As dean of Rockefeller Chapel, the Reverend Maurice Charles sees himself as a spiritual leader first and foremost. When people are hurting, celebrating, or asking questions about life, Charles is the first person they call. But he’s also used the position to raise questions about race and the role of policing at UChicago—questions which, as a Black man, he’s grappled with for his entire life.
Charles grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a family that was heavily involved in the church. His mother’s family had migrated to Cleveland during the first Great Migration and, according to Charles, left their past behind.
“I come from a family that came from the Jim Crow South. And they never talked about Jim Crow. They never talked about the fact that my mother’s side of the family left Georgia right around the time of an election that Governor Clifford Walker was elected,” Charles said.
The election of Walker, a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan, drove the family’s decision to leave. His family’s history and his own childhood in the 1960s shaped how he dealt with adversity early on, whether that was adjusting to a college environment as an undergrad or racial prejudice throughout his life.
“[My family’s] attitude was that you just stay focused. If you’re not welcome here, you find a better place, and you keep moving forward and you don't look back. And so that’s how I dealt with the situation as a student,” Charles said.
Published in the Chicago Maroon, February 10, 2021. Read the full article here.
What was it like returning the Rockefeller Chapel and the carillon?
Joey Brink: Returning to the instrument on June 15  was a breath of fresh air. For me, it was empowering, uplifting and deeply gratifying. I began playing on June 15, Monday through Friday, every day from noon to 1 p.m. Normally I would have had several students, and many guest performers playing throughout the summer as well, but in these next three months, I was the only individual allowed back in the tower, as the policy for returning students to the instrument was still being worked out. As a result, I felt even more like Quasimodo, being the only one in the tower, and often the only one in the chapel. I actually really enjoyed it! I guess that’s not surprising.
We received many comments from the campus community in those first weeks expressing gratitude for the return of the bells. The carillon is unique in many ways—one being that it is the perfect social-distance instrument. I never interact with the audience, or even know who is listening. With very little live music in the city, I felt that I was able to contribute something even more powerful to the community.
Excerpts from the Chicago Tribune piece (11/24 digital, 11/29 print) by Howard Reich
...Most of these performances have been canceled, with a few migrating online for truncated, prerecorded, scaled-down versions of Handel’s most famous oratorio.
Which raises two uncomfortable and inseparable questions: What are we missing? And how do we get by without “Messiah”?
“We’re missing the sense of community for the performers as much as the audience,” says tenor Matthew Dean, director of University of Chicago chapels and a soloist in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel’s annual “Messiah” (and others).
The University of Chicago’s “Messiah” has been presented annually since 1930 – until now.
“We’re missing the physical experience of feeling the sound in your body as an audience member,” adds Dean. “There is nothing like the acoustics of Rockefeller Chapel … the echoes bouncing off the space and kind of going through you.
“It sympathetically vibrates you in a way that reminds you of the season and of your connection with fellow listeners.”
...Or, as James Kallembach, director of chapel music at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, sees it, the eventual return of “Messiah” will represent perseverance in the face of catastrophe.
“I sent out a big email (to the choir) at the beginning of the year saying: Every time we sing, singing is a form of resistance,” says Kallembach, who conducts Rockefeller’s “Messiah” every year, drawing roughly 900 listeners. “And the resistance is that we can’t let the arts die.
“What I also told the choir is that if we get out of covid in this school year, the first thing I will perform is the ‘Messiah,’ because I feel it’s like what everyone needs. It’s the catalyst.
“Here’s this little folio in the (British) Library in London, maybe it’s a pound of parchment,” adds Kallembach.
“Think of all the energy that pound of parchment has created over all these hundreds of years. So many performances, so much good will.
“We need it for our communities, and we need it to be human beings.”
Beginning October 4, 2020, Dean Maurice Charles and the musicians of Rockefeller Chapel offer music and meditations through the Virtual Chapel. Please visit our SoundCloud page for access to these offerings, recorded onsite in this distanced autumn, that we all might celebrate together again in a healthy future.
Scroll within this news archive for previous greetings and updates from the Dean.
The Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and Spiritual Life team mourn the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the many others who were killed as a result of racist violence. We mourn in solidarity with their families and loved ones. We condemn racism and the resulting violence in all of its forms.
As members of the University of Chicago community, we commit to standing against injustice and working to dismantle systems and structures that lead to inequity. Committing privately or publicly to passive anti-racist behavior is necessary, but not sufficient. We call on all members of the UChicago community to act mindfully in ways that are anti-racist. This work is part of both an internal and external journey, and we are here to support you in it. The Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and Spiritual Life staff are a part of the diverse UChicago community that is enriched by our differences. We intend to encourage and nurture engagement between people of all religious, spiritual, and ethical backgrounds. This engagement requires an active commitment to representation and inclusion in all religious services, artistic programs, community gatherings and conversations.
