Dr. Janet Fuller - Dreamer, Trailblazer, and Multifaith Pioneer

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University Chaplain and Dean of Multifaith Engagement at Elon University, Reverend Dr. Janet Fuller has thrived in multifaith environments from the moment she was born. She grew up in Lebanon, the daughter of Baptist missionaries who ran a publishing house that produced Arabic literature for Christians around the world. As a child, she lived through four Middle Eastern wars, one time spending four months in the hallway of their home along with her family of seven. Decades later, she is an Episcopal priest, scholar, chaplain, and spiritual counselor and has touched many with her gifts and talents and her passion for building bridges between religious communities. Chaplain Fuller will retire this coming May after forty years in Higher Education Chaplaincy at various universities. 

Chaplain Fuller’s leadership and guidance has left a lasting, rippling effect on and off campus which will guide communities and individuals into multifaith work and engagement long after her tenure at Elon. She has made immense contributions as the president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains in 1995-97 and again in 2016-2021, and led the merger of the organization with the Association of College and University Religious Affairs as they became the Association for Chaplaincy and Spiritual Life in Higher Education (ACSLHE), which emerged in March 2021. Her passion for the work is evident in how she has--literally-- built multifaith spaces on Elon University’s campus from the ground up.

Lasting impact on the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life

Historically, Elon University was primarily associated with the Christian faith tradition and built on principles of the Christian church. Just before Chaplain Fuller arrived at Elon, Edna Truitt Noiles and Doug Noiles created the Truitt Center endowment in memory of Edna’s mother, Vera Richardson Truitt. That endowment stipulates programs and events that will further the Truitt vision to encourage students to honor the spiritual dimension of life, to respect religious and cultural differences, to deepen and explore their faith traditions and worldviews, to embrace the present responsibly and the future with hope, and to live the principles they value. Chaplain Fuller has been determined in her efforts to hire excellent personnel, to create impactful programming, and to make connections across the campus to make real this vision at Elon University.

Chaplain Fuller has built a multifaith program that is recognized nationally for its achievements and with that, she leaves behind quite a legacy. In 2013, she oversaw the construction of Elon’s religious and spiritual life center, Numen Lumen Pavilion, which is now the hub of activity for religious, spiritual, and non-religious students, staff, and faculty. On any given week, the central McBride Gathering Space and Sacred Space of the building might serve as a home for Catholic Mass, meditation based on the Zen Buddhist tradition, yoga, students representing Elon Muslim Society, religious lectures, or Better Together, an interfaith dialogue group. The building also includes a classroom, kosher-style kitchen, prayer room, meditation room, study rooms, and universal restrooms. A beautiful meditation garden is connected to the building as well. In addition, the building that housed the former spiritual and religious life building has been renovated and transformed into the Sklut Hillel Center, a vibrant and practical home away from home for Elon’s Jewish students. 

During her 10 years at Elon, Chaplain Fuller has created a strong religious and spiritual support staff at Elon including a Muslim Imam, Protestant Chaplain, ordained department director, several Jewish Rabbis including well-known Reconstructionist Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Director of Jewish Life, Assistant Director of Jewish Life, Jewish Educator, two administrative professionals, and 10 affiliate staff including 7 who are Christian, 2 who are Jewish, and a Zen teacher. In addition to a Catholic Priest and Director of Catholic Life who was already in place, there are also two additional Catholic Life employees. Elon’s Truitt Center student organizations include 9 Christian groups (including a Catholic ministry), meditation, yoga, Elon Muslim Society, 2 Jewish organizations, 2 interfaith dialogue groups, mindfulness, an interfaith living-learning community, and a national student-led interfaith conference held every February. In addition, the Truitt Center partners with the Gender and LGBTQ+ Center to facilitate the Spirit & Pride initiative which is funded by the Carpenter Grant and employs 4 interns who work closely with the Truitt Center cohort of multifaith interns.  In addition, Chaplain Fuller created the Advisory Board for Black Student Spiritual Support and helped to connect religious and spiritual diversity to Elon’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness work, which is now represented in the new Division of Inclusive Excellence. In her advocating for positions, programs, and the progress she has led Multifaith strategic planning and implementation at Elon from beginning to end.

It is clear that Chaplain Fuller has ushered Elon into a new age of multifaith engagement and university chaplaincy. Many look to her example in creating their own centers for religious and spiritual life. Others have been touched by the words she offered in times of chaos, through recurring trauma, and questions about their individual faith. She has loved students, faculty, and staff over these years cherished them, called them to justice, and mentored them in meaning and purpose.

