At the University of Southern California, a Humanist Chaplain Takes the Lead

Photo by Maryam Salassi

Vanessa Gomez Brake is the new associate dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. She is the first humanist chaplain to serve in this capacity at any American university.

I first met Vanessa Gomez Brake in the fall of 2014, as she began her position at the Office for Religious Life (ORL) at Stanford University. Similarly, I had just started my first term as the president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!), Stanford’s non-theist student organization. Despite being busy acclimating to her new work, Vanessa took the time to reach out to me as a nontheist student leader. One might imagine that, on a campus teeming with secular students, I already had support from the incumbent religious life staff. I quickly discovered that this was not the case, and having an ally in Vanessa was indispensable.

Vanessa used her role, knowledge of conflict resolution, and connections through the Bay Area Humanist community to offer fresh ideas to our student organization and to support diversity within the group. For example, at the beginning of one school year, she suggested we consider offering humanist programming alongside the many monotheistic worship services during Stanford’s new student welcome week. What followed was a scenario with which many humanists and religious minorities may identify; our non-worship service was rejected on the grounds that it conflicted with other, more “legitimate” welcome week events. Nevermind the underlying assumptions of the hegemonic Abrahamic religions that had already structured our understanding of a “week” as one that sets aside Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays for religious observance. Of course there were no welcome week events that conflicted with the many monotheistic worship services—our university had already taken for granted that welcome week events ought to be planned around them! Vanessa helped to challenge these prevailing assumptions among religious life staff and won AHA! the opportunity to provide humanist programming on equal footing with the predominant religious groups on campus.

Furthermore, Vanessa helped design and implement a number of discussions between AHA! and other religious groups on campus. There are two reasons why I find this to be particularly important: first, humanist participation in interfaith activities helps to introduce more people to the humanist philosophy, as well as broaden their perceptions of what counts as a life worth living. Secondly, it forces theists to engage and contend with humanist ideas, which ultimately reveals that many of the same underlying values motivate our diverse perspectives.

So, imagine my excitement when I learned that Vanessa had been offered an associate deanship in the Office of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. Think of it, the first humanist dean of religious life at any major American university. Humanists should be very excited about this historic appointment, as the implications are considerable. From the perspective of a former student leader, you can rest assured that nontheistic organizations will be given equal consideration with theistic organizations for time and resources. From the perspective of a humanist student, consider how refreshing it will be not to have to justify your ideas as meaningful, thoughtful, and moral to a university that has enshrined a narrow conception of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

USC has made a profound choice in forging the future of its understanding of religious life to not just tolerate, but to include non-theistic perspectives. USC’s Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, said that “we are at a unique moment in American religious history as the fastest growing religious demographic are those who are unaffiliated with formal religion. More than one-third of our university students are not affiliated with formal religion, and that number gets bigger every year.” Other universities should take note. These students will continue to need a communal structure within which to forge their own identities, and deans of religious life such as Vanessa Gomez Brake are well positioned to meet that need.

Interview with Vanessa Gomez Brake

You’ve just accepted the position of associate dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. What tasks and responsibilities come along with this position? What does this kind of work mean to you?

In my new role, I will support and promote university religious and spiritual life as it is broadly conceived, overseeing more than ninety student religious groups and fifty religious directors on campus. I will work closely with my colleagues, Dean Varun Soni and Senior Associate Dean James Burklo, to carry out the mission of fostering a vibrant community of spiritual reflection and free inquiry.

As associate dean, I look forward to providing spiritual care to USC community members, no matter where they may land on the spectrum of belief. Our office is not oriented around God, but rather the pursuit of meaning and purpose. So I hope to be a welcoming presence to all and that I may be of service to believers, seekers, nones, multifaith practitioners, as well as atheists, humanists, and agnostics. While our worldviews may be disparate, as humans we are all navigating life’s big questions. I will take pleasure in being present for university students and staff as they find meaning in their own unique ways.

The Office of Religious Life is housed in the University Religious Center, but hosts programs across USC’s vast campus. Of our many programs, I am particularly excited to take on the series called What Matters to Me & Why (WMMW). On college campuses, students often express a desire to encounter and know faculty and administrators as whole persons. But in the university setting, we are commonly forced to separate intellectual life from that of the personal and the spiritual. WMMW gives the community an opportunity to hear from campus leaders in a different way. The featured speaker tells their life story, and what has come to matter to them during the journey, and then they engage the audience in an informal dialogue on the topic. It is a radical platform by which the perceived barriers of professionalism are broken down and university staff can be seen for their whole selves.

Furthermore, and given my background in interfaith relations, I will play a supporting role in the USC Interfaith Council. The group is comprised of student leaders who represent the diversity of faiths and worldviews on campus. They eat dinner together each week, as they share their respective traditions with one another, as well as plan campus-wide events. Because USC has more religious groups than any other university in the US, the campus is ripe for interfaith engagement, service, and action.

