Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Leading Penn’s faith effort in a pandemic: The soft-spoken chaplain with a big presence

When tragedy strikes, the Rev Charles “Chaz” Howard is often the one who makes that heartbreaking call to a student’s family.

Charles L. Howard has been chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania for more than a decade. He's also vice president for social equity and community.
Charles L. Howard has been chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania for more than a decade. He's also vice president for social equity and community.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

He offers prayer at university commencement, performs weddings and blessings at building dedications, and curates efforts across more than 50 religious communities on campus.

He’s often the one students turn to when they grapple with questions of faith and their own futures and the one administrators rely on for advice on navigating thorny religious or racial issues.

And when tragedy strikes, the Rev. Charles L. “Chaz” Howard, the University of Pennsylvania’s chaplain and vice president of social equity and community, is often the one who makes that heartbreaking call to a student’s family. He says it’s the hardest part of the job.

“I’m grateful to be able to be present, to hold people in those hard moments, but it takes a little chunk out of you every time,” Howard, 42, a Penn alumnus and Episcopal priest who has served as chaplain for more than a decade, said in his soft, soothing voice.

His job has become even more challenging in the pandemic and as racial unrest shakes the country. The demand for spiritual guidance on campus has doubled, he estimates. Howard, a husband and father of three daughters whom colleagues describe as calm, measured, comforting, and empathetic, takes socially distanced pastoral walks with students in need, while helping university staff cope, too.

“He makes me want to be a better man,” said Nat Graham, associate head basketball coach of the Penn men’s team.

» READ MORE: Penn board vice chair Scott L. Bok will replace David L. Cohen as chairman in July

All the while, Howard, an athletic 6-foot-2, bearded Black man with tattoos, has struggled with his own pain, reflecting on all the times he’s been unfairly profiled and pulled over by police, when he was a teen growing up in Baltimore, when he was a Penn student, when he was a seminary student in Massachusetts, when he was taking his young daughters to school in his Lower Merion neighborhood.

“I was thinking that I might be an online hashtag, that my girls might not have a dad,” he said. “It’s enraging. This has been hard.”

But Howard is filled with hope and, with a coronavirus vaccine on the horizon, he’s got a message this Thanksgiving.

“We can begin to look ahead,” he said. “When we emerge from social distancing, how are we going to come back better? When we emerge from wrestling with policing, how can we be better as a country? Because we can’t be the same.”

On Nov. 1, All Saints’ Day, Howard released his fifth book, The Bottom: A Theopoetic of the Streets. It’s a novel in verse based on the model of the story of Moses and emphasizes the deeper importance of reaching down to serve others, as opposed to the upward climb toward success. He will donate the profits to local agencies helping the homeless, including Project HOME, where he first worked after attending seminary.

“A lot of people lost their jobs,” he said. “Whatever little bit I get, I’m excited to hand off to them.”

His impact on campus is palpable.

“He does so much for students, in particular students of color,” said Jelani Williams, 22, a junior from Washington, D.C., and point guard on the men’s basketball team. “He’s the ultimate support system.”

When Williams tore his ACL for the third time in his basketball career, he took a semester off. Howard, he said, was the one person on campus outside of athletics who kept tabs on him that entire semester.

Howard helped the dean of the dental school defuse tensions after a racially charged email was sent from a phony account. The dean, Mark S. Wolff, was just nine months on the job at the time. Someone suggested he call the chaplain. In came Howard with his gentle smile, light humor, and calming wisdom, Wolff said.

» READ MORE: Penn to donate $100 million to Philadelphia School District to help with asbestos, lead abatement

Howard helped again in May when the school was ordering protective gear and needed to accommodate people who have beards for religious reasons. Masks for them were considerably more expensive. Howard brought in religious experts and helped the school distinguish between those who had religious reasons for not shaving from those who just wanted to keep their beards.

“It was a totally disarming event when it could have been much more contentious,” Wolff said.

Provost Wendell Pritchett said Howard has been key in helping handle difficult situations.

“The thing about Chaz is, I’m looking to him for advice more than he’s looking to me,” Pritchett said.

Howard’s office is part of the university’s crisis team.

» READ MORE: Addressing suicide among seemingly successful college students

“When tragedy strikes, be it global or local, our office is kind of the first responder,” Howard said.

He was the one who made the painful call to the parents of Madison Holleran, a prominent Penn runner who died by suicide in 2014.

At virtual commencement this year, Howard addressed graduates, who had lost their senior year and the cherished traditions that graduation brings. In his prayer, he told them that while the pandemic meant isolation and grief, it also brought opportunity and heroism.

“May these graduates always be counted among the heroic number who respond to the difficulties of life by seeking to serve and love others wherever their paths may lead them,” he said.

» READ MORE: For college seniors, coronavirus signals premature end of an era

Then came the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and how to talk about it on a campus where students weren’t able to come together like in a normal year. The women’s basketball team wanted to have a conversation but wasn’t sure how and asked Howard for help. He joined the team’s Zoom call.

“After the call, I wanted to continue talking,” said Michae Jones, a senior point guard from Louisiana. “That’s how great of a conversation it was. Mr. Chaz, he’s so positive. You would never think he’s gone through what he’s gone through.”

Howard’s mother died of a heart condition when he had just finished fifth grade and his father, who was 25 years her senior, died a couple of years later. He was raised during his teenage years by his older sister, who was 23 when she took him in. A runner, he participated in the Penn Relays and set his sights on attending the Ivy League university.

» READ MORE: Penn has significant ties to Joe Biden. What might that mean?

He got his bachelor’s in urban studies and Africana studies in 2000, then went to Andover Newton Seminary for his master’s in theology and later to United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia for his doctorate. He is married to Lia Howard, a political scientist who works at Penn.

His first jobs were serving as chaplain resident at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and as a street outreach worker for Project HOME.

He became associate chaplain at Penn in 2006 and when the top post opened, president Amy Gutmann tapped him as interim and later, when he was just 29, permanently gave him the post. His work is part of a multidenominational outreach at Penn of ministers who work just on campus and clergy whose congregations are nearby.

Howard co-teaches a course on the history of Black women and men at Penn. The class enrolls predominantly Black students. Sometimes, it’s like group therapy, he said.

It helps “our students understand the emotional and psychological journey of being a minority student in a predominantly white institution that at one time didn’t admit them,” Howard said.

In his social equity role, he helps the campus think through difficult issues. He coleads a task force reviewing Penn police practices in the wake of criticism after Floyd’s death.

The last few months have strained his relationship with Maureen S. Rush, vice president for public safety, who Howard said had become one of his closest friends on campus and whose police force, he noted, has won national recognition. Rush often is on the front lines with him, and they help families together.

“It’s put a real tension between wanting Penn police to be strong and great and yet knowing that policing in general in this country needs to change,” he said.

Rush said the unfair and harsh criticism of Penn police and stereotyping of officers has been difficult.

“This is a unique time for Chaz and I,” she said. “We are in pain in different ways, and we’re trying desperately to keep it in perspective and remember who we are to each other and support each other.”