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First U.S. atheist university chaplain: a legacy of kindness

Tom was a trailblazer—an openly gay man working as a professional atheist in a time when both of those things were far more stigmatized than they are today, he founded the Humanist Chaplaincy in 1974 as a home for Harvard’s atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious students.

Tom Ferrick, photo courtesy Humanist Community at Harvard.
Tom Ferrick

Tom Ferrick, photo by Stu Rosner courtesy Humanist Community at Harvard.

Tom Ferrick—the first Humanist chaplain at any U.S. university—asked me a funny question when we first met in 2010.

“So, you’re going to be working here. Do you own a suit?” he asked knowingly, smiling as he gestured toward my sloppy attire.

I was in my early twenties, just starting at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and a bit unsure what I was doing.

I had mistakenly felt intimidated about meeting him, but his question was disarming and I immediately felt more comfortable. Which had, of course, been his aim: To get me to relax and reflect with him. His gentle teasing was intended to crack me open—it was a nudge to more deeply consider my hopes and fears, and why I care about Humanism.

Those reflections return to me now as I think of Tom, Harvard’s Humanist chaplain for 30 years, who died a few weeks ago at age 84.

When that first meeting ended he said, simply: “Thank you for being here.” It was a sentence he surely said to thousands of people during his tenure at Harvard but it felt entirely genuine, as I’m sure it did to everyone he helped.

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That was Tom Ferrick: Kind, generous, welcoming, wise, and an inspiration to others—Humanists and non-Humanists alike—with a life dedicated to helping others along the way.

Tom was a trailblazer—an openly gay man working as a professional atheist in a time when both of those things were far more stigmatized than they are today, he founded the Humanist Chaplaincy in 1974 as a home for Harvard’s atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious students.

A lovely profile of Tom, published in 2005, concluded with characteristically stirring words from Tom: “Bertrand Russell said, ‘In the end, kindness is the foremost virtue.’ It’s a survival technique, this kindness. Our civilization depends on it.”

Tom practiced that technique far beyond survival. His work embodied the reality that kindness doesn’t just help us to survive—it makes our own lives, and the lives of those around us, that much richer.

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Greg Epstein, who trained under Tom and stepped into his role when he retired, has written a moving reflection on Tom’s life that shows how Tom influenced all of us in Harvard’s Humanist community.

Greg was the first person to tell me Tom’s incredible story. Tom was orphaned as a child and cared for by a Catholic community. He went on to become a Catholic priest but eventually realized he no longer believed in God. After working as the leader of the Ethical Society of Boston, Tom pioneered a role as a Humanist chaplain.

Speaking of Tom’s life and work, it was clear that Greg was in awe