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Faith teaches chaplain to keep asking 'obnoxious' questions

STANFORD -- It came as no surprise to his listeners that faith is one of the things that matter most to Floyd Thompkins. He is, after all, a Baptist minister and associate dean of Memorial Church.

His definitions of its implications, however, turn the stereotype of blind faith upside down. Faith in God means to him that everything about the human experience is valuable, and everything is to be evaluated, he told a noon gathering on June 7 in the church's side chapel. "Jesus was a profoundly obnoxious individual, always questioning, always asking 'Why?' and provoking the Pharisees," he said.

Thompkins said a university chaplain's job is to question what goes on at that institution, to continually ask, "Is this right?" That is one reason, he said, that many other universities eliminated their chaplaincies during the turbulent '60s and '70s.

Normally the host and éminence grise behind the group of graduate students who organize the "What Matters to Me and Why" series, Thompkins had the tables turned on him for this session, as a gathering of about 50 came to hear the basis of his own beliefs. A box-lunch reception followed the session, the final one of the academic year. Three previous speakers, Richard Bube, Richard Powers and Richard Zare, accepted the planning group's invitation to join them for lunch.

Thompkins said that two things matter most to him: faith and service, or as his tradition calls it, servitude. He struggles with the servitude: "It can be wonderful and magnificent or self-serving and destructive." He said he recognizes that members of the clergy often have been self-serving, becoming negative forces in their communities.

"Servitude is to order one's life so that you can give it away. The problem is to give so that I am helpful to others, not just helpful to myself." He said he spends the first half-hour of his morning meditation regretting what he did or did not do the day before. He said he is still learning to pull back while trying to help others. "You have to accept that you can't do it all. Even harder, you have to accept that empowerment means others can do it better than you can."

Yet, he said, the source of his passion for this service is that the right kind of help can make a difference. In response to a questioner who asked how he comes to terms with evil, he told about working with teenagers who have been pushed aside by urban life. One boy in particular had been abused throughout childhood: "Active evil, pain and harm have been inflicted on him."

Thompkins said this young man and his friends "are fundamentally angry at what has been done to them," yet as they work with him on what it means to be African American in this era, he sees improvements in their academic performance and their outlook on the future. "Everyone is one human interaction away from [a positive] change," he said.

Faith for Thompkins is an easier matter than servitude, based in his parents' strong belief and on a direct experience with God at the age of 8. It was the sort of calling that an evangelical minister includes on his curriculum vitae, but an academic does not: Thompkins says he gets ribbed from one community when he writes it in on his vita, and gets ribbed from others when he takes it off.

A questioner asked him to describe the experience. Thompkins said he was lying in bed when his room filled with a light, or a presence. He was frightened at first, "then the presence engulfed me. It moved me to my very bones.

"There is that odd description in Genesis, when Adam and Eve hear the voice of God walking -- that will mess up your physics. I heard the voice of God, a message about love."

His parents treated the experience as a normal part of life, Thompkins said, and thus he was able to take it in stride himself. He said he feels little urgency about evangelism. "I tell people what I believe. Whether they believe in God [as a result] is" -- he shrugged -- "eh to me. I know that God is able to reveal himself to them."

Faith teaches him that life is worth living, he said. "Joy is an expectation in all my interactions. Not necessarily fun or laughter, but joy. I [often] find joy in funerals, for example. When family and friends are celebrating a person's life I sometimes feel cheated that I didn't know him.

"It also teaches me that every human experience is better if examined. That is what I mean by intellectualism: asking is it right, is it wrong, and being able to live with the fact that often I don't know the answer."

As a ground of contentious and competing ideas, a university is a good environment for this questioning, he said: "On the whole, I'm at the fountainhead of idealism." That idealism is often a main reason that people choose to work at a university, and Thompkins said one of the questions he is wrestling with at the moment is how an institution founded on ideas should equitably treat the workers who make it run. "In theory, this place is Shangri-La. In practice, it is an entity, it's a job -- to some people, it's a factory."

As host of the "What Matters" series, Thompkins often has probed speakers to be specific about how they balance their careers and the other aspects of their lives, because this is a question that perplexes graduate students in the midst of the long grind to a degree. When an audience member turned the same question back on Thompkins himself, he admitted to working long hours. "Work with students is incredibly seductive," he said. "They are delightful, questioning, everything I like to be involved with." In addition, this year he has given up his day off to be interim pastor at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Palo Alto. Part of his strategy for surviving the long hours, he said, is to learn humility -- "that I can't do it all."

He said for relaxation he plays racquetball, sometimes restores furniture and takes time daily for an hour and a half of prayer -- "in other traditions, it would be called meditation." He also counts on his friends, including a college roommate he talks with at least once a month, and others who call and remonstrate with him if they find he's been working too long. "My friends are the most obnoxious, intrusive people I know. If you work 20 hours a day, you've got to hang around with people who are blunt and strong."

On campus, however, "People sometimes find me emotionally inaccessible, and that has served me well," Thompkins said. At Princeton, where he was the youngest assistant dean of chapel ever appointed and the first black person to hold that post, he said he learned to build a wall between his personal and work life, a necessary barrier so he could give professional pastoral care to students his own age or older. Age is no longer so much of an issue, but at Stanford, "as one of only three African American men on the student service staff," Thompkins said, the wall remains.

"Given the myths about African American males truly alive today, even here at Stanford, I do try to make those demarcations," he said.



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