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In 1973, as the political and social tumult of the 1960s was fading, a mild-mannered young assistant pastor from a Presbyterian church in Schenectady, N.Y., arrived on campus, intending to quietly serve as chaplain.

The Rev. Gary R. Miller brought with him a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, several years of experience leading worship and working with youth groups, and modest aspirations.

“I saw myself as being a traditional pastor,” he says, adding that he planned on staying for a few years, then moving on to new challenges.

Thirty-one years later, Miller, who completed a doctoral degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1983, is still at Lafayette. His latest challenge is focusing on the war in Iraq and the upcoming United States presidential election as he teaches 16 students in a First-Year Seminar he developed, “Challenging Differences: Discovering the Possibilities of Community.”

Over the years, Miller, who retired in June from his role as chaplain, has remained mild-mannered and modest. But the results of his work in launching Lafayette’s thriving student community outreach program illustrate the determination and passion beneath the quiet exterior.

Miller began embracing a broader role soon after his arrival at Lafayette, when he began reaching out to the College’s rising population of Catholic and Jewish students.

“The interfaith aspect was entirely new to me,” he says, explaining that he set about educating himself in those traditions in a variety of ways, including taking a course in Judaism taught by Robert I. Weiner, now Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Professor of History and the campus’ Jewish chaplain.

“I’ve never been the kind of person who felt I had the exclusive grasp on the truth,” he says. “I don’t think that in any way weakens one’s own faith. I continue to have strong Christian beliefs in the Presbyterian tradition.”

In the late 1970s, as interest in traditional Protestant church services waned, Miller began to seek new ways to engage students and help them put faith into action.

He began with a series of “brown bag” lunches focusing on social and ethical issues, including the Karen Ann Quinlan right-to-die case and peace efforts in the Middle East.

In the mid-1980s, the College joined Campus Compact, a newly formed national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting community service in higher education. Lafayette students, often with Miller’s help and encouragement, were beginning to volunteer in community organizations.

By the winter of 1988, students from the campus’ Newman Center, led by then-Catholic chaplain Father Tom Hagan, had begun efforts to house homeless men in Easton, starting in a fraternity house basement, then moving to the Newman Center, then establishing a “roving shelter” that moved each month from one church to another.

While Hagan and the students worked to provide meals, shelter, and companionship for the men—and sought to learn from them as well—local officials and clergy grappled with the issues they raised, eventually raising the funds to convert a city building into the Safe Harbor Easton homeless shelter in 1990.

Throughout that time, Miller worked to ease communications among the various groups involved in the effort and began serving on the shelter’s board of directors—a position he still holds.

In the same year the shelter opened, Miller secured a grant from the Presbyterian Church USA to hire a part-time director of community service programs for the College. Susan Ruggles was soon working with Miller to involve more students in community programs.

“We began to see the potential almost immediately,” Miller says, recalling how he and Ruggles found an unused room in the newly opened Farinon College Center and turned it into a community outreach center.

Fourteen years later, the Landis Community Outreach Center is home to more than three dozen programs that include hundreds of student volunteers, three full-time staff members, and 20 student staff members. The Rev. John Patrick Colatch, Lafayette’s new director of religious life and College chaplain, will, as Miller did before him, oversee the entire operation.

Jessica Wolfson Charmont ’97, now Mitzvah Project coordinator for the Jewish Federation in Philadelphia, says Miller’s quiet support and vision helped her throughout her student years as she participated in several Alternative School Break experiences, put in 900 hours of community service as an Americorps participant, and worked with two other students to start Lafayette’s Kids in the Community (KIC) program.

“He’s really an incredible person,” she says. “He does a wonderful job of integrating the broad-based issues into whatever service you’re doing.”

Charmont says that she and the other KIC founders, Seth Brogadir ’97 and Christy Seed ’97, all joined the Peace Corps following graduation, largely due to Miller’s inspiration.

Julie DeMotte ’96, who now works with Church World Service in Whitehall, Pa., says that despite his understated nature, Miller managed to give her “one of the most stressful weeks of my life” by asking her to serve as baccalaureate speaker.

“In his own quiet and unassuming way, he let me know he believed and saw greater things in me than I did,” she says. “He was a mentor, a counselor, and a friend, who steered me in some critically formative decisions. For me, my Christian faith cannot be separated from the work of social justice. At the same time this work cannot be accomplished without an understanding and cooperation with people of other faiths and backgrounds. Gary helped to foster this passion.”

DeMotte says she was hired for her current job “largely because at Lafayette I gained international travel, a solid political education, and a faith journey that was rich with a diversity of experiences. I am among the fortunate few: I have a job I am passionate about and rewarded for and I am grateful for Gary’s part in putting me on the right path to get here.”

For Miller, the transition from his former responsibilities to teaching one class a semester—he’ll teach an interdisciplinary VAST (Values in Science/Technology) seminar this spring—has meant a slightly more relaxed summer this year.

“Usually, August was very pressured, with all sorts of activities,” he says, explaining that over the decade he has taught his FYS, this was the first year he felt amply prepared.

In addition to preparing for and teaching the twice-weekly class, Miller is also enrolled in a Spanish class, and plans to continue studying the language until he can speak it well in conversation.

“One of the things I particularly cherished about the job of chaplain is that each year was a new adventure,” he says. “There are always new people coming in who are looking for some kind of guidance and leadership.”

For Miller, the adventure is far from over.

Categorized in: Academic News