THE WORK OF A GAY COLLEGE CHAPLAIN
The Work of a Gay College Chaplain: Becoming Ourselves in the Company of Others
Gary David Comstock
Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 2001
Comstock uses personal narrative, philosophical theories, and teaching strategies to emphasize the importance of welcoming diversity in the world. His central message is that students are most effectively developed by being listened to and resourced based on individual needs rather than having cultural assumptions placed upon them from the outside. Using his own experience as a gay college chaplain, Comstock demonstrates practical ways for us all to become our true selves in community.
In the first chapter, “Fathering Gay Children,” Comstock reflects on the beginning of his own life. Remembering how his own father had raised him and exploring what his needs were as he was growing up, Comstock emphasizes the importance of listening to the specific needs of individuals. Grateful for a loving upbringing, the author recognizes how the lessons his father taught him helped shape his approach to collegiate ministry.
Chapter two, “Learning From and With Children,” further explores the needs of young children. Focusing on a curriculum designed for preschoolers, Comstock demonstrates the natural tendencies of adults interacting with young children and proposes an approach that avoids gendered communication that assumes orientation. With a background teaching preschool children, Comstock demonstrates a deep awareness of the unique needs of young children and the opportunities they give adults for mutual learning. These lessons, Comstock argues, can help us be better equipped to teach all other age groups.
In Chapter three, “Examining Preconceptions,” Comstock reflects on his teaching experiences in colleges. Discussing the importance of listening to students and working through problems together, he advocates for teaching in a student-focused way. Central to this process is learning what knowledge students already possess, and allowing that to shape the future learning. Through this method, preconceptions can be directly identified and addressed positively.
Chapter four, “Interfacing,” presents Comstock’s theory about relating to people who are different from us. Noting that our individual experiences shape us implicitly and explicitly, Comstock explores practical methods for positive interfacing. He looks specifically at people who, statistically, are most likely to engage in “anti-gay violence and to harbor homophobic feelings.”
Chapter five, “Writing for Students,” expands on the ideas presented in chapter four. Here, Comstock offers methods for writing that allow for expression of identity. These writings include prayers, letters, articles and more, and encourage college students to create conversations and intentional teaching time through their words.
The final chapter, “Creating Worship,” presents an actual worship service that Comstock developed and implemented. From a standpoint that is open to diversity, the worship service is built for people of all faiths to explore their spirituality, create rituals, and build community in a safe space.
Comstock brings his own stories and experiences to the heart of this book. In the chapter on “Examining Preconceptions,” Comstock specifically discusses how someone can thoughtfully reflect on how they have been raised. Bringing his own stories of childhood into conversation with other common American experiences, he brings to the surface some of his own preconceptions. Comstock operates out of the assumption that diversity makes us all better, and that it is important to develop strategies to interact with people who are different from us.
Sharing stories of his own journey, Comstock talks about being a child that did not fit cultural expectations, living as a closeted gay man, and then coming out and serving as an openly gay college chaplain. Through his story and suggestions, he operates out of the assumption that others in similar situations should be able to follow in his footsteps. Comstock does not, however, acknowledge the full extent of challenges that can limit professional and personal possibilities for some to live openly queer lives depending on their contexts.
Throughout the book, Comstock celebrates the diversity of God’s creation. Without explicitly naming specific doctrines, he seems to be rooted in the idea that God’s image, the Imago Dei, resides in every human being. This can been seen through Comstock’s desire to truly listen to others and to recognize that their unique needs are important and sacred. Comstock is constantly aware of different religious, personal, and social needs of people around him.
AIM OF BOOK
The overall goal of Comstock’s book can been seen in the title: becoming ourselves in the company of others. Tracing the important ways that people can learn from each other from early childhood on, he seeks to offer a framework and practical suggestions to help people welcome diversity. This culminates with his desire to create a meaningful space for worship in which all people are completely welcome. In the final chapter of this book, a worship service is described as a way to bring people of all faith backgrounds, social situations, and spiritual needs together in one place.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
This book offers a practical and encouraging glimpse into a vision of a welcoming and inclusive future Church. Comstock’s message is not just idealistic, but is rooted in theory and strategies that are accessible. Overall, Comstock speaks in a way that would be beneficial for those involved in ministry or work with college aged people. His message addresses how to bring people together from all walks of life and how to listen to people and learn from them just as much as we seek to teach them. Because of this intentionality, I believe it is an effective book to use in both youth and collegiate ministry.
Published in 2001, the book is a bit dated now. Though its strategies are still applicable, certain cultural and linguistic trends are not up to date in the book. One other point of weakness might be that the title of the book might automatically limit its audience. Comstock certainly addresses particularities of being a gay college chaplain, but the diversity that he speaks of throughout the book includes much more than sexual orientation. This book would be great for people wrestling with inter-religious diversity just as much as sexual orientation diversity, but that might not be obvious from the title.
 Comstock, G. D., Become Ourselves in the Company of Others, xiii.