Young and Ready: Penn’s New University Chaplain

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At 30, Reverend Charles Lattimore Howard C’00, appointed this July as Penn’s seventh chaplain, is the youngest person to hold such a post in the Ivy League today. But the Baltimore native brings a veritable lifetime of devotion to Penn to his position.

It began with his family’s annual pilgrimage to the Penn Relays, which commenced when Howard—who also goes by Chaz—was a boy. As a high school student, when the time for college applications arrived, he applied to Penn early decision.

The elation he felt as a freshman at his dream school was dampened, however, when his father suddenly fell ill and died that December. The tragedy led to his first encounter with Penn’s Office of the Chaplain, where the newly appointed Reverend William Gipson had taken the helm. Gipson was one of a number of faculty who stepped forward to lend comfort and support, Howard recalls.

“It was the first time I fully grasped the effect that staff and faculty can have on the lives of students,” he says.

Gipson went on to become a beloved mentor to Howard during his time at Penn. Howard pursued a double major in urban studies and Africana studies, choices that mirrored his passions for cross-cultural civic engagement. He was not, however, particularly drawn to the activities of the spiritual groups on campus. “I was more interested in politics back then,” he admits. “I was decidedly focused on discovering through which vehicle I could cause the greatest amount of good.”

Not until senior year did he come to the revelation that his spiritual and political engagement need not be, or rather should not be, mutually exclusive.

He jokes that he ended up at Andover Newton Theological School for his training in the ministry because it was “first in the alphabetical listings.” But Boston happened to be a city he’d been hoping to visit for some time. The seminary’s location also landed him in the midst of rich academic territory, ripe with opportunities to attend seminars and take classes at Harvard, Boston College, and Boston University. Indeed, at Harvard he achieved his dream of studying with race scholar Cornel West (since decamped to Princeton), a man Howard calls “the greatest intellectual influence” on his life.

But it wasn’t long before he returned to Penn. In the summer of 2002, before his last year at Andover Newton, he accepted a chaplain internship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating with a master’s in divinity, he came back to HUP for a yearlong residency as a chaplain. Among a team of five, Howard was responsible for attending to the trauma unit. The work was intense and life-changing.

“Witnessing so many young people who looked just like me, being brought in on stretchers, from gunshot wounds or whatever was going on out there … really challenged me to think of new ways that my ministry could be proactive, rather than reactive,” Howard says. While he recognized the importance of a pastoral presence after a tragedy, he hoped to do more to curtail the root causes of violence and social unrest.

To that end, after his HUP residency Howard began working with Project H.O.M.E, a Philadelphia nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness and addressing the structural causes of poverty. He also continued to tend to the sick and dying via a 12-month tenure with Samaritan Hospice, and led worship and ministered to the wheelchair-bound residents of Philadelphia’s Inglis House.

Then, in the summer of 2005, Howard received a call from Gipson, who told him that he had begun a search for an associate chaplain and encouraged Howard to apply. That fall, Howard returned once again to Penn as Gipson’s right-hand man, a post he held until Gipson’s promotion this past January to the role of associate vice provost for equity and access.

“He is the perfect person for that position,” Howard says. “At the same time, it was a tremendous loss for our office and for religious communities on campus. He had been recognized as one of the leading chaplains in the country.

“The blessing in it,” Howard adds, with a laugh, “is that he only moved four blocks away.”

Howard was bumped up to the position of interim chaplain, but says he held no assumptions that he would be appointed Gipson’s successor, and join the line of university chaplains in the Ivy League.

Five of the eight Ivies were founded in direct affiliation with a Christian sect. Penn is not among that number. Unlike Brown (Baptist), Columbia (Church of England), and Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale (Congregationalist), Penn was founded as a nonsectarian institution. Generally speaking, however, Christian tradition has been a heavy influence here as in the rest of the Ivy League. Today, each member of the Ancient Eight still includes a chaplain’s office or an office of religious life.

In Penn’s case, while officially nonsectarian, the majority of its founding members hailed from the Church of England.  Eight of the first 10 provosts were clergymen. In 1932, University President Thomas S. Gates C’28 Hon’56 bestowed a personal gift of $600,000 to establish an Office of the Chaplain.

Gipson was one of the six ordained ministers to hold that position. Earlier this year, a diverse group of Penn leaders formed the search committee that would advise Provost Ron Daniels on the appointment of the seventh. In Howard, search-committee chair and associate dean for arts and letters Ann Matter, professor of religious studies, says Penn has found a chaplain with “an inspirational vision of what can be done with the office. I think Penn students are hungry for someone who can sustain a creative dialogue about faith on this campus—and Chaz is the one to do it.”

And how does Howard regard the position he holds today? “It’s a tremendous honor and privilege to serve such an amazing institution,” he says, adding, after a pause and pregnant sigh: “Penn took a chance on me 12 years ago, and now I have an opportunity to give back to a place that’s already given me so much. It’s a great thing.”

—Rachel Estrada Ryan C’00

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