An interpreter of both psalms and constitutional law, American University’s chaplain Mark Schaefer

Rev. Mark Schaefer, American University’s chaplain, sits in his office in Kay Spiritual
Life Center on April 1. He has been the university chaplain since 2016 after serving as
American’s United Methodist chaplain for 14 years.
(Photo by Naomi Eskenazi)

By Naomi Eskenazi

WASHINGTON – Sitting on the bookshelves of Rev. Mark Schaefer’s office in Kay Spiritual Life Center lies a mix of both religion and law books. As both a clergy of the Methodist church and a former constitutional law attorney, Schaefer is a walking embodiment of the marriage of church and state.

Schaefer has been a part of American University since his internship days as the United Methodist chaplain; he became the university chaplain in 2016. Before his involvement with the church Schaefer earned his law degree from George Washington University and was a practicing attorney

After passing the bar Schaefer began practicing law in the District. He became involved with the District of Columbia’s voting rights movement. At the same time Schaefer began his interest in religion by attending Foundry United Methodist Church near Dupont Circle.

“My sense at the time was that the political and legal strategies would never work if you didn’t convince people first that it is morally wrong to disenfranchise half a million people.” Schaefer said.

Schaefer started the Foundry Democracy Project to advocate for District voting rights and was successful. Lara Schwartz, a Harvard law graduate and former attorney, appreciated Schaefer’s approach. “There were coalitions of faith groups and faith leaders who were enormously high impact in working for social justice.” She said. “It’s something I admire and very much relate to.”

His success with the Foundry Democracy Project in turn this got him noticed within the congregation and people began to suggest for him to enroll in Seminary school.

“My answer was for a good year, ‘No and that’s crazy!’” Schaefer said. “I came up with all these reasons why I shouldn’t do it. But it got to the point where I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing but I didn’t know what that was.”

Schaefer turned to his mentors, friends and family for guidance. Everyone around him supported him and he enrolled in Wesley Theological Seminary. Shortly after that he began his internship at American under former chaplain Joe Eldridge.

Since 2006 Schaefer has been teaching courses in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American. Amir Dif, a senior studying economics and religious studies at American, described his initial skepticism with Schaefer as a professor.

“I took Christianity with him. Initially I was a bit wary that a reverend wouldn’t really teach the class without being overly preachy so to speak,” Dif said, “But I found that his knowledge about not only Christianity, but world history in general really outweighed any impulse he may have had to preach instead of teach.”

Schaefer’s colleague Martyn Oliver believes his critical analysis of religious texts is a skill gained from his law degree.

“He interrogates religious texts and reads them closely and asks the sort of searching questions that any good lawyer or prosecutor would do, right?” Oliver said. “And so, I think it’s the sort of rigor and attention of his law degree that comes to bear on his reading of the text.”

In 2018 Schaefer published his first book, “The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue,” which discusses why people crave certainty in their lives and particularly religion. Schaefer in his books shows through reexamination of religious texts certainty does not exist.

Schwartz recommended Schaefer’s book to her friends and students. “I feel like it offers something to college students at AU in particular. I think a lot of students valorize being certain – they don’t want to be the person in class who isn’t an expert in X, or Y or Z.” Schwartz said, “But embracing questions and a degree of uncertainty is a good thing. That’s the point of a university.”

After the United Methodist Church’s ruling to continue to oppose same-sex marriage and ordination of gay clergy on Feb. 26, Schaefer expressed his solidarity with American’s LGBTQ community. In a memo to the American community, Schaefer wrote “So long as I am your chaplain, I commit to embodying this expansive and inclusive love in my ministry and in the work of the Office of the University Chaplain, the Kay Spiritual Life Center and American University.”

Schaefer has been known and continues to be committed to provide support to the community in the wake of tragedies occurring both at American or around the world. “As a Muslim student, the way he handled the New Zealand massacre was also really meaningful.” Dif said, “He’s really committed to creating a space where people feel important and valid and I really appreciate him for that.”

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