Willamette University

Campus Conversations

Wallace will retire this spring after more than 25 years as university chaplain. Our consolation is that he will be succeeded by the able Rev. Dr. Karen Wood (a kind and familiar face at Willamette already), but his departure looms like the end of summer break. Luckily, he’ll be hanging around to teach a course or two.

Describe religious or spiritual life on campus for us today.

It’s just as interesting as it’s always been. There was a study done five or seven years ago that analyzed religion in the U.S. by region. The Northwest was “the none zone,” meaning that people here tend to check “none of the above” when asked about affiliation. This doesn’t mean they’re not religious, but it does mean that they’re independent. My tenure here has been about making meaning in such an environment. It’s been easy enough, since Willamette’s DNA is laced with an emotional connection to spiritual and religious life. It’s expressed in our Methodism and in many other ways.

How has the Methodist Church impacted campus culture throughout your tenure?

There’s a social gospel invoked here, where our Methodist background has expressed itself over the decades in terms of social justice, integration and peace. And it persists. We are nonsectarian, but we are still officially connected to the church. This influence continues to push us toward serving our community, and it is entirely authentic.

There’s yet another obvious connection to the motto, then.

Yes, and it’s one of the most important ones. The earliest physical sign of our motto on campus that I know of is the inscription of it in Cone Chapel. This is circa 1919 or so, right after
World War I. In the early Willamette days, the motto would have been used not just as an entry into learning Latin [see The Scene, Winter 2012 for its Latin derivation], but as a moral guide. This is something that I hope future research will shed light on.

You’ll be staying on board as a part-time faculty member. What are some of your hopes there?

When I did my doctoral dissertation, it was on religious life in 18th-century England; I found that the dissenters always tended to live near physical borders, since they could always hop over the line if the authorities came looking for them. I’ve been hopping similarly between the chaplain job and the faculty for years. I’m looking forward to spending some good time in the archives. There are lots of great materials up there.

How has being at Willamette informed your own religious life?

I’ve been witness to so many journeys — I’ve seen students develop, ask questions and make choices. Most of them have even been good choices! I’ve seen the possibilities of growth. To have been able to teach those things has helped me know myself. For me, my time here has ended up confirming my belief in the religious tradition I’m a part of, but it has also allowed me to approach people who are journeying parallel to me in other traditions.

How has the chaplain’s role changed during your time here?

Around the time I arrived, places like Willamette began exploring interfaith issues. As people’s identification with denominations has fallen away, we’ve identified lots of interest in understanding and pursuing other religious and spiritual traditions. Chaplains now need to be approachable and able to help people along many different paths. We’re not here to convert; we’re here to propel. People of all sorts of religious traditions come to us for guidance, and some of the most interesting conversations, actually, are with people of no religious background. Some of our best advocates are non-religious members of the community

Everyone wants to know: How do you write such memorable invocations?

This is one of the parts of the job I’ve enjoyed the most. There’s no big process. Ever since seminary, I’ve had buddies who were just as wacko as me, and I’ve always enjoyed surprising people. Humor keeps people awake, thinking; it’s fun to play with.

Any regrets?

I still wish we could have had someone out of Monty Python at commencement. John Cleese would have been a hoot.

A few steps from John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks, for Charlie.
Above: A few steps from John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks, for Charlie.

Charlie Wallace

Charlie Wallace
University Chaplain