A Spider's Spiritual Sojourn: Reflections from Rev. Dr. Robert Wilson-Black, R'91, G'92

June 7, 2022

The Chaplain's office at Richmond provided an excellent combination of protected (sanctuary!) greenhouse for growing the seedling of my 18-year-old college self, a place that forced me to reach toward the infinite, the ineffable, the unreachable mysteries of lived and imagined faith. UR's chaplaincy including campus ministry helped me realize that when I believed I fully understood spirituality, faith or religious community, I surely had much to learn.  

The work of the chaplain's office and campus ministry graced me with everything good, meaningful and necessary that I've come to appreciate in my life. This is best expressed in snapshots:

  1. My now wife-life partner of 34 years, Oldham Scholar the Reverend Juli Wilson-Black '92 heard me singing as part of Schola Cantorum under Jim Erb and first approached me to say how much she enjoyed it; later we prayed our way through our courtship in the prayer room and later experienced premarital counseling there.
  2. The Reverends Dr. Judy Bailey and Chaplain Dr. David Burhans along with others, helped me recover a more sustainable and genuine faith from the ashes of my fundamentalist Baptist upbringing.
  3. University of Chicago professor Martin Marty gave the opening lecture for the Wilton Center and while I understood very little of what he said (I had sprinted from class and sat in the back), what we discussed that day became my PhD thesis under him.
  4. Six students (Tim, Mark, Ben, Amy, Eric and Ricky) joined me in inviting Dr. Martin Luther King III to campus to speak at an event we created "Hands Around the Lake" to encourage better dialogue regarding race on campus and with VUU and VCU; at the chapel that night my mom had a chance to tell him that as a student at Bucknell she had lunch with his dad, THE Dr. King.
  5. Singing the Indigo Girls' song "Hey, Jesus" to the Greek Christian fellowship at the chapel piano. Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls was later a songwriting coach for me.
  6. Harvey Milk, politician, gay right activist, martyr and personal saint to me, was the focus of an important Wilton Center conversation, encouraging me on my social justice path.
  7. Not long after I finished my 3 years as an undergraduate (Chaplaincy related scholarships helped me get through quickly to save money for graduate school), flags of different faiths representing an important shift to interfaith work appeared in the Wilton Center where I celebrated my first interfaith Seder not long after presenting my findings from a Palestine Human Rights Campaign trip to the West Bank.
  8. My recent book, The End of College attempts to understand the difference between the important work of the chapel and the very different but no less important work of the religion department, then and now in colleges. The book and my further research were inspired by my time at Richmond. 

I can say with gratitude that most everything from my days at Richmond that was of lasting value was nurtured by the Chaplaincy at Richmond, and I know for certain that I was not an outlier.  

Rob Wilson-Black

Rob Wilson-Black is the co-Founder and founding board chair of the National Museum of American Religion, a religion scholar and author of the newly released The End of College: Religion and the Transformation of Higher Education in the 20th Century. Before serving as the CEO of Sojourners for the past ten years, Rob served as a college and seminary vice president for 10 years. He is the author of numerous articles, blogs, a book and podcasts. He lives in Reston, Va., with his wife of 29 years, Rev. Juli Wilson-Black, a Presbyterian minister in Alexandria, Va.