the Humanist Chaplain at the University of Southern California and the University of California—Los Angeles. Born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Bart became an evangelical Christian as a teenager and was immediately attracted to urban ministry. After graduating from Brown University and serving as a youth pastor in Minneapolis, he returned to Philadelphia to found Mission Year, a national service organization which recruits young adults to live and work among the poor in inner-city neighborhoods.

As he became an influential evangelical leader, however, Bart increasingly questioned his own faith. In 2005 he returned to street-level ministry in inner-city Cincinnati, where he eventually completed his transition from Christianity to secular humanism. Based in Los Angeles since 2014, Bart’s work is now focused on inspiring and equipping all kinds of people to more fully enjoy their lives by pursuing loving relationships, doing meaningful work and cultivating a genuine sense of wonder. His blog and podcasts are available at www.bartcampolo.org.

Susan M. Corbett: You started your ministerial career as a Christian minister, but then became a Humanist chaplain. What prompted this change and why Humanism?

Bart Campolo: I wasn’t drawn into Christianity by the dogma, but rather by the clear opportunity to be part of a community of people devoted to building better relationships and making things better for people in need. It took a long time for my wife and me to think our way out of supernaturalism, but it didn’t take us five minutes on the other side of faith to figure out that living for love still makes sense. Actually, for us, it makes more sense than ever.

SMC: You have been working as a Humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. How does that compare to your previous ministerial career?

BC: Honestly, it’s not as different as you might think. It might be if we were aiming to build some kind of militant anti-theist debate team, but the students I’m working with here are much more interested in using reason and science to build each other up and make a positive difference in the world. My job is to encourage, support and counsel them in that direction, and hopefully to inspire and develop a new generation of secular leaders and community builders in the process. The main difference is that it’s a whole lot easier to promote loving relationships, meaningful work and natural wonder—especially in academic setting—when you don’t have to try to get people to believe in an utterly irrational Iron Age theology before you even get started.
SMC: What kind of skills would you say a chaplain needs to be able to work with students from so many diverse cultures? Is there anything about your work in California that is specific to your context?

BC: Hmmm…I’d say compassionate listening skills, for starters. I mean sure, Los Angeles is probably the most culturally and religiously diverse city in the world, but no matter where you go –including your next family reunion–you’re going to encounter people whose foundational understanding of life is profoundly different from your own, especially if you are a secular humanist. The thing to remember is that while none of those people really care about your worldview for its own sake, if and when they realize that you’re genuinely interested in their well-being and that you’re trying to do something good with your life, most of them will want to learn what makes you tick. In a real sense, the key to working cross-culturally is to genuinely want to engage the other, not just bend them to your purposes.

SMC: Can you tell us about a time when you feel your ministry really made a difference, either to you or your students?

BC: For that I’d need to tell you a story, the way I did when I was an urban missionary.  Unfortunately, these days my stories are about hyper-connected university students, who would surely overhear me telling them and lose their sense of safety, no matter how carefully I disguised their identifying details. All I can share, really, are the things we talk about. You know, like their families, their roommates, and their significant others. What they believed growing up versus what they believe now. The meaning of life. Managing stress. What they’re studying and what they hope to do with it once they graduate. Managing anxiety. The origins of the Universe. The meaning of life.  How to work for social justice. Sexuality. The meaning of life…

Seriously, my college students talk a lot about the meaning of life, which, strange as it sounds, means we end up talking a lot about the reality of death. After all, for those of us who don’t believe in personal eternity, it is only the scarcity of our days which makes them infinitely valuable, and which demands we decide how best to spend them. Strange as it sounds, most of those death conversations are great fun. It is those other times, however, when one of my students is losing or has lost a loved one, that I feel most useful here.

SMC: If someone was considering becoming a chaplain, what advice would you give them regarding the pitfalls and the pleasures of this vocation?

BC: You know, my greatest regret is not that I spent 30 years as a believer, but rather that I did so as a professional Christian. I really wish I’d gotten a real job and pursued my ministry as a volunteer. If I had, I’d probably have deconverted much sooner, and I’d have a viable career now, instead of starting over in my 50s. For better and worse, there is no such danger in the secular world, because the infrastructure of organized humanism is still so underdeveloped. I have a great position at USC—Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni gives me an office and all kinds of support –but I receive no salary. The only paid humanist chaplains are those who somehow manage to raise their own support, and unfortunately, at this point, I’m not one of them. So then, my advice to would-be chaplains is quite simple: Love your students and keep your day job!