Hidden Chaplains: An Exercise in Compassion

Thursday, Nov 19, 2020
by Regina Lankenau '21

On the night we were told that Princeton University was moving entirely online and students were to move out of campus by the end of the week, I headed towards one of the people I knew I’d miss the most: Carmen Minera, a staff member at my eating club who had long been like a second mom to me. Without saying a word, we hugged, both of us digesting the news in disbelief as fresh, hot tears trailed down our cheeks. 

A month earlier, I had nominated Carmen Minera to be my Hidden Chaplain. Started in 2018 by the Office of Religious Life, Hidden Chaplains is an annual initiative that invites students to identify and nominate those people on campus who change their day in small but meaningful ways through regular interaction.

According to Matthew Weiner, Associate Dean in the Office of Religious Life, Hidden Chaplains are those people who are not paid to be kind; friendliness is not an obligatory part of their job description, but they smile at you and ask you how you are doing anyways. 

Student holding a mic in front of an audience of people seated around tables

Megan Ormsbee, Class of 2020, speaking about her nominated Hidden Chaplain, Demetrius Vereen, a staff member at the Colonial Eating Club, during the Hidden Chaplains dinner in 2019 

In a typical year, those nominated are invited to a dinner with the student nominators and asked to bring along their own Hidden Chaplain, with the notion that they too have people who change their day in similar positive ways— thus extending informal networks of care.

Carmen was the epitome of a Hidden Chaplain for me. She always ensured I was well-fed (particularly during midterms and finals), asked me about my day and my family, and made me laugh while chatting before dinner was served.  “I love to serve you because you’re like my kids as well,” she would tell me. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of getting in touch with Carmen, and talking with her for the first time since I left campus. She said that following several difficult months in which she had suffered a lot of personal and professional losses, knowing she was nominated as a Hidden Chaplain felt “like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“It is just so special to know that, even when we’re all far from each other, someone appreciates you and is thinking of you. Especially when I always think of you all too,” Carmen said.

Portrait photo of Violette Chamoun

A portrait photo of Violette Chamoun, nominated by Jonathan Ort '21 as his Hidden Chaplain, taken during the Hidden Chaplains dinner in 2019. The photo was displayed in Murray-Dodge Hall as part of the Hidden Chaplains Stairwell Gallery

Jonathan Ort, a member of the Class of 2021, nominated Violette Chamoun, former operations manager at Forbes College as his Hidden Chaplain in 2019. For Ort, the sincere conversations he had with Violette Chamoun embodied a genuine concern for others that can easily be disregarded in the whirlwind of academic life. He recalled how, even during Sunday brunch, the busiest day of the week for Forbes dining hall staff, Chamoun, without fail, would take the time to greet him and ask how he was doing.

“To have that support from somebody who had no obligation to be that kind and invested in my life was a really meaningful form of compassion,” Ort said.

A self-described “people person,” Chamoun’s days at Princeton were once filled with joyous conversation with students. As they would line up to get their food or drop off their plates in the Forbes dining hall, students would often greet Chamoun, stopping to embrace or talk to her. According to Chamoun, seeing students evacuate campus was difficult for her and other staff members. 

“In the beginning, it was horrible,” she said. “It was a ghost town; the whole campus was empty and the people left were afraid of each other.”

Since the shutdown, Chamoun and other campus dining employees have not only courageously continued to work in-person on campus, but have also taken on additional duties as campus safety advocates and Covid-19 test distributors dedicated to ensuring the community adheres to public health and safety guidelines.

For Chamoun, the staff’s commitment to serving the campus community represents the highest form of compassion. Although many employees, including her, often worried about the uncertainty of becoming infected with the virus and the potential danger of bringing it home to their families, staff members have remained determined to feed the hundreds of students left on campus who depend on dining facilities. 

“We chose to be here. For our students, for our staff, for the whole campus,” Chamoun said.

