Day in the life of the chaplain


photo by Matthew Claybrook

A framed cross-stitch of a clementine sits on University Chaplain Alexander Serna-Wallender‘s desk. This is more than a decoration: the fruit holds spiritual significance for the chaplain, serving as a reminder to be mindful of each sweet thing the day holds.

“The clementines come from a beautiful reflection meditation by Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh … He invites us, as we eat a clementine, to think about the whole of creation — the water, the soil, the tree that gave it fruit, the sweetness of everything in each bite,” Serna-Wallender said. “This meditation always reminds me to be more mindful in my eating, more mindful of my working and more intentional in the actions that I take.”

As the semester ends, Serna-Wallender has tried to add small elements of joy into students’ lives — for example, by handing out clementines across campus. The end of this semester will also mark Serna-Wallender’s first year as a chaplain at Trinity.

According to Serna-Wallender, his time at Trinity is full of unexpected variety. However, some things are the same every day: Serna-Wallender can always expect to have one-on-one meetings with members of the Trinity community, discussing their spiritual journeys and helping them to process difficult events.

“Every day will usually include some one-on-one meetings with individuals to help them process whatever is on their mind, from conflict with a roommate to a loss of a family member to some other sort of loss in their life and being there with them through the midst of that,” Serna-Wallender said. “My charge is not just to be here for students — although that’s my primary gift — but to support all those who call Trinity home. That means our faculty, that means our staff and that even means our alumni.”

In his work as chaplain, Serna-Wallender values interfaith connections and working with student organizations of all religious affiliations.

“Today I had a meeting with some leaders from Young Life to talk about how the year’s been going, and then tonight I’m going to Nur Night with MSA, and just sort of making sure that they’re supported,” Serna-Wallender said. “[My role is] about both being present at events, but also meeting with leadership behind the scenes to talk about what the spaces, resources, opportunities [are] that we need to help spiritual life to thrive and be vibrant here.”

Arisha Ali, junior and president of Muslim Student Association (MSA), said that Serna-Wallender has been there from the beginning of his chaplaincy as a welcoming presence.

“As soon as [Serna-Wallender] started working at Trinity, he reached out to MSA and asked if there was anything that he could help us with,” Ali said. “He helped come up with the name for Nur Night, and he also offered to host us at his home for Iftar, which is the dinner we have after fasting during Ramadan. He’s been really open to helping us and giving us the tools we need to be successful on campus.”

Serna-Wallender also extended support to TU Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a student organization dedicated to atheist and agnostic students, which formed earlier this year.

“[Serna-Wallender] is a really friendly guy. We had a good long chat in his office, just kind of about life, about my religious experience, where I was coming from, why I was starting the Secular Student Alliance and he was very supportive,” said junior Alex Bradley, president of SSA. “He offered to help [us] advertise for things if we wanted to, or just to get the word out, and he offered his support for larger events.”

For next fall, Serna-Wallender is recruiting six spiritual life fellows who will be split up into three teams of two students to focus on different issues related to campus spiritual life.

One team will focus on increasing interfaith programming — Serna-Wallender mentioned monthly interfaith dinners or dialogue groups as a way to spark conversations across religious student organizations. Another team will focus on creating student-facilitated spiritual practices at Trinity, and the final team will focus on Christian life programming at Trinity, including worship services and music and concert series.

Serna-Wallender is particularly interested in creating a small dialogue group where students of multiple faith traditions can discuss questions of meaning, purpose and belonging.

“Each student and every member of this community brings with them a unique worldview and experiences that have shaped that worldview, and I think it’s incredibly powerful that we can learn from each other’s stories,” Serna-Wallender said.

Serna-Wallender is optimistic about the ability of campus spiritual life to grow and thrive in the future.

“I’m always open to new ways that we can enhance and improve spiritual life on this campus, and to continue to learn from students and their experiences,” Serna-Wallender said. “I’m also excited for the ways I get to support faculty and staff because their lives don’t stop when they come to work here. There’s a lot they carry with them, too, and it’s a gift to be able to journey with them in their daily life as well.”

The applications for Chapel Spiritual Life Fellows are online and close on April 22. Students who are interested in applying can contact Serna-Wallender at [email protected]. Members of the Trinity community who are interested in a one-on-one meeting with Serna-Wallender can sign up for a 30-minute or one-hour appointment with him online.