The Reverend Charles L. Howard was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and now he is a chaplain there. In his first year, he was given just three small words of advice, but those words had a large impact on how Howard offers guidance to others, as well as how he looks at life.
Locust Walk, the main thoroughfare through the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, holds many memories for me. I’ll never forget the buzz and excitement of walking along that brick-laden path as a freshman feeling both excited and intimidated by four years of possibility standing before me. I remember being initiated into my senior society, chalking the ground during that exciting night. And, of course, I’ll always cherish the rainy day that was nonetheless full of sunshine when I marched in my robe toward graduation.
Locust Walk is special to me, and I’m blessed that the Office of the Chaplain is right there in the middle of it. During my first year as chaplain, while walking on Locust, I bumped into a man named Harold Haskins, a campus administrator who literally helped tens of thousands of kids make it through Penn—myself included. I asked Hask if he had any advice for a rookie. He smiled and looked at me—clearly remembering the challenges that he helped me navigate as a student many years before—and said, “Love without requirement.”
It was as if Hask had summed up my life with those three simple words. Love without requirement. That’s exactly how I have been loved in my life. You see, when I was eleven, my mother died in my arms. My father died when I was a teenager. I was young when I lost the only two people who were required to love me. My life trajectory did not look promising as a young orphan from Baltimore. I’m not supposed to be here. But then a number of people came to me. And cared for me. They were not required to love me. But sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, teachers, mentors—all loved me as if I was their own. And there is no force greater than love.
I think that’s part of what Hask was getting at. When we love, lives can change. But there is another aspect of loving without requirement. There is the lack of imposing any requirements on the beloved. This is loving in a way that does not depend on them performing, them being good, or even loving us back.
I and many of the faculty and staff working with amazing young women and men every day also have the great task of showing the students that their value does not depend on their grades, what graduate schools they will get into, what jobs they get, or what their salary will be. We challenge them to be their best, and we also try to love them in a way that doesn’t depend on these things that come and go. No, we try to love them without requirement, without condition.
And that’s not easy, is it? But I seem to do a better job at it when I remember how I have been loved.
So what do I believe? I believe that I have been deeply loved in a way that I didn’t think I deserved. I believe that the purest love is one that does not depend on what we do but, rather, who we are. And I believe that the great call on all of our lives is to love and be loved. Love changes things, and I believe that with my whole heart.
The Reverend Charles L. Howard, PhD, is the University Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. Prior to his return to Penn he served in hospice and hospital chaplaincies and as a street outreach worker to individuals experiencing homelessness in the city of Philadelphia. A son of Baltimore, Maryland, he considers himself a godson of Philly where he lives with his wife and best friend, Dr. Lia C. Howard, and his three daughters.
Audio recording produced by Elisabeth Perez-Luna for WHYY in Philadelphia for their local This I Believe series
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