Lastly, I will serve the community in a variety of capacities and in diverse settings. At times, I maybe called to offer a humanist invocation before campus events, or I may preside over a memorial service. Additionally, USC has several cultural centers, 900+ student groups, and many academic centers, which means I will serve as an advisor, committee member, and liaison to these many constituencies. As a campus leader, I will hold close the mission of the university to ”develop human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.”

Tell us about your path to humanism. Were you ever religious, and if so, when did you realize you were a humanist?

Like the majority of Filipinos, I was raised Roman Catholic, and attended mass on a weekly basis while growing up. My exposure to other world religions was limited, as Ihad been surrounded by mostly Catholics and Christians during my childhood in Arizona and Guam. Although I stopped holding supernatural beliefs as a teenager, my secular worldview did not deter me from maintaining a culturally Catholic identity.

In college, I declared religious studies my major and went on to study Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and many other world religions. I fondly recall taking a class taught by a Reform woman rabbi, titled “Women in the Hebrew Bible.” It was a transformative experience to have a woman religious leader teach me how to be a critical reader of sacred text. My religious upbringing had socialized me to only accept biblical interpretations offered by priests. But here was a woman, informing me that I had the ability and authority to question the text, its meaning, and its relevance to my lived experience.

After the rabbi came lessons from a minister, a Buddhist monk, an imam, and a Mormon missionary. As an undergrad, I managed to read the Koran, Book of Mormon, and excerpts from other holy texts under the guidance of many religious leaders and professors. I also traveled near and far in my pursuit of religious literacy. While studying in Hiroshima, Japan, I took courses on Shintoism and Buddhism. I also studied in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel as I sought to learn more about Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Because I spent the last decade as an interfaith activist, I am not a stranger to my local gurdwara, mosque, synagogue, temple, or meditation center. At the Chaplaincy Institute (ChI) in Berkeley, California, where I previously worked, I would often escort students on their visits to houses of worship throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

I first heard the word ‘humanist’ in college, and the term instantly resonated with me. However, it would be several years later until I learned about communities formed around the philosophy. In fact, my interfaith work first introduced me to the concept of humanist communities and the potential for humanist chaplaincy as a career. Early on in my career I met Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, while attending an interfaith conference in Chicago. Had I not learned of his work on that campus, I may not have sought out my own humanist community, or pursued university chaplaincy as a career.

After that conference, I began searching for humanist communities to get involved with, and ended up enrolling at The Humanist Institute (THI). It just so happened that institute’s coursework also involved site visits to houses of worship in New York: our class visited the Bhakti Center (original site of Hare Krishna Movement in the US), Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Islamic Cultural Center of NY, and Won Buddhism of Manhattan. Over several THI study trips to the American Humanist Association’s headquarters in Washington DC and the New York Ethical Society in Manhattan, my understanding of the humanist philosophy was formed through conversations with humanist leaders such as Ann Fuller, John Shook, James Croft, Jim Barnett, Anne Klaeysen, Roy Speckhardt, Steve Ahlquist, and many others.

How do you define humanism and why do you think humanism is important?

To this day, I still rely on the American Humanist Association’s’ definition. Humanism is important because it emphasizes the worth and dignity of every human being, and the need of humankind to live in peaceful community. It is really no wonder that I chose to work in the field of interfaith peacemaking. Through collaboration with people of diverse worldviews, I have found a way to live out my humanist values.

You are a graduate of The Humanist Institute, a Humanist Society certified Humanist Chaplain, and the past co-president of the San Francisco Bay Area Humanists. You’ve received a BA in religious studies and psychology, an MS in conflict analysis and resolution, and have extensive experience working on religious reconciliation. How did you come to be so interested in religion, and has studying religious traditions and reconciliation affected your views and applications of humanism?

It’s hard to say why I became so interested in the academic study of religion, though I have met many humanists and atheists in the religious studies departments of the colleges I attended, which shows I’m not alone in these pursuits. If I had to choose one story about my general interest in religions, it would take me back to my high school years on the small Pacific Island of Guam. It was there I met my best friend, a Persian girl, whose family subscribed to the Baha’i faith. Because everyone else on the island seemed to be Catholic, the Baha’i religion served as a spark to my future study of world religions. The Baha’i religion was so foreign to my own religious experience that I became curious as to what my friend did believe and how she practiced those beliefs. That curiosity, as well as friendship, has lasted me a lifetime.

My study of religions has certainly impacted my view and applications of humanism. Over the last decade, I have collaborated with a variety of religious leaders, all of whom have had a positive impact on my personal and professional path. It was through these many interactions with people of differing faiths and worldviews that I came to reflect on and better articulate my own values as a humanist. If it were not for my interfaith work, I would not have found a humanist community.

Why do you think humanists should value interfaith work?

Humanists are devoted to the betterment of the world, and live out these values through various activities in their local communities. So when I think about interfaith work, I realize that humanist communities often have a greater impact when partnering with their neighboring faith communities. I have seen this play out in community gardens and food justice campaigns, the Occupy movement, as well as with Black Lives Matter. While humanists may not share a philosophical view with their religious counterparts, there exist enough common values, where much can be gained through collaboration.