Nancy Brink is a Chapman University minister who proudly touts her Disciples of Christ credentials. Though her approach —- friends call it a “progressive” ministry — would have raised a few eyebrows among the school’s DOC religious founders from a century-plus back.
Brink is gay, she promotes Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Sikhs on campus, and she doesn’t hesitate to haul James Taylor or Scottish hymns into the pulpit with her. While she is devoted to Bible studies, she’s not afraid to take a Babe Ruth swat at what she calls the “clobber” passages — the Bible lines misinterpreted by bigots to attack the LGBTQ+ community.
Now director of church relations, Brink is a shining Chapman star who will quickly tell interested families: “Did I mention we’re just six miles from Disneyland?” And when her students were quarantined, she took on her own letter-writing campaign. Just to ask them: Are you okay? We’re here for you.
Standing with Fish Interfaith Center Director Gail Stearns, Brink has helped to build a diversity program at Chapman that caused it to be singled out by a Barack Obama-sponsored Interfaith Campus Challenge as one of the Top Five universities to promote interfaith studies.
She’s also quick on her feet. Some plucky questioner asked Brink during her initial interview: Why is it that the religious pillar among the four pillars in the Piazza fountain on campus is the shortest of the four? Brink shot back: “It’s appropriate because true spirituality leads to humility.”
She got the job.
Though Brink’s father was a minister, Brink never expected to follow that path. Texas-born, she wanted to be an actress. But so did everybody else when she attended Texas Christian University. During those years she lost her mother to breast cancer.
“It was some theological questioning about my mother’s illness that made me turn to religious studies,” Brink said. “I took a class and loved it and never looked any other way. It was what I needed to do.”
She went on to get her master’s of divinity at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and eventually wound up a minister in the Disciples of Christ church in Omaha, Nebraska. The same church group that founded what became Chapman University. During her two decades there, she came out as a lesbian and guided her church to become Open and Affirming. Which means it became open to persons of all gender expressions and sexual interpretations.
A perfect resume for applying to Chapman University.
“I did not understand myself as a lesbian until my early thirties and was married to a man for a number of years,” Brink said. “As that relationship was falling apart, I came to understand who I really was. I continued on serving churches, but I was very much in the closet.”
She came out eight years later when she and a former partner adopted a Vietnamese daughter.
Now she just had to tell her church about it. She found them with her.
“It wasn’t easy, and we had to do a lot of work,” Brink said. “There were a lot of tears and struggle, but we held together. They were a wonderful community for my little girl to grow up in and were very supportive.”
Throughout her lifetime, Brink has witnessed changes within the church and how they deal with LGBTQ+ members.
“The growing movement in evangelical and conservative Christian circles says not only was [same-sex relationships] a sin, but it was one of the worst sins possible,” Brink said. “Those of us on the more progressive end of Christianity went back to our Bibles and did a lot of theological and biblical research and exploration.”
Brink learned that while the Bible was core to religious teachings, it was not meant to be taken word for word. It’s like reading Shakespeare, she explained. It is essential to understand the context the Bible was written to fully understand the meaning.
After spending 19 years in Omaha, Brink wanted a new challenge and heard about the Chapman job.
“I taught World Religions at a community college in Omaha and I fell in love with college students,” Brink said. “I see what I do a lot like having my own congregation, only the congregation is a lot younger and it changes every four years.”
Brink combines ministry in the chapel with teaching classes. In one of her Chapman classes, she teaches those “six passages” in the Bible that she calls the “clobber passages.” Sexual orientation is NOT in conflict with the Bible, she says adamantly.
In addition to offering multiple resources for students, Brink provides support for students, faculty, and staff who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community through forums and safe space training.
“For many, many students it’s like ‘okay so this person is trans’ and it’s not a big deal,’” Brink said. “But it is still an internal big deal for a person who is finding themselves in this community because they have to become comfortable in their own skin and soul when not all the world says it’s okay. The great thing is the negative messages are not as strong as they used to be.”
Another task in her religious umbrella, she works with the University Singers and travels with them on some performances. (“My goal is to chat up the students and keep everyone laughing,” she once wrote.) Brink is also active in a statewide group promoting a better understanding of the difference between church and state.
About that James Tayor influence:
“I heard an old James Taylor song ‘You Can Close Your Eyes.’ It’s about trust. I imagined Jesus building community among his followers, singing to all of us, ”But I can sing this song, and you can sing this song when I’m gone.”
That was ten years ago. Brink and followers sing that song in church, at retreats, to new students, and, tearfully, she says, to graduating seniors. One of her students put together a video depicting multiple venues where Brink and her students sang it. (You can find it on Youtube, or by plugging in Brink and James Taylor on the Chapman website.)
These days Brink is busier than ever — because of coronavirus. She Zooms all her classes and all the support groups she’s involved in.
She recently wrote for all her students that they no doubt miss all the campus activities and the camaraderie of their friends. But she added this about their quarantine attitudes:
“But what are we NOT missing? We’re not missing the power of love, whether one thinks of that in religious or secular terms. We are reaching out to family and friends with calls and texts. We are buying groceries for neighbors who are elderly and sending gift cards to families with a new baby. We are donating blood and cash to those whose needs are great. We are meeting up in Zoom calls and tipping restaurant delivery people extravagantly. We are giving ourselves time to breathe, consciously, and appreciatively, paying attention to the deepest longing of our hearts.
And yes, to the surprised but happy looks of the multitude of student faces on the computer screen, James Taylor’s music even joins her in Zoom.