Despite the changes to the nature of her work in the past few months, Chamoun is grateful for the opportunities she’s had through Princeton. In the past, she was able to teach a successful U.S. Business Dining Etiquette class at Forbes. Now, with new technological skills acquired during the pandemic, she is preparing to lead the session online during Wintersession

“After all, Covid-19 didn’t put us down,” she said. “It makes us stronger. It makes us better people. We have bigger love in our hearts, we care, we learn, we adapt; we are fighters now.” 

Jimin Kang, a senior from South Korea who joined the ranks of international students unable to return home after Princeton’s semester went online, counts Hidden Chaplains like Violette as the part of campus life she misses the most. They are “people who walk into your life, when you’re hoping for someone to walk into your life, and leave a lasting, positive impact,” she said. 

Glenn Craig and Jimin Kang sitting at the dinner table, smiling at the camera

Glenn Craig (left), facilities staff at Witherspoon Hall, with his student nominator Jimin Kang '21 during the Hidden Chaplains dinner in 2019 

Back when she was on campus, Kang nominated Glenn Craig, a facilities staff member at Witherspoon Hall, as her Hidden Chaplain. Describing him as a gifted conversationalist with a great smile, Kang fondly recalls one particular occasion when she ran into Glenn Craig by the Witherspoon kitchen. After sharing that she was learning about the campus trash chutes in her class on sustainability at Princeton, Craig took her on a guided tour of the building’s own trash chute, explaining to her the ins and outs of how it worked. 

“I just thought, wow, Glenn is someone who is filled with so much warmth and willing to share so much knowledge with students,” Kang said. 

Kang expressed that although she has always appreciated this kind of altruistic spirit from a lot of Princeton employees, she believes that the current pandemic has made her value all social  interactions even more. 

In the eight months that have passed since leaving campus, so much has changed. Hugging now represents a potential death sentence. Our social circles have become more exclusive.  Familiar faces we smiled at on the way to class every day are faces we don’t get to see at all. Yet, compassion still remains—albeit in subtler, different ways. 

According to Imane Mabrouk, a senior currently living in Atlanta, Georgia, simply receiving a smile from neighbors during her morning jogs or having her regular order memorized by a Panda Express employee, she said, has become more meaningful. 

Mabrouk added that she’s seen compassion in the way communities have gone out of their way to help ease the burden of the pandemic on those most vulnerable to its effects; such as with the Princeton Mutual Aid network, “an intergenerational, multiracial, cross-class collective,” which has helped locals acquire food, medicine, clothing, and other necessities since March.

Poster with graphics including who a possible Hidden Chaplain may be: Hidden chaplains change your day with a smile, a question, a hello; they cut your hair, deliver your mail, make your coffee, and talk to you on the sidewalk.

Graphic created by Phoebe Warren '21 and Regina Lankenau 21

This year, as students are scattered around the world, the Hidden Chaplains project is adapting to encourage students to nominate Hidden Chaplains from the past where they grew up or present day where they are now. Instead of a dinner gathering, the project is encouraging students to deliver an award package sent by the Office of Religious Life, with a certificate and lapel pin, as a token of gratitude for Hidden Chaplain. 

 

“I’m nominating my neighbor,” wrote Shanaz Deen, Class of 2021. According to Deen, when she passes by her neighbor’s house on her afternoon runs, he “either smiles, claps, or offers a thumbs-up to keep me motivated, even on days when I feel a bit sluggish." 

“In the end, I genuinely appreciate him cheering me on, especially when it’s been personally difficult to find energy during the pandemic,” she said.

Dean Matthew Weiner described the process of nominating a Hidden Chaplain as a ‘contemplative prompt,’ which is potentially transformative in and of itself. 

“The whole idea of a contemplative prompt is that once you’ve heard and considered the question, you see the world in a different way,” he explained. “So in a way, selecting a Hidden Chaplain can help you think about compassion more in your everyday life, often indirectly triggering a sense of gratitude.”