We invite ourselves and the UChicago community to self-reflection and humility, to examine the ways in which we have been complicit in prejudice and racist behaviors, and to renew our commitment to justice and morality. To be in community requires that we all acknowledge our common humanity and treat one another with love and compassion.
Peace and Blessings,
D. Maurice Charles, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel
Jigna Shah, Assistant Dean of Rockefeller Chapel & Director of Spiritual Life
Matthew Dean, Director, University Chapels
James Kallembach, Director of Chapel Music
Seher Siddiqee, Assistant Director of Spiritual Life & Advisor for Muslim Affairs
Jane Bohnsack, Business and Facilities Coordinator
The world looks so different now. It hardly seems possible that in one month, almost to the day, the 2019-2020 academic year will come to a close. My warmest congratulations to all who will be graduating. While you have been cheated out of your customary celebrations, I pray that each new sunrise will give you a reason to be grateful and that, in time, you will look back on this time and celebrate your enduring courage during challenging days.
It has been two months, nearly to the day, when our community of scholars learned that we would remove ourselves from the university campus in ten short days, suspend most of our research activities and all our religious gatherings, and shift to remote teaching and learning.
During that final week of winter quarter, I could not help but hold Rockefeller Chapel open for any confused or bewildered soul who might wander in seeking a moment of respite. In those final open hours, before the guard we retained secured the building and shut off the lights, I wrote an update to the Rockefeller and Spiritual Life staff who were already working remotely:
“At the moment, a lone visitor obscured by a face mask sits in a Rockefeller pew, a jarring reminder of the photograph of Dr. Li Wenliang that first drew my attention to what now has all our attention.”
The world looks so different now. At the time, the sight of a mask worn outside of a doctor’s office or construction site seemed jarring or at least a curiosity to those of us who grew up in the United States. Now I look back and find it strange that I found it odd. Masked faces are everywhere now.
A month prior to President Zimmer’s March 12 announcement to the community about the part we would play in mitigating the spread of Covid-19, almost to the day, I had learned of an outdoor vigil planned for Dr. Li, organized by an anonymous group of students. I remember regretting that I knew no more than a few phrases of Chinese, learned from my Chinese American partner. I wanted to track them down and welcome them into one of the chapels.
A February snow storm interrupted our mild winter on the day of the vigil. One of our staff, it turns out, was able to reach the organizers and we welcomed a meandering crowd of 125 or so to Bond Chapel for a moving tribute to the man whose now iconic masked face, whose faithfulness to his healing profession even to death, had so moved me that I had eulogized him in the Sunday sermon the weekend prior to our campus vigil. (A copy of that sermon appears here).
The world looks so different. Sometimes a seismic shift is precisely what brings the world into focus.
“We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny. Caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
These words are no longer the faint echo of a sermon preached by one of the nation’s most celebrated prophets a half century ago. A microbe, easily destroyed by soap and water outside of the body, has brought a world economy to its knees, driving the truth home for us all. If this does not inspire humility, nothing will.
Spirituality is an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things. Spiritual practice is the intentional, disciplined awareness of that recognition. Religion is, among other things, an historical and evolving aggregation of spiritual practices, of texts and oral traditions, music and myths, interlocutions and interpretations. Its fundamental purpose is to heighten our awareness of our individual relationship to the whole and to challenge us to respond to that awareness in our own way and in our own day. To be spiritual is to attend to the reality of interdependence, not as a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis, but intentionally, gratefully, reverentially.
Many of us who embrace theism do so, in part, because we experience this ongoing call to attention as a divine mandate. Attention is the call. Love is the response. Love for ourselves as fearfully and wonderfully made. Compassion for our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable among us. Delight in the world, not only because of how useful it is, but because we in the world and the world is in us.
Love is the fruit of spirituality. Faithfulness is sustained by love. During trying times like these, when feats of heroism seem to elude us and virtuosity fails us, as our instruments lie inaccessible beyond the bolted doors of the chapel ,when brilliance is dulled in the face of constant change, we are left with the task of meeting each new day with thanksgiving and mere faithfulness. We educate the young as best we can under the circumstances. We care for ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbors. We remember those who are alone, and those who have lost hope and jobs and health and lives. We see the inequities that are laid bare by this crisis, if the fact somehow escaped us when we were too busy to notice. We vow never to forget what we have seen, and to recreate the word rather than return to the world as it was. When we are overwhelmed by it all, we simply remember to move and to breathe.
