haplain Kathleen Buckley gets a big kick out of a little plastic desk toy that looks like a wooden shipping crate. Push a button and a little voice yells, “Excuse me, can you let me out of here?” Buckley, a big believer in thinking outside the box, laughs her head off.
With that infectious laugh—plus a splash of freckles and a colorful print vest worn over her black clerical garb—Skidmore’s chaplain seems about as radical as a gingersnap. Yet she leads weekly Buddhist meditations, sometimes refers to the deity as “she,” and proudly declares herself “one of the few people in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. who is ‘out’ and still a valid minister.” A self-described bisexual in a committed, same-sex relationship, Buckley is not only out but an activist, lobbying on and off campus for gay acceptance in the church and the community. No surprise she has a bright handstitched quilt on her office wall that reads: “Can’t kill the spirit!”
A campus dynamo in matters not just of faith but of student life, wellness, and diversity, Buckley pulls it all together under an unexpectedly homey rubric, “hospitality,” which she learned in her mother’s kitchen. An outdoorsy kid sister and three-sport varsity athlete, Buckley grew up on an old farm in Massachusetts, where “my mother did more ‘pastoral care’ in her kitchen than I’ve done in my whole ministry!” she laughs. “My father was a researcher at a polymer plant where visiting chemists would train for months at a time. Dad felt sorry for them having to eat out so much, so we always had company, often unexpected. Mom would take me aside and say, ‘You don’t want your pork chop tonight—I’ll make you something later.’ I always thought it was such a wonderful, loving act—welcoming a stranger.”
It was in high school that her dawning attraction to women and her love of nature ripened together into what she sees as a seamless spirituality, one rooted in “a deep reverence for the sacredness of all creation.” A conversion experience in college transformed her concept of God from an aloof deity to a warmly caring one, and “I realized I wanted to dedicate my life to serving people in their search to find wholeness.” She earned a master’s in divinity, joined the Presbyterian church, and was appointed to a small parish in Watervliet, N.Y. —the first female pastor in the church’s 143-year history. “For five years, we were a good match, that little church and me,” she recalls. Fourteen years ago, she and her partner discreetly began their life together.
But Buckley found herself making regional headlines in 1993 when, during a stormy national debate about Presbyterian ordination of gay ministers, she publicly announced her bisexuality. She then resigned rather than plunge her congregation into public controversy. The soul-searching experience taught Buckley “the realities of fear…. People who never met me fear me,” as she later wrote in Called Out, a collection of essays by gay Presbyterian clergy.
Buckley and members of an ad-hoc campus spirituality group try out a labyrinth for walking meditations.
Buckley became Skidmore’s chaplain in 1996, joining a college known for its tolerance and focusing on young adults often “searching to find wholeness.” She and part-time colleagues Rabbi Linda Motzkin and Sister Rosemary Sgroi serve the college community in three basic ways, she says: “We invite inquiry, we foster wholeness, and we teach respect for all life.” They offer everything from worship to holiday observances to staff and alumni weddings and memorials. These days they also serve a student culture hungry for spirituality but disinclined to organized religion, so Buckley and crew lead such practices as labyrinth walks and meditation lessons, and they encourage social service, which students admire as an active form of spirituality, Buckley explains. They teach religion classes, popular with young people searching for soul-nourishing practices to adopt; help organize field trips (the Holocaust Museum recently); cosponsor campus lectures, panels, and symposiums; and even lead vigils such as the one following the Columbine High School shootings. Buckley is also the campus’s substance-abuse prevention educator and codirects Skidmore’s Leadership Institute for first- and second-year student leaders.
Of course, sometimes students come to her. They phone, e-mail, and drop by Buckley’s cozy office, with its wall hangings and perpetual bowl of candy. “I can go to Kathleen’s office, eat a lot of candy, and laugh like I never laughed before,” says Kathryn O’Rourke ’02, a cofounder of Bacchus and Gamma, a student peer-education group for safe sex and alcohol use. “Sometimes we’ll be talking about the group and then suddenly we’re talking about God.”
For Buckley, that easy, natural segue is crucial. “I see myself as a tether for students who want to explore spiritual issues. There’s an element of anxiety in such exploration—it makes life harder for a while. I provide grounding for them, so they know they won’t spin off.”
The chaplains’ office is also committed to broader social causes—including “visible and vocal advocacy for gays and lesbians,” in great part, as Rabbi Motzkin notes, because religious voices have been strong in condemning homosexuals. Says Buckley, “I feel enraged at the way the church denies young people full access. When I first came here, I invited Skidmore’s gay and lesbian student group to our home for dinner. About thirty came. One student later told another, ‘I didn’t even know you could do this—that a lesbian couple could have a home, cats and dogs, a real life.’ I was so taken with that, I’ve continued to do it every semester. Part of what I do is give gay and lesbian young people someone to talk to, so they know they’re OK.”
Buckley explains, “ I feel I stand in the gap between the secular and religious worlds, particularly where it intersects gay and lesbian issues.” That can be an uncomfortable place to be, but Buckley has the knack of transforming discomfort into something useful for her campus ministry, something warm, maybe even funny.
Catch her, for instance, making fun of herself trying to preach in a twelve-foot-long ecclesiastical stole made for her by a Troy congregation in support of gay clergy. It’s more than twice as long as Buckley is tall; she had to pin it up in back. “Hey,” she grins, “you gotta have a sense of humor.” In Buckley’s eyes, that’s one more part of hospitality.
Staff writer Barbara Melville sometimes wears a pink-triangle pin with the word “Ally” in it.