After her car stalled on I-91 and her replacement rental was rear-ended by a Wesleyan freshman on High Street later that day, some would guess that Reverend Joan Cooper Burnett would be overwhelmed by her bad luck. Instead, she remained optimistic, refusing to let the incident put a damper on her day.
The first African American Protestant chaplain at the University, Burnett is also optimistic when it comes to promoting spiritual life on campus.
“I am grateful for having the opportunity to come to Wesleyan to bring change to its culture as it relates to religious and spiritual life,” said Burnett.
Coming from Yale University, which has many Christian student groups, Burnett now faces the challenge of working at Wesleyan, where “students ignore God on a daily basis,” according to the Princeton Review.
“During my interview for this position at Wesleyan, a student said to me, ’Reverend Burnett, tell me what you would do on a campus where a student is on his way to church and bumps into one of his colleagues, and when asked the question ’where are you going,’ he replies, ’to a friend’s house,’” she said.
Burnett admits that she was surprised at how religion is perceived on campus.
“It’s viewed by students, faculty, and staff that Christianity is negative,” she said. “Students here see Christianity as fundamentalism, and they falsely perceive the religion to be oppressive. As a result, it has made Christian students feel uncomfortable openly expressing their faith.”
Wesleyan’s non-religious reputation may deter some individuals from perceiving the University as a place to preach and worship, but not Burnett.
“After hearing that student’s story,” she said, “I asked God to send me, because no one should feel uncomfortable being open to religious beliefs.”
In 2004, she received the Yale University Pastoral Award, given to her by students. At Yale, students encouraged friends to go to church, and furthermore, to speak about issues they were struggling with. She is optimistic that the same will happen at Wesleyan.
“My hope is that students will understand that we each have a God-given purpose,” she said. “I want student to explore developing and creating a relationship with God as a means of greater fulfillment.”
Before coming to Wesleyan, Burnett was the founder, owner, and CEO of PathWays International, an executive search firm, as well as STEP Inc., an employment agency. She was also the Senior Pastor of the Black Church at Yale, the same university where she received her Masters of Divinity degree. She also holds degrees from Boston University Graduate School and the University of Tennessee at Martin.
Not only does Burnett serve as the Protestant Chaplain at Wesleyan, she also severs as the Senior Pastor for the First Baptist Church in Middletown. She is founder and President of G-GIRLS, Inc., a faith-based non-profit for teen girls and women. She is also a member of the board of directors for The Children’s Home of Cromwell, St. Vincent De Paul Place, and Judah House, a transitional home for women coping with addictions.
Since coming to Wesleyan less than two months ago, Burnett is still adjusting to Wesleyan life.
“I want students to know that Christ is an answer to some of the longing questions and challenges in life,” she said. “I also want to introduce Christianity as a liberating theology, rather than something oppressive.”
Burnett asserts that her ancestors saw Christianity as a religion of freeing the individual.
“They understood that it was not what the slave master said, but what the gospel said,” she said. “I want students to develop a relationship with God and understand the benefits of that relationship.”
Burnett hopes to create contemporary worship services at the university, which she describes as “uplifting, with singing, dancing, and theatrical performances that speak to issues that are salient to Wesleyan students.”
“I want to provide students with hope and a way to look at the future,” she said.
Worship services are every Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Memorial Chapel. During Parents’ Weekend, a special service will be held Sunday at 11 a.m. in Beckham Hall. All are welcome.