His desk, inside the chaplain’s office at Tufts University, was a gift from the American Unitarian Association to the now-closed Crane Theological School at Tufts in 1930.
“It’s really the right desk,” said McGonigle, who became chaplain of Tufts—a college founded by Universalists in 1852—this past summer. “I love that it is historical and connected to our heritage.”
The desk is only one aspect of McGonigle’s new job that brings pieces of his life and work together. Though he once imagined pursuing a career in academia teaching about Hinduism, McGonigle turned toward a career in ministry to add pastoral care and social justice work to his interest in religion. And he followed a calling to work with young adults in a campus ministry.
“It was not easy for me to develop my own identities,” said McGonigle, 35. He was raised in a devout Catholic family, and struggled to reconcile that context with his evolving spiritual views and his identity as a gay man. He was drawn to work with young people forming their own beliefs and identities as they entered adulthood.
Young people arrive on college campuses with a wide range of religious beliefs and spiritual practices. That diversity can make Unitarian Universalist ministers a natural fit for university chaplaincy. “Campuses are diverse and need to serve populations that are thinking about religion in a whole lot of ways,” McGonigle said. “Not just the devout and the pious, but the curious and even the skeptical.”
McGonigle’s office is nestled inside Tufts’ Goddard Chapel, right in the center of the bucolic campus on a Medford hillside with views of downtown Boston. The chapel sits beside Ballou Hall, a building named in honor of the Rev. Hosea Ballou II (1796–1861), a Universalist minister and Tufts’ first president.
Prior to joining Tufts, McGonigle was chaplain for five years at Oberlin College in Ohio, where his office was located in the student union building. He is enjoying his office in the non-denominational chapel, partly because of its majesty—with an arched wooden ceiling, Tiffany windows, and memorial plaques—and partly because it attracts a steady stream of visitors: students, faculty, staff, alumni, and prospective students. As he was showing the chapel to a reporter, two visitors wandered in, one pursuing a postdoctoral degree in education and another considering religious studies. These spontaneous conversations help him with his goal of increasing visibility and communication around the chaplaincy. “With each new wave of students, some don’t know that we exist or what we’re for,” he said.
McGonigle hopes to serve not just undergraduates, but also graduate students, including those at the dental and medical schools in Boston and at the veterinary school in North Grafton. He hopes to help those older students with issues of stress and balance, and offer opportunities for spirituality and wellness.
The ability to serve the whole university attracted McGonigle to Tufts. He reports to the university president, Anthony P. Monaco. And he was interviewed for the job by more than 50 people, including faculty, staff, and students. The rigorous process told McGonigle that the whole institution was invested in the chaplaincy.
His office includes four associate chaplains, who are Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, and Protestant. In addition to Goddard Chapel, which turns 130 this year, sacred spaces include the Granoff Family Hillel Center—a 19-year-old Jewish life center with a $1 million budget and nine staff—and an Interfaith Center, which includes programming space and offices for the Catholic, Muslim, and Protestant chaplains.
McGonigle is spending his early months at Tufts getting to know students and faculty, learning and listening. But he wasted no time in producing a full-color foldout brochure to distribute to students when they arrived for the fall semester. It outlined what university chaplaincy was, and how it could support the religious, spiritual, ethical, and cultural life of the community through pastoral care; support to religious and philosophical communities; education; and multicultural engagement. In the brochure, he extended a special welcome to graduate students, agnostics, atheists, humanists, the nonreligious, and seekers, as well as persons of all genders and sexual orientations.
For McGonigle, it feels comfortable to settle into a school with Universalist roots. Universalism still radiates throughout the institution, McGonigle said. Its Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy was the country’s first school of international relations and an offshoot of the Universalist impulse to see all people as interdependent, McGonigle said. Its Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service reflects Tufts’ commitment to fostering peace and justice. And many of its graduate schools, such as the dental, medical, and veterinary programs, focus on the application of knowledge to the world. “That is valued here,” said McGonigle, noting that on many other elite campuses applied knowledge takes a back seat to pure academics.
McGonigle also relishes the chance to follow in the footsteps of the Rev. William L. “Scotty” McLennan Jr., a UU minister who is one of his mentors. McLennan had served as Tufts’ chaplain from 1984 to 2000, and is now dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. McLennan used the same Unitarian desk, increasing its significance to McGonigle.
The job also brings the Massachusetts native closer to his parents, sister, nephew, and niece after being out of state for nearly ten years. He attended college at Brown University in Providence, R.I., then returned to the Bay State to study at Harvard Divinity School. McGonigle then completed an internship at the UU Church of Davis, Calif., and worked as a campus minister at the University of California at Davis before heading to his chaplaincy at Oberlin.
McGonigle believes it’s an exciting time to be on a college campus, with a new openness to interdisciplinary study in the classrooms and to spiritual seeking outside of class. And, he said, “I’m happy for Unitarian Universalism that we have this opportunity to reconnect at Tufts. Tufts sees Universalism as a part of its heritage that inspires its present and future.”
Photo (above): Becoming chaplain at Tufts University is a spiritual homecoming for the Rev. Greg McGonigle, a UU minister at a school founded by Universalists. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)