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University chaplain reflects on his illustrious career, looks ahead

Timothy Stevens, Northwestern's 'spiritual beacon,' to retire after 32 years

Chaplain Tim Stevens
Chaplain Tim Stevens has transformed religious life at Northwestern. Photo by Jim Prisching

EVANSTON - When Northwestern offered Timothy Stevens the job of acting University chaplain in the fall of 1986, it was intended to be a one-year stint.

The search committee had already informed him he was not among the finalists for the permanent position, but the University needed someone to fill the role while it continued its search.

“I said yes, because I figured no matter what happens, it would be good on a resume,” Stevens said.

Consider the resume complete. After a few months on the job, the University was so impressed it ended its search and made Stevens the permanent chaplain, a job he has held for more than three decades. After Commencement, Stevens will retire, ending a 32-year run during which he helped shepherd generations of students, faculty and staff through some of their highest — and lowest — points.

“He’s been a great comfort to campus whenever issues come up – a death or an accident or a loss,” said Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president for Student Affairs. “He’s been at my side and at the side of the students.”

'Spiritual beacon'

His impact on the University has been immense, helping transform religious life on campus by embracing multiculturalism and differing beliefs. He has been a strong advocate for inclusion, for LGBT rights, for increasing diversity on campus and for interfaith dialogue, which has become a mainstay at Alice Millar Chapel.

He has presided over hundreds of weddings, funerals and baptisms, and overseen dozens of Baccalaureate services as part of the University’s annual Commencement ceremonies, leaving a lasting legacy for graduates and families.

“As the University Chaplain, Tim Stevens has been a spiritual beacon for Northwestern students, faculty and staff of all faiths for more than three decades. He has been a comforting presence in difficult times, a leader in joyous celebrations and a faithful steward of the religious experience at Northwestern,” said President Morton Schapiro. “Northwestern is a university that truly welcomes persons of all faiths, and to a great extent, that is a result of Tim setting an example for all of us to follow.”

For Stevens, who also holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern in English literature, the journey has been equal parts self-discovery and helping students find answers through spirituality. In many cases, he said, the students have led the way.

Many faiths

When consultants came to Northwestern to help the University develop a plan for religious life in 1996, Stevens convened students from a variety of religious backgrounds – Jewish students and Muslims, Christians and Hindus — to talk to the consultants. The students spoke with the consultants, but also amongst themselves.

Tim Stevens
Commencement 2014

They enjoyed the experience so much they began meeting on a regular basis. Stevens dubbed the ongoing interfaith conversations the “Northwestern Council of Religions.”

Five years later, in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Stevens called on the council to develop a simple, interfaith gathering for the campus. More than 1,000 students, faculty and staff attended – and leaned on each other amid the grief.

“The lesson, to me, is sometimes you do things, and you’re not quite sure why you’re doing them except in hindsight. Then you say, ‘Oh, that’s why we were doing it,’” he said. “It wasn’t the only reason we were having those meetings, and there were other benefits to them. But I thought, wow, we were really getting ready for something that we didn’t know was coming.”

Social mission

Throughout his tenure, Stevens and his wife, Priscilla Wilkins Stevens, have lived on campus, in part because he felt it important to be nearby, enabling him to respond quickly in times of need. There have been 2 a.m. calls to counsel students amid tragedies and late-night requests for spiritual help, when members of the Northwestern community found themselves in need.

There were other reasons for keeping a residence on Library Place as well. Over the years, living on campus has kept him close to Millar Chapel, where he oversees a welcoming and diverse mixture of religious worship, conversation and inclusiveness.

“Northwestern...welcomes persons of all faiths, and to a great extent, that is a result of Tim setting an example for all of us to follow." - President Morton Schapiro

He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Chapel, its history and its commitment to social justice. He knows what each stained-glass window in the Chapel depicts and can speak eloquently about its relevance. Stevens has made it a priority to maintain the tradition of weekly University Chapel Services in Millar during the academic year, combining thought-provoking preaching with inspirational music.

“It’s such a wonderful place,” Telles-Irvin said. “He’s really taken it upon himself to ensure it continues to thrive.”

To Stevens, Northwestern’s social mission extends far beyond the Chapel or the campus. In 1992, he began co-leading annual interfaith trips during spring break to other parts of the world. Along with 10-15 students, he has visited El Salvador, Guatamala, Cuba, Haiti and Russia. The goal, he said, isn’t to evangelize, but to show the students another part of the world, hoping that when they return to campus they’ll see where they live differently. He calls the trips “friendship missions,” designed to build relationships.

Throughout his career, Stevens has tried to avoid giving students answers (“Those would be my answers, not theirs,” he said), but instead help them live with the questions and discover their own answers.

That includes helping students, faculty and staff understand how science and religion can co-exist, a particularly important message in the world of academia. He remembers one student who was raised in a conservative Christian denomination. When she came to Northwestern, she majored in anthropology. In classes, she learned about the forces that shaped the earth. At home, she was told the world was 8,000 years old.

“She said, ‘I came to the point where I didn’t think I could be religious anymore,’” Stevens said. “Well, there are more ways to be religious than one. One of the things that’s been important to me is to model and articulate a way to be religious that is intellectually respectable, that is critical, not in the negative sense, but in the analytical sense — that it’s possible to be religious and have a mind.”

In retirement

What will Stevens do in retirement? He plans to travel with Priscilla, attend some Cubs games and perhaps a few Wildcat basketball games. He also hopes to latch on with a local parish for some interim work.

But one of the things that most excites him is the opportunity to play his banjo. Four years ago, he began taking lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.

“This is a weird thing to be confessing, I know,” he said. “It’s been kind of a serious and not-so-serious hobby.”

He paused and smiled.

“More than a hobby I think.”

The allure?

“I told my wife at one point, I can go down to Old Town School, and I’m not the Chaplain. I can just be the old guy who plays the banjo.”

He’ll have plenty of time for that now.

“I’m looking forward to whatever is next, and I am energized by that,” Stevens said. “I’ve said to a few people, and I will probably say this to many more, ‘I’m not going to be the Chaplain anymore, but I will continue to be your friend.’”

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