When these interesting times have passed, what will remain, and what will be celebrated as heroic by our companions along the way, is our faithfulness to the humble tasks before each of us.
While cycling past the empty campus the other day I couldn’t help but stop and admire the tulips. They are in full bloom now. And while the lush grass seems barren without students lounging on the quads, books in hand, those perennials will return each spring despite the brutality of Chicago winters. They always do. And so will we.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” My Jewish friends taught me that this is the first of four questions intoned at the Passover Seder, generally by the youngest member of the gathering. They are an invocation of a people’s collective memory, animating the rituals of the present with stories from the past and, in turn, creating new memories borne to each successive generation.
Through the years, my conversations with people of different faiths have only deepened and enriched my own. During this April like no other, a great convergence where Jews celebrate Passover, Muslims observe Ramadan, Baha’is, the festival of Ridvan, and Christians like me, Easter—just to name a few—I am keenly aware of our common humanity and our collective disorientation. We watch our neighbors around the world suffer from a disease that is new to us and from which we have no shared immunity.
Having chosen solitude during a season of gathering in the hope of playing some small part in protecting the vulnerable from contagion and those who care for them--some of them cherished colleagues and former students--I am struck by the power of memory. Religious folks feel a sense of loss right now precisely because memories are so potent: I smell the incense and the wine, hear the chants and Gospel songs, feel the movements, joyful and reverent, in my very bones. Our memories compel us to sway, to bend, to kneel, to prostrate ourselves, to sit still, usually together, while compassion for our neighbors compels us to scatter until the time is right.
Memory is a precious gift. Refraining from business as usual creates room for memories to become all the more vivid. As our staff considered what to offer those who typically gather beneath the gracious arches of Rockefeller Chapel, now closed, we turned quickly away from fashioning inadequate semblances of the usual rites toward the treasures of the archives instead. From this storehouse, the Virtual Chapel arises, where we can hear voices again like the late Kenneth Northcott. We can delight again in the sound of carillon and choir and organ. And, as I have heard already from those who are sharing these treasures with neighbors and friends, we can resurrect long-forgotten stories of the players and the audience members, some of whom haven’t been with us for quite some time now.
This way of remembrance is especially appropriate for our community since we pride ourselves on our love of artifacts—especially good, old-fashioned books. The first question students asked at the beginning of this Spring Quarter like no other was, “When will the library reopen?” When will the virtual become real again?
My hope for you during this season like no other is that you will delight in your most cherished memories of these holidays until we meet and celebrate them again. My prayer for those of you for whom past holidays have not been so joyful is that this time of solitude releases you from bondage to the past and opens you to a brighter and more joyful future.
The day will come when these days are a memory. We will pass it down from generation to generation. May each generation find it a potent memory of sacrifice, courage, compassion, and hope. And may peace be with you this day and always.
From Dean Maurice Charles: "April is upon us and this year Jews, Christians, and Muslims enter important seasons of communal prayer and shared memory in the midst of another global pandemic. Jews celebrate the festival of the Passover. Christians observe Holy Week and Easter. Muslims fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan at the end of April and will conclude the month in late May with the Eid al-Fitr feast." Click "Read more" below for the full message.
Dean Maurice Charles offers the following update on the temporary suspension of gatherings at Rockefeller and Bond Chapels and the Spiritual Life spaces at Ida Noyes Hall:
As a research university of international renown, the University of Chicago gathers a worldwide community, welcoming students, faculty, staff, visitors, and friends from around the globe. Rockefeller and Bond Chapels and the Spiritual Life Office in Ida Noyes Hall host religious and spiritual gatherings from a variety of traditions in addition to providing space for individual reflection and prayer. In keeping with the guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the senior university administration regarding the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and especially in light of our common mission to care for the most vulnerable members of the community, many of whom attend our gatherings, beginning Sunday, March 15, we are suspending all communal religious and spiritual gatherings occurring in Rockefeller and Bond Chapels and the Spiritual Life office, prayer, and meditation spaces until April 15.
While I am deeply sorry for any distress this may cause, I do want to reassure everyone that our venues will remain open for private prayer and reflection according to posted schedule and that our team is available to address any concerns you may have. Meanwhile, we hope that you will have a satisfying end to the quarter and a restful break. We look forward to thinking creatively together about meeting community needs during the spring term and to continuing to support and encourage one another in our adventures in learning.
D. Maurice Charles, Dean, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
Ripple Effects: New Music for Carillon at the University of Chicago features a new composition by Read Thomas and several live recordings of pieces premiered at the Rockefeller Carillon New Music Festival (2018). The album is available immediately for sale at the Rockefeller Chapel gift kiosks at the front desk and carillon playing cabin, Tuesdays through Fridays 11-6 pm.