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Hartford Pastor Leads Dartmouth’s Spiritual Life

The Rev. Nancy Vogele is the new director of religious and spiritual life at the William Jewett Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

The Rev. Nancy Vogele is the new director of religious and spiritual life at the William Jewett Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

Hanover — Nancy Vogele visited Dartmouth College when she was a senior in high school from Illinois trying to make up her mind about which college she might attend. A handful of Ivy League schools were on her list, including Yale and Princeton, but Dartmouth won the day when Vogele visited a friend during a homecoming weekend in October more than 25 years ago. All of the schools were academically competitive, Vogele said, but the students at Dartmouth “had such a spirit about them,” Vogele applied for early decision, got accepted and never looked back.

“It felt right, the 1985 Dartmouth graduate said, “and that’s a big part about how we make decisions.”

Today, the Rev. Vogele, an Episcopal priest who served parishioners at St. Paul’s in Hartford for 11 years, remains interested in spiritual matters of all sorts. But as the newly hired director of religious and spiritual life at the William Jewett Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth, the Hartford resident’s attention has shifted from concentrating on a small Vermont congregation to the more expansive arena of a college that sponsors more than 20 different faith organizations.

Just 37 days into her new job, Vogele, 49, spoke with the Valley News about her new responsibilities. An edited transcript of that conversation is below.

Valley News: One part of your job is to coordinate all the groups that make up the United Campus Ministers Group. What can you tell readers about that?

Nancy Vogele: United Campus Ministers are advisers for a whole bunch of different and diverse student groups on campus. We have a Hindu group. We have a Muslim group. We have several Jewish groups. We have many Christian groups. We have a multi-faith group and we even have an agnostic-humanist-atheistic group. It’s a beautiful setup in that these are self-sustaining groups that are recognized by the college that agree to work together and have their own code of conduct so that we can all work together. (They are all) very different religious groups reaching out to students to help them grow in their faith. They do a lot of one-on-one meeting with students. They have weekly meetings. They hold special events that, even if they are the only ones sponsoring it, it’s geared toward the bigger college. In our multi-faith council this term, we are focusing on spiritual autobiographies, so students are signing up and each week a different student will give their spiritual autobiography.

On Monday we’re sponsoring an event on Islam and geopolitics. We have a former CIA station chief speaking and a Dartmouth professor. There’s a Zen Buddhist group, so they meditate. The adviser for that group just last week brought in a Buddhist nun to speak to the students who are interested.

And then there’s the ecumenical Sunday night chapel service (in Rollins Chapel at 5 p.m.), which is its own community as well, (but) also draws on students from other groups who want to come to a simple Sunday night service.

VN: When you were an undergraduate, you contemplated a career in the Foreign Service. What prompted a move into ministry instead?

NV: When you’re 19 or 20 years old, you think you’re going to join the Foreign Service. (Laughs.) But I was in Africa for two years (and) when I was there in the Congo there was a U.S. consulate in our city and, for the first time, I actually saw what I would be doing. I realized that I would be the mouthpiece for whatever administration was in power and I realized that I’m not the type of person (who wants to work) with that type of power. I was working with churches that, to use Mother Teresa’s phrase, were the poorest of the poor. These were really poor people, and yet there was such spiritual power, it was unbelievable. Experiencing the difference between (those two types of power), I realized I wanted to serve God full time. Looking back, I realize you can serve God full time as a Foreign Service officer too, but that wasn’t part of my understanding back then.

VN: What drew you to St. Paul’s in Hartford?

NV: I never went to St. Paul’s as an undergraduate, but I knew of St. Paul’s because when I was an undergrad that’s when they helped start The Haven. The overflow from The Haven on Friday nights was at Edgerton House (on campus). If they didn’t have room at the inn over at the original Haven, then people would stay overnight in the basement at Edgerton House. So even though I never had been (to St. Paul’s), its reputation was so strong, I applied and I ended up there. I never thought, “I want to go to a small town in Vermont.” Life unfolds and, I think, as things are unfolding, that’s where the discernment happens.

VN: You have said you want to help people explore spirituality, rather than religion, in their day-to-day lives. How can you do that?

NV: People are less and less religious and therefore less and less choosing to use explicitly religious language. In fact, sometimes by using explicitly religious language, it kind of puts up a roadblock to the very conversation you want to have, and that is about where you find meaning. Who am I? What is the meaning of life? These are big questions.

