Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Valparaiso Chaplain

About a week ago, one of the college chaplains at my alma mater, Valparaiso University, committed suicide. According to the news reports and the notice from the church, she celebrated communion on Easter Sunday at the Valparaiso Chapel of the Resurrection - a first for a non-Missouri Synod Pastor and a first for a woman - and a few days later, hanged herself.

When I was a student (92-96), the campus was apparently embroiled in a debate about whether or not women could preach there. I knew in the background that the debate was going on, but it's surprising looking back on it how little I cared. As a student, I was only remotely involved in the life of the college chapel and even more remotely involved in church politics of any kind.

I can trace back part of my call story to the Chapel of the Resurrection. It was the site of my first homily - given during a daytime chapel service when a fellow student asked me out of the blue to do it. I wish I would have found out why he asked me to give a homily. I wasn't particularly religious or faithful at the time. I had little idea then that I would eventually be called to be a pastor.

Now, of course, I am a pastor and I see this suicide on a variety of levels. Besides being generally sick for the Valpo community and for the family and friends of Rev. Grega, I am fascinated with this tragedy. I want to know more about what convergence of experiences, illness, pressure, despondency and pain led to her suicide.

Intellectually, I understand this is very little of my business. She left a note, but it is, of course, private. The pain of her family doesn't need to be dragged out for the public to see.

But still, I want to know why this happened. My curiosity feels different from interest in celebrity news or rubber-necking at the scene of an accident. I want to know what her unique role as the first woman to serve in a culture of male hierarchy played in her decision. I want to know if and how she had dealt with depression in the past. I want to know about her isolation as a pastor, especially as a college chaplain.

My close friend Rachel called to tell me the news. She's also an ELCA pastor and as I talked with her, I thanked God for her friendship, for other colleagues and supporters and the love of family and friends. Also, I thanked God for my new, fantastic counselor and for providing me enough money to pay her. In mourning with Valpo and hoping for healing on many levels.


  1. A lovely post, which echos my own feelings at just hearing the news. I was telling someone just recently that all chaplains need chaplains, including me. I too am grateful for the friends and colleagues who support me in the wonderful and the terrible moments. And now for you, as well. Blessings, Donna+

  2. Sarah -

    I am currently a student at Valpo who just happened to stumble across your blog while paging through the ELCA's website.

    Reading your post about Pastor Grega brought back so many memories of those awful weeks. I never got the chance to get to know her on a deeper level, but she learned my name when I was a prospective student and never forgot it.

    Like you, I had a hard time understanding. I couldn't understand why a pastor would resort to a thing like suicide or how this could happen at Valpo.

    Like you, I also wanted to know why. Grega was a great advocate for the LGBT community on campus and was a glimmer of hope in what can sometimes seem like a university steeped in homophobia. What she stood for and preached about was acceptance and resilience - hope for a better tomorrow. By taking her own life I simply couldn't accept that as congruent with the dozens of messages I had heard her give.

    For weeks afterwards, I just couldn't get over it. My friends were confused about why I was so upset and didn't understand why I couldn't seem to get it out of my mind.

    Unfortunately, I never resolved the issue within myself, but had to settle for the answer, "it doesn't affect me, it's not my family and none of my business." But to this day I have not fully come to terms with her death and, more importantly, why it happened.

    Your post really comforted me in the fact that I'm not the only one why feels this need to know why. You articulated so well what I had been feeling for months.

    But life on campus has moved on, as it had to. An interim female pastor from the ELCA has been assigned to fill her position for the time being. However, even now, you can still find remnants of Pastor Grega's teaching across campus. The administration has strongly affirmed the university's commitment to be open and accepting of all sexual orientations and many key leaders have stepped out of the woodwork to voice their support of the LGBT community.

    I appreciate your post and hope you find comfort knowing that you are preaching hope, even as far as Valparaiso. I have bookmarked your blog and plan to keep reading in the future.

    God's peace!


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