In the summer of 2000, Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding began a “really interesting job, at a really interesting college.” Spalding was particularly intrigued by opportunities to engage with “life’s biggest questions” that this job that the College would afford him.
“As I arrived in my own young adulthood, I realized my own life posed some big questions,” he said. “And because I never finished answering my questions, I have been drawn to work that allows me to explore these kinds of questions with others.”
Among the most important questions the young Rick Spalding asked himself were about his own sexual orientation – “Why am I gay? Do I have to be?” – and about how his acknowledgment of this part of his identity would affect his relationship with God, as well as his vocation. Spalding is an ordained pastor of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.), a Church that only two years ago revised its stance on the ministry of openly gay pastors.
In 1979, as a graduate student in his mid-twenties, Spalding began his process of coming out. He had become consciously aware of his sexual orientation as early as junior high school, but it was not until he had firmly reached young adulthood that he would make this aspect of his identity more widely known. By then, he had already met his life partner, Peter. The two met as nineteen-year-olds when they joined the same college a cappella group.
Thirty-nine years, ten months and two weeks later (Spalding remembers the exact date their relationship started), their relationship remains as strong as ever.
When asked how he was able to reconcile his relationship with Peter with his vocation, he went to his desk and retrieved a small, folded sheet of paper. Unfolding it, he revealed a list of names.
“These are the names of people in the Presbyterian Church who, at some time, risked their integrity, their livelihoods, to defend me. This is my church. Whenever I would feel frustrated with the church, I would remember these people. They’re why I stayed.”
He also recalled a particularly dark time when, as a young man grappling for answers, he voiced his concerns to a pastor and mentor. “I remember he stopped me and said, very firmly: ‘Rick, when will you realize that Peter is your vocation?’” Spalding said.
For Spalding, the guidance of the adults in his life who cared about him was nothing short of transformative. In some ways, he now reflects, these relationships saved his life – because they allowed him to see the presence of love in his life as a gift from God, and to understand Peter as the most precious manifestation of that gift. While, for fear of losing his ordination, he had to remain closeted in many circles, he nonetheless came to understand the gift of being understood and affirmed.
“I was lucky to find adults who were willing to be in those questions with me,” he said. “The solidarity of older people who ‘got’ me was redemptive … and so turning around and becoming that adult for other people was really important to me.”
Now in his thirteenth year at the College, Spalding has become that adult for a great many members of this community. His questions and engagement are always with an eye toward what binds us together, despite our differences in background and belief. He has his own convictions, but he also acknowledges that, “No religion has the market cornered on truth.”
It is because Spalding has a set of deeply-held convictions that he can be so effective at affirming others’. “How can I be sympathetic to somebody else’s convictions if I don’t have my own?” he asked. “How can I understand the power of affirmation without an affirmation of my own?”
Spalding well understands the power of a simple affirmation, of a conferring of blessing from one person to another. He encourages the members of this community to honor each other’s stories, and to respect what is sacred to each of us alone and to all of us together. Spalding knows that, given the fast-paced, academically rigorous environment the College fosters, it can be easy for students to forget to pay attention to the sacredness all around them, and to find time to cultivate that awareness in their daily lives.
“I think my job is to ask, in as many ways as I can, what really matters, and why,” he said. “What is worth giving your life to? What, that’s bigger than you, are you part of?”
As he enumerated the questions with which he is most concerned, he let out a smile. “I know these may sound cheesy,” he said.
But he also understands that these questions speak to something essential about who we are and why we do what we do. He understands that a meaningful engagement with these questions while at the College should be a part of any student’s time here; because the real world awaits, and having some sense of a bigger picture will be essential to forging a life of purpose.
“Most of us will never again live in a community as nurturing as this one,” he said. Clearly, Spalding plays a key role in making the College community such a nurturing and welcoming place.