When I was doing my clinical pastoral education at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (Medical Center), one of the chaplains said, “Don’t go in and try to be the volunteer. They have volunteers for that. Don’t try to be the nurse. They have nurses for that. But no one else can be the chaplain, so make sure you offer yourself as a chaplain.” (But the question is), how do you break the ice around that (topic)? You don’t want to push yourself. (So he recommended) going in and saying, “How are your spirits doing?” And that’s a great way to do it, even with parishioners, because it’s a really simple way to signify that I’m not just there to chitchat, that I’m here to talk about deep things if that’s where you want to go.

When I use the word “spirit,” it’s a way to signify that I’m not really interested primarily in having a chitchat conversation. It’s to signify that we can have a conversation from or about a place that’s either deeper or higher than that. Artists talk about being inspired and that’s just having the spirit in you. They talk about tapping into a place that’s more than their usual selves, being in the zone. I think helping students tap into that place with some intentionality and consistency is what Tucker is all about. It’s amazing how students are dealing with big issues, grappling with them and finding meaning around them.

VN: What kind of issues do you see students wrestling with?

NV: It’s like reading the newspaper. There’s no lack of issues, whether it be your kids, your health, your job, the stress of this ongoing economic downturn or being at war for over a decade. It’s just taking the pulse and starting a conversation and then mostly listening. They’re smart people. I don’t think I was ever this articulate when I was an undergrad. I’m really impressed at how thoughtful and insightful the conversations are that I’ve been having with students.

VN: How is your new position at the Tucker Foundation different from being the pastor of a congregation?

NV: It’s a different relationship with students than with parishioners. Students are here one term, they’re gone another term. They’re here for four years and then they move on. And they’re young. They have their whole lives ahead of them. They’re exploring. They’re open. They haven’t landed and settled on things. They’re very interested and have the time to have these discussions and explore. Once you get into your routine, and you have a family and your job, that takes up most of your time.

VN: How has Dartmouth changed since you graduated in 1985?

NV: Where do you begin? When I was the volunteer coordinator (from 1985-1987) we had maybe 10 opportunities. But now it seems infinite. More and more there are ways that service and engagement are being incorporated into the academic setting. There’s a class, (for example), that goes once a week to the Sullivan County jail and the students, together with a group of inmates, put on a play together. Tucker Foundation is working really hard to see how we can partner with other parts of campus.

When I was coming back to the area in 2001, a friend of mine down in Concord said I should look up the LGBT assistant dean. And I’m like, “What? That doesn’t connect.” And then I got here and I met the LGBTQ assistant dean, who just recently left after over 10 years herself here, and I was blown away at Dartmouth’s embracing of the need to support and promote and to acknowledge diversity on campus. That was a huge difference. There were also no living-learning floors when I was an undergrad.

VN: What’s a living-learning floor?

NV: We have a floor in one of the dorms for interfaith living and learning. So students who are interested in the issue of interfaith dialogue and matters around faith can apply to live on this floor. There’s a bunch of places like that. When I was a student there was the Native American House and Cutter House for African-American students, but they didn’t have the same (centrality). I think Dartmouth has really grown up. I think it is sophisticated, and I mean that in the best sense. It is really embracing that we are a global society and therefore Dartmouth needs to be a global center of learning. Dartmouth students go all over the world. So we need to foster learning opportunities in order to equip our students to be good global leaders.

VN: Is interfaith dialogue even more important now than it used to be?

NV: Without a doubt. So many political issues have a religious motivation. We need to be able to talk in a multi-faith setting so we can disperse stereotypes and really embrace what the different religions are about and not let a few extreme examples of that be our only source of knowledge, regardless of what the religion is.

VN: You’ve been on the job for a little more than a month, but do any early experiences stand out so far?

NV: Sitting with students on the multi-faith council and hearing them give their spiritual autobiographies is very profound and very moving. And lighting candles at Sunday night chapel. We have a part of the service when students can go up and light a candle. The first Sunday, it was going forward to light a taper as a prayerful offering about your intentions for this term.

Two weeks ago, it was lighting a candle for someone who has been on your mind and offering that person up in prayer. And then last week, because I had a lot of semi-used tapers by this time and I don’t want to waste them, I said, “Sometimes there are prayers we offer again and again and again. But don’t be discouraged. Go up and light a used candle and offer that prayer yet again and be open to how God might guide you.”

Diane Taylor can be reached at 603-727-3221 or dtaylor@vnews.com.