Legacy of Relationship and Community Building

Those who shared with us about Chaplain Fuller still feel a lasting presence of the hope she offers in times of grief and loss, and the respect she commands in communities with which she works. One alumna shared, “I remember sitting in her office for a meeting, the day after learning my Mom had been diagnosed with Stage 1 Breast Cancer. Jan’s warm spirit wrapped my overwhelmed self in both a tight hug and with a sense of faith that things would get better. At that moment, without uttering a single word, Jan silently conveyed the magnitude of her faith, which in turn, played a key role in shaping mine.” (Danielle Biggs ‘15)

Chaplain Fuller has also brought students to new initiatives on campus including her most recent introduction of the Barefoot Dialogue program.  Founded at Oberlin College, Barefoot Dialogue emphasizes vulnerable, transparent, intimate engagement that connects participants to each other and to the land. Student leader, Morgan Chisholm ‘23 shares about her connection with Chaplain Fuller,

“Jan Fuller is the human epitome of student-centered learning. That is how I met Jan Fuller, on a Thursday night, at my neighborhood tea room. This was two weeks into my first year at Elon, and like anyone in a new environment, I was struggling to find my footing. Jan saw that immediately but also understood my longing for connection in this new community.”  Morgan Chisholm ‘23

With Chaplain Fuller’s continued encouragement, Morgan will continue to work at the Truitt Center as a Multifaith Intern over the 2021-2022 school year.  Her Intern Project will center around coordinating and growing Barefoot Dialogues:

 “She chose to share her dream to bring a new type of dialogue group to Elon's campus, and I immediately said yes. Jan has helped me build a steadily growing group within our community that cares about listening to one another and tackling difficult topics through these shared dialogues. She's opened her home and her heart to us so that we may continue to thrive here even as she continues to a different chapter in her life.” Morgan Chisholm ‘23

Chaplain Fuller’s impact reaches far and wide through experiences with students at the undergraduate level, but also in graduate communities and with faculty and staff at Elon. She presided, as a pastor and multifaith leader at vigils following national and global crises like 9/11, Sandy Hook, the Pittsburg Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, Stoneman Douglas School shooting, and so many more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she wrote reflections and sat with those who lost loved ones. Additionally, as the spiritual mentor for Elon’s Anatomical Gift Program, Chaplain Fuller gently tenders permission to students who may be ambivalent about meeting their first donor. Chaplain Fuller deepens the relationship between students and their ‘silent teachers’ by appointing them to honor and give thanks for the most magnanimous gift toward their healthcare education. She is primarily responsible for creating an atmosphere of respect among first-year graduate students in The School of Health Sciences. She supports her students and influences our community by encouraging a mutually beneficial relationship that reaches far beyond textbooks. Chaplain Fuller’s guidance suggests that Elon students and our communities are bridged by building a circle of trust.

Dianne Person, Director of Anatomical Gift Program at Elon University, puts it best when she shared, “Dr. Fuller is a consummate teacher, scholar, chaplain, mentor, and spiritual leader. Her extraordinary work will long be remembered and infinitely burned in the hearts of all who have the joy of knowing her.

Final thoughts and quotes of gratitude

Chaplain Fuller will certainly be missed at Elon but is off to publish a book of prayers, finish her book on grief as spiritual transformation, and write about Chaplaincy in higher education over four decades. But first, she makes the move to Roanoke with her spouse Jan Therien and two dogs, Buster and Peabody.  Many wish to thank her for all she has offered and will continue to impart as a dreamer, a trailblazer, and multi-faith pioneer who leaves a lasting legacy at Elon and abroad. 

“No one deserves our gratitude more than Jan for all of the strength and guidance she has so freely offered throughout the trials of the pandemic, and my wish for her is that she continues to unearth connections with others that bring her joy. Thank you, Jan, for all that you've done for Elon, and thank you for the impact you've had on my time here. It has made a world of difference." Morgan Chisholm ‘23

Jan is a fierce force and a true visionary. I am so blessed that she impacted my college years, and to be able to call her friend." Danielle Biggs ‘15

As Chaplain Fuller retires from Elon, she leaves behind an impressive body of work and accomplishments. She has led Elon to create a program that includes 8 annual religious and cultural festivals, a signature annual interfaith student conference, a vibrant religious and spiritual life building, and a multifaith staffing structure. She is likely the longest-serving Chaplain in the nation, having totaled 40 years on the campuses of Yale, Hollins, and Elon.  In her own words, she “has never wanted to do anything else.” In addition, Chaplain Fuller has published articles, sermons and sermon commentary, poems, and prayers in numerous anthologies like We Ask Your Blessing: 100 Prayers for Campus Occasions (Don Shockley, Ed, 2005.). Elon University will feel the power of Chaplain Fuller’s presence long after she physically leaves campus and heads into a new chapter where she continues to thrive and to live her life as a way of giving thanks.

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Chaplain Fuller’s leadership and guidance has left a lasting, rippling effect on and off campus which will guide communities and individuals into multifaith work and engagement long after her tenure at Elon.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.