Protestant Chaplain Leads Services, Religious and Social Discussions
sport teams, social groups, community
outreach, advocacy groups and studying consume a student’s time and energy.
Gary Comstock, university protestant chaplain, believes being part of a
spiritual group can provide a sense of calmness to the hectic college
“Students’ spiritual community allows them to get away from it all, to
unwind, to relax, to de-stress,” he says. “It gives them the opportunity to
contemplate and reflect and to enjoy some peace and quiet.”
Comstock, one of four University Chaplains, says he’s always “on call” to
help students through any issues, religious in nature or not. In fact, most
students come to him for relationship concerns – problems with friends,
boyfriends, girlfriends, parents – and with studies, especially stress and
feeling overwhelmed by work and responsibilities.
“I think students may see me as a mentor, but probably more often as an
older-adult friend, as someone who doesn’t have power over them but has some
professional and personal skills to help them tap into their own power,” he
Comstock came to Wesleyan in 1990 after receiving his Ph.D and being
ordained by the United Church of Christ. He chose college chaplaincy over
the parish setting to pursue academic and ministerial work. Since college
ministry is a profession with its own array of conferences, organizations,
and publications, it accepted by his denomination.
“There are surprises in any kind of ministry, but a parish has a more fixed
population and set of expectations,” he says. “The student population is
ever-changing; and the 18-to-22-year-old stage of spiritual development is
typified by exploration, uncertainty, searching – qualities that I find
appealing and rewarding to work with. Students pose a lot of different
challenges and also express a lot of gratitude for the help I can provide.”
As the protestant chaplain, Comstock holds an Ecumenical Protestant Service
every Tuesday at the Chaplain’s Lounge. He describes the meetings as small
and informal, and dinners follow the service.
But Comstock extends his chaplain services beyond those in the protestant
branch of Christianity. Although approximately 21 percent of Wesleyan’s
undergraduates are protestant, 35 percent do not claim to be part of any
Comstock holds weekly dinner-meetings for Vespers, a group for people with
any or no religious background. In these meetings, Comstock or the students
design a different ritual or activity each week that addresses and meets the
needs, mood and tenor of things going on during the semester.
“Vespers is uniquely a Wesleyan tradition because it is so successfully
inclusive,” Comstock explains. “I enjoy working with students and am always
thrilled and impressed by their creativity in creating rituals. Making sure
that we do a different ritual each week is a challenge, but it keeps me on
me toes and ensures variety and freshness.”
He also sponsors, or takes part in, the Discussion Series, addressing timely
or urgent social and spiritual issues. In the past, examples of topics have
been community organizing, multi-faith dialogue, many Christian identities,
building one’s own theology, body theology, womanist theology and queerness
and religion. Next year, the series will include discussions on women in the
Bible and religion and social class.
In addition, he has teamed up with the Office of Community Service and
Volunteerism to co-found the Believing In Service, a meeting that connects
religious beliefs with community service. As part of this service,
participants make Thanksgiving and Valentines Day cards for senior citizens,
volunteer at soup kitchens, hold work compost-restoration sessions at the
Middletown Recycling Center, and sponsor a discussion series with religious
and community leaders. This year, the Believing In Service will turn its
attention to habitat restoration with small-scale projects to help restore
wildlife in urban, suburban and campus settings.
And in conjunction with the other University Chaplains, he helps organize
the annual Spirituality Week, which allows the chaplains to highlight and
draw attention to all of the weekly religious and spiritual events that
routinely occur on campus – those sponsored by the Chaplains and students
Comstock is also a visiting professor of sociology, and has taught
Introductory Sociology, Sociological Analysis, Ethics of Leadership, Ethics,
Policy, and the Triage Society, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and
Transgendered People in Society.
Comstock, who holds a Ph.D. from the Union Theological Seminary and a Master
of Divinity from Bangor Theological Seminary, completed the first national
study of anti-gay violence as his thesis. This study, Violence Against
Lesbians and Gay Men, was published by Columbia University Press. It was the
first of six books he authored within a decade. Other include A Whosoever
Church: Welcoming Lesbians and Gay Men into African American Congregations;
Gay Theology Without Apology; Que(e)rying Religion; Unrepentant, Practicing,
Self-Affirming; and Becoming Ourselves in the Company of Others.
“I started to write these in the mid-1980s, when queerness and religion was
breaking into the academia, and there was a lot of excitement and
encouragement generated by the enthusiasm for and interest in such work,” he
says. “The issues are still hot, but I’m more interested in what younger and
newer scholars have to say.”
Nowadays, Comstock has turned his writing interests to Wesleyan students.
Last year, he put together a day-by-day reflection guide each semester for
Protestant students – a Biblical passage with brief commentary for each day
of classes. For this coming semester, he’s compiled a multi-faith,
spiritual, secular reflection guide with favorite quotes submitted by
students who attend Vespers.
Comstock had an interest in the church from an early age. He was raised in
the Congregational Church, which later joined with other Protestant
denominations to form the United Church of Christ. The central tenet of the
liberal Protestantism is to have a responsibility to ask continually who
isn’t included and to go about finding how to include and be affected by
The denomination is pro-gay, and Comstock, who is openly gay, says he never
has to worry about being de-frocked or excommunicated.
“Wesleyan, of course, is independent of my or any other denomination’s
policies, but there’s certainly a similar emphasis on inclusively here,” he
says. “I do feel comfortable being an openly gay chaplain here, but the real
fit for me has to do with the multi-faith, inter-spiritual dimension of my
work – and, of course, our amazing students who always keep things
interesting, challenging, and rewarding.”
Comstock and his partner of 23-years, Ted, enjoy spending time together with
their German Shepard, Gus.
Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection