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New Dean Sees Chapel’s Work as Sanctuary from World’s Chaos
About two weeks after starting his new role as dean of Hendricks Chapel, the Rev. Brian E. Konkol was walking to a meeting. He ran into Leah Fein, Hillel’s campus rabbi. The two started walking together; about a minute later they encountered Amir Duric, the Muslim chaplain, heading the same way.
Konkol admits his first thought was about a pastor, a rabbi and an imam walking into a bar–the premise for endless jokes. “I actually wanted us to find the nearest watering hole and walk in, just to have some fun with it,” he shares. They didn’t, but he also quickly recognized the metaphor created by the clergy trio.
“That walk symbolizes the mission of Hendricks Chapel,” he says. “We accompany. We journey alongside others, recognizing and embracing our diversity, to educate and bring us all a bit closer to the dream of a common good.”
Konkol, a native of Amherst Junction, Wisconsin, is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He previously served as chaplain of, and taught in, the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies program at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. He also ministered at a Wisconsin church and in Guyana and South Africa.
He will be installed as the seventh Hendricks dean at 4 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 7, at the chapel. The ceremony is open to the public and all are invited. Ahead of that celebration, Konkol discussed his hopes for Hendricks. Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
01What attracted you to this job?
Three words come to mind: history, community, opportunity. In 1930, out of its Methodist roots, this university reached out to the world with an interfaith chapel. Amazing! The language and aims of diversity and inclusion were not widespread in our country, yet Syracuse embraced its identity and mission, which was both courageous and innovative.
The second is that Hendricks Chapel is supported by a large and diverse community. Over 110,000 people engage in our work each year. From community engagement, to music, lectures and religious and spiritual gatherings, each day here is a delight. To be at the heart of campus not just physically, but to be at the heart of campus spiritually and culturally was incredibly appealing.
Finally, in what I often call sacred arithmetic, when you add history plus community what you receive is an opportunity. Hendricks Chapel is now presented with a significant opportunity to build on its history and grow its community. There is an alignment between who we are, what we do and what people are yearning for. I feel a deep sense of calling to this place. I am honored and excited to be a part of it all. I suppose you could say the sky is not the limit!
02The Hendricks Chapel Review Report says that 42 percent of people surveyed had never attended activities here and only 2 percent attended events weekly. Do you have a specific goal in how much you want to increase those numbers?
Yes. We are working hard and I am excited about the significant strides already being made. For example, our weekly Sunday evening Dean’s Convocation–which we began just a few weeks ago–recently attracted about 300 people from across the campus and wider community. This is only one example of our expansion, as our staff and chaplains are deeply committed and serving together each day to integrate our work across the university. We have an amazing team.
It’s important to note that with religion and spirituality our attendance at events inside the building is only one indicator of engagement, and not the full story. I know of people that exercise a great deal, yet rarely step foot into fitness centers, and of course, plenty of people eat without ever entering a dining hall or read from outside the libraries. And so, people practice religion and spirituality most often while outside of dedicated spaces, and while our team will do everything possible to increase attendance within Hendricks Chapel, an additional goal is to increase engagement outside of Hendricks Chapel, as religion and spirituality is by no means bound to any particular set of walls.
03The University has 10 chaplaincies and 23 religious groups. There are traditional Christian worship services, Muslim prayer, a vibrant Jewish community, Catholic Masses. Then there’s a pagan chaplain and people practice yoga outdoors on the Quad. What does that all say?
First, it says that I have an amazing job. Second, it says that the world has come to Syracuse. Hendricks in many ways is a religious and spiritual microcosm of the world. We’re a global chapel at a global university, which is a tremendous gift to our students. The question becomes: How do we take student learning and living seriously at an educational institution where 84 percent of our students consider themselves spiritual in some shape or form? This is a question not only for Hendricks Chapel, but for the mission of Syracuse University as a whole.
04Since the 2016 presidential campaign, we’ve seen the culture wars re-emerge, speaking broadly, pitting evangelicals and conservative Christians against progressive people of faith on social issues. What is the chapel’s role in navigating that?
At Hendricks we create both safe spaces and brave spaces. We provide a sanctuary from the chaos, but we also provide opportunities to engage with it and try to create some order out of it. The fact is that we have a diverse community, and we must not run and hide from our differences. As a Christian, I have real theological differences with those who might view God differently. As a citizen, I have significant political differences with those who wish to organize our society differently. What binds us together is by no means total agreement, but we are all joined through our very real need for each other. So instead of extremism or relativism we are trying to practice and promote pluralism. As my favorite proverb reminds, “if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.”
05What are your early impressions of the university?
I love it here! This all is a dream come true. I get to live, learn and serve alongside some of the most remarkable people on the planet. And I am totally inspired by our students. They recognize that Syracuse University is far more than a stepping stone to an entry level job, but this place is a launching pad for an extraordinary life. If I am fortunate to live a long life, I am very confident that one day I will sit in an old rocking chair with a bright smile, because I will trust that our world is in very capable hands, because it will be led by Syracuse graduates.