Low Plaza

Discussions, Weddings, and Activism Define Episcopalian Chaplain's 36 Years at Earl Hall

By Jo Kadlecek

Reverend William Starr

On a crisp September day in 1965, Reverend William Starr, not yet 30 years old and barely out of seminary, joined a long Columbia tradition when he became the College's Episcopalian Chaplain at Earl Hall. He knew that at the time of its founding in 1754 as part of Trinity Episcopal Church at Wall Street, the University's mission had been to merge academic learning with religious faith and create an education for "the whole Man." He had learned that Chapel services had once been required along with core classes and that many University presidents had even been devoted Episcopalians. The young chaplain was eager to serve a parish with such a rich history that now reflected an equally rich diversity.

Thirty six years later, after leading countless discussions, teaching a variety of classes, befriending many college students, overseeing numerous Eucharist services, weddings and baptisms of children from those weddings, and challenging most people he encounters to pursue justice, Starr is retiring as chaplain. On April 19 over 175 alumni, friends and faculty members gathered for his retirement party at the Faculty House to recount his contributions.

"The fact that 175 people from Columbia, the Episcopal Church, and the worlds of architecture and urban planning showed up for Bill Starr's farewell party which celebrated his 36 years, in the words of the invitation, 'of ministry and mischief', is a testimony to the wide impact he's has had on people and institutions on Morningside Heights," said R. William Franklin, bishop's scholar in residence for the Diocese of New York and dean emeritus of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.

There was much to remember. For instance, Starr joined Protestant ministers in promoting the Postcrypt Coffee House in the basement of St. Paul's Chapel as an essential outlet for students that has continued to this day. The civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s fueled a strong social awareness and Starr saw the Postcrypt as a way to encourage "cultural interaction." The folk music and social environment provided students a comfortable place to talk about what was happening at the time.

A few years later, Starr participated in some of the student occupations on campus. He tried to encourage many to "keep asking the hard questions. We were carried along by history," he recalls. "People got excited about things but I think the college survived okay. Some have even said it made it a better place."

Starr admits his involvement made him somewhat controversial and created some challenges for his work and denomination. Throughout the next two decades, however, he continued to look for creative ways to help students consider the deeper issues about their lives. He helped organize a documentary film series discussion, led ministry teams abroad, spear-headed community-based planning and health advocacy efforts, and even helped students run a small newspaper for the tenants of a housing project in East Harlem. He also taught community-design workshops, earned a Ph.D. in religion from Columbia and spent much of his time in the early 1980s with students on the steps of Low Library as they protested U.S. investments in South Africa.

"I guess I've always been an unapologetic activist," Starr says, "I've tried to combine questions of vocation with ministry. I've wanted students to encounter Christ but it's more than that. It's about critical thinking and experiential learning. Columbia prepares students well professionally and we at Earl Hall like to think we compliment that."

His colleagues at the United Campus Ministries (UCM) agree, and are quick to recognize Starr's example. "I think the University has been very fortunate to have had the often prophetic, always consistent ministry of social justice of Bill Starr," says University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis. "He has challenged us to understand the University's place in the city of New York and in the global community."

"Rev. Starr has spent his life with a true love for students and what they think about and learn while they're in college," says Baptist Chaplain Reverend Susan Field. "He has a passionate interest in justice and the full practice of First Amendment rights and responsibilities, especially on a University campus."

When Father Daniel Ulloa of the Catholic Ministry first met Starr five years ago at a UCM meeting, he says he "was gratefully impressed by Bill's sharp sense of humor. The beautiful and friendly relationship he has with his colleagues, his profound sense of God and mostly his genuine concern for the spiritual life of Columbia's students have always impressed me."

His closest colleague for the past six years, Sister Leslie of the Community of the Holy Spirit, believes his success is because Starr has kept the students' interests at heart. "Bill has an amazing ability to inspire students with his vision for ministry of social action," she says. "He's challenged the structures of the church and the campus and to do that always means you take a risk. It takes a great deal of courage and integrity to stand for what you believe and I think Bill has done that, through his compassion and commitment to social issues."

How does a man who has spent almost four decades serving others and working for justice enter retirement?

"I'll keep doing what I'm doing," he says. That also means he'll continue to take his wife Susan out to dinner, spend time with his daughter's family in Martha's Vineyard and visit his son -- who's a folk singer and artist -- in Maine.

He expects to exercise more, but he's also scheduled to do some consulting for the Episcopalian diocese on a new project that helps community churches partner more inclusively with universities. And a search is underway for a new Episcopal Chaplain by a committee comprised of the Bishop of New York, Chaplain Davis and students who bring candidates to campus. In fact, the Diocese of New York has launched a fund-raising drive to endow the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Columbia, with hopes of building stronger links between this chaplaincy, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and other institutions on Morningside Heights.

"There has always been this notion that faith and learning can go together," Starr observes. "It might be a bumpy road but education makes a better religious person and I think religion gives an educated person a sense of purpose and a reason to pursue goodness. That kind of 'activism' has a ripple effect on the world."

Published: May 10, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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