Tapping into Tufts' Spiritual Heritage

Rev. Gregory McGonigle, a Unitarian minister with a focus on "lived religion," begins July 1 as the new university chaplain
Gregory McGonigle in Goddard Chapel
“When I think about Tufts’ Universalist heritage, I think about Tufts’ commitments around internationalism, peace and justice work, diversity, environmentalism and a strong intellectual tradition that is also very much engaged with the world,” says Gregor
July 1, 2013

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Goddard Chapel, one of the first buildings at Tufts and the hub of the university’s chaplaincy program, stands at the heart of the Medford/Somerville campus, a reminder of the centrality of religious and spiritual life and of the school’s Universalist founders.

Much has changed since the chapel was built in 1883, and today’s religious landscape is radically more diverse. Yet the chaplaincy has much to offer to all who pass by Goddard—indeed, to everyone on all three university campuses, says the Rev. Gregory McGonigle, the new university chaplain, who arrives at Tufts on July 1.

The chaplaincy should seek to provide “vibrant programming for the whole university community,” he says. “Whether or not people are religious or spiritual, religion is an extremely influential factor in our society and world today, one that educated people really need to know, understand and engage with.”

Some understanding can come from studying religions, he says, but another type of understanding can come from engaging with religions and with religious people. That’s called  “lived religion,” and that is “the programming that a chaplaincy seeks to offer, to enhance the overall educational mission of the university,” McGonigle says. “It means providing opportunities not only for spiritual practice, but also for education and interfaith engagement that are designed to enrich the whole campus community.”

Since 2008, McGonigle has been the director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Oberlin College in Ohio. A native New Englander—he’s originally from Westwood, Mass., and was educated at Brown and Harvard—he calls his appointment at Tufts a homecoming. He is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and vice president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. He succeeds the Rev. David O’Leary, who had served in the post since 2002 before retiring last year. The Rev. Patricia Budd Kepler has been serving as university chaplain ad interim since the beginning of 2012.

McGonigle “is uniquely qualified to provide strategic leadership of the chaplaincy,” says President Anthony P. Monaco. “At Oberlin, he has led the transformation and revitalization of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life into a vibrant multifaith program, creating new opportunities for interfaith dialogue, and developing new programs to educate the college community about current events and issues in religion and ethics and to promote the knowledge and appreciation of religious communities.”

As the presence of faith communities beyond the Jewish and Christian traditions has grown in the U.S., universities have needed to provide formalized support for a larger variety of religious expression, as well as for students who embrace humanistic outlooks, and for those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” McGonigle says.

“Tufts has a very strong heritage and structure for religious, spiritual and ethical life,” he says. “And in my view, there is tremendous potential for additional growth. Tufts is located in a world-class city, in a very multifaith and multicultural area. I would like to see all of those resources connected to the religious, spiritual and ethical life of the university.”

A Universal Appeal

McGonigle graduated from Brown University with a concentration in religious studies, focusing on South Asian religions, and earned his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, where he designed his ministerial education specifically for academic chaplaincy. He was a campus minister for four years at the University of California at Davis before moving to Oberlin. He has also served as a minister at a UU congregation, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and an HIV/AIDS community resource center.

As a UU minister, McGonigle says he feels a connection to Tufts’ Universalist roots.

“With all colleges and universities, there are certain commitments from the founders that remain in the universities’ DNA,” he says. “When I think about Tufts’ Universalist heritage, I think about Tufts’ commitments around internationalism, peace and justice work, diversity, environmentalism and a strong intellectual tradition that is also very much engaged with the world.”

Like most colleges and universities, Tufts is religiously diverse, including nonreligious communities, McGonigle says. “But I do think something of the Universalist vision persists in the idea of wanting to engage with the big picture of the world, understanding the intersections of knowledge, and the interdependence of all peoples and communities. What Universalism means is that we all share a common destiny. In the end, we are all journeying together, so we need to learn about, care about and serve one another here and now.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.