In suite 410 of J. Walter Wilson, amid colorful artwork, classic furniture and family photographs of Brown community members, sits Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, the University chaplain.
Appointed chaplain in 1990, Cooper Nelson has been a part of the Brown community for the past 21 years. She serves not only as director of the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life but also as a personal resource for the students, faculty and staff whose images adorn her walls.
“When I took this job, I was the first woman to take a job like this at an Ivy,” Cooper Nelson said.
Though she is now the authority on the University’s religious life, Cooper Nelson started her career in the secular world. Her path to chaplain began when she left her job as a history teacher.
“My brain was tired from teaching kids, and I needed a break,” she said. After leaving her teaching position, Cooper Nelson became interested in studying law and headed to graduate school on an experimental grant, she said.
When the time came to reapply for the grant, she started to consider a new path. “What about ordination?” Cooper Nelson asked herself.
Cooper Nelson started to look into combined programs at Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Law School but did not like the way the law school worked “because of its sort of ‘hazing’ process,” she said, “where students would have to stand up and read cases.”
Cooper Nelson enrolled at the Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., while her husband worked at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “We moved our family home, which was just the two of us, to New Hampshire. I had to make weekly commutes. There was divinity placement in Hanover, which ultimately turned into a job,” she said.
There is not a typical process for becoming a chaplain of a university. “People come to this position out of academic classrooms at universities, out of (non-governmental organizations), out of congregational work — which is the least likely — and other different areas,” she said.
Nuts and bolts and faith
Being chaplain of the University is no easy role. The job is both an administrative and a spiritual vocation. Cooper Nelson typically meets with other administrators, fulfills pastoral duties by running religious services, reads and writes articles and speaks publicly at University events and on the road, she said. She also works with other religious organizations to aid in fundraising efforts.
“There’s a big Brown family, and anyone who is in need of care gets our help,” Cooper Nelson said, adding that the Office of Chaplains and Religious Life has a wide reach. “Our e-mail address group is close to 18,000 people,” she said.
Cooper Nelson said there is a broad interest in religion on campus. “It’s not hard to get people to talk about the topic of religion, but that’s kind of true at Brown for anything,” she said.
“I would say 40 to 60 percent of Brown students are involved in religion, whether through fellowship groups, attending services or writing about religion for some journal,” she added.
As chaplain, Cooper Nelson said she tries to supports students in their choices instead of dictating specific solutions to them.
“We’re just going to hold the mirror up for you and make sure you’ve made a decision that reflects the values you have,” she said. “That’s our job.”
A few years after she arrived as chaplain, Cooper Nelson said she talked to senior officers and deans and created student focus groups to see what could be done to increase religious diversity on campus. Cooper Nelson also created additional associate positions in her office so Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim traditions would all be represented on campus. She also established new positions in public service.
“It was a more successful design for signaling to people that the diversity of religion was a priority at Brown and would be supported,” she said. “The range of practice in each of the major strands of tradition here is very broad.”
Cooper Nelson also focuses on increasing religious literacy on campus. The Office of Chaplains and Religious Life provides invitations to students to collaborate with faculty, undertake research projects and participate in programs to increase knowledge about different traditions, she said. This semester, she is facilitating a religious literacy seminar for students seeking extracurricular learning.
“We’re endlessly teaching when we are caring and caring when we are teaching. We’re never off the hook in each direction. We’re trying to help students voice what they think and reach a place of understanding,” Cooper Nelson said.
For Cooper Nelson, the notion of religion is still complex. “I think the word ‘religion’ is a stumbling block. People associate it with institutional failure,” she said.
Religious institutions across the world are undergoing processes of deep reform and restructuring.
“Your grandchildren will see radically different models, whether due to finance, deep moral outrage about the conduct of some communities and the people in some communities, or something else,” she said.