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Emory University's religion coordinator nurtures student spirituality of any faith

At a time when young adults are questioning long-held beliefs, Susan Henry-Crowe works to keep religion relevant. Since 1991 she has served as Emory University Chaplain, counseling students making vocational choices and nurturing religious life on campus.

Although she is ordained in the United Methodist Church, Henry-Crowe has worked to bring together students of different religious backgrounds. She works with 27 religious organizations on campus, including Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim student groups. During a controversy over same-sex marriages in the Emory University chapel, she led the effort to revise university policy, making it possible for some same-sex couples to have ceremonies there.

Henry-Crowe entered the ministry in 1974, when few women were in the pulpit. In her post at Emory she has met visiting dignitaries and religious gurus from around the world, sharing jokes with archbishop Desmond Tutu and praying with the Dalai Lama.

What's a typical day on the job like for you?

There's no such thing as a typical day in this job, which is part of why I like it. I coordinate all of the religious life at Emory. I meet every other week with the campus ministers, and there are about 15 to 20 in that group. On the off weeks I meet with inter-religious council, made of student representatives from all of the religious groups. I also do personal kind of spiritual formation with graduate students and undergraduate students and have close relationships with a number of staff and faculty. I work with people who are in some kind of crisis -- divorce, separation, sexuality, issues with the church or their faith traditions, or their children. I teach a course in the spring in church law.

Is it difficult to get college students interested in religion?

Juniors and seniors tend to be more active than first-year students. There is still caution about institutionalized religion among some students. Here I hope that we give them a safe place to explore pretty freely and also help them see that traditional religions aren't the same way that they may have imagined them to be.

What kind of education and skills do you need for this job?

I got a bachelor's degree from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology here at Emory. Sometimes having a Ph.D. in this position is helpful, particularly for people who want to teach. Because Emory is as large as it is, I don't have time to teach. I'm trained in pastoral and administrative work.

What was your very first job?

I worked with my father in his art supply and framing business and learned how to make picture frames.

What issues have you been involved in on campus?

One of the controversies was over uses of the chapel and whether or not we would allow same-sex commitment ceremonies. We resolved that by saying we do recognize the rights of each of the religious groups on campus, and if there is a group that recognizes same-sex commitment ceremonies that we would not disallow them.

Have you been criticized for your interfaith work?

There are some people that wonder if it means that I am ... sort of giving up my own tradition. My response to that is my job here is one that's grounded in my own sense of vocation and own religious identity. My work here is to make sure that everybody stays at the table. It's not an opportunity to engage in narrow proselytizing, but an opportunity to make sure that a healthy religious community develops here that is respectful of a lot of different traditions.

How many hours do you work a week?

I probably work 65 hours a week. The good thing about it is that summers are less intense. I go to conferences and do research and planning in the summer. From the end of August until May I mostly work seven days a week because we have services on Sunday. I get a lot of Saturdays off, but there are a lot of functions on Saturdays, too.

What's the average salary for this position?

I would say that it's somewhere between $80,000 and $120,000.

Is there a dress code in your work place?

For me it's kind of a mix of being casually dressy. One of the issues that I personally struggle with is whether or not to wear a collar. It does make me more easily identified when I do, but I rarely do.

What's the best perk of your job?

I thoroughly enjoy working with students and faculty. That's why working 65 hours a week is not a burden. If I had to sit in front of a computer 65 hours a week, it would be an awful job. Being with them at important times in their life is just enormously satisfying.

Who are some of the leaders you've been able to meet?

I admire and respect Jimmy Carter, who I've had conversations with. He is a man of deep commitment and vision. Archbishop Tutu is just deeply joyful and inspiring. I've met with him often because our offices were in the same building. We had a wonderful relationship that was engaging and humorous and just full of fun. Elie Wiesel was here several years ago and he is just an inspiring person. I was with the Dalai Lama at the graduation ceremony in 1998. We stood together at the podium and I asked him to say a blessing. He's very gentle and very peaceful and very courageous.

What goals do you have for your job?

I want to continue to foster healthy interfaith relationships. We also have a program I'm really proud of, Journeys of Reconciliation. We take groups of students to areas of conflict around the world and talk about the root causes of conflict. This year there are trips to Northern Ireland, Bolivia, a Native American reservation in Montana and to Cuba. It really is a transforming experience, but it needs a lot more funding. That's one thing I'm looking forward to fostering.

What's the most challenging part of your job?

When students die. Since I've been here we've had 16 student deaths. The deep sorrow of their friends and their family ... that never really goes away. I remember every student, every conversation with every set of parents.

What would you do if you won the lottery?

I would definitely keep on working and I would try to fund some of the programs, like the Journeys program.

What has your job taught you about human nature?

I do think there is a deep yearning for spiritual depth in people, and for students I think there is a deep yearning to find a place in the world where they can do something that matters. There are students that just want to make a lot of money, but I tend to see students that are very interested in contributing something to the world to make it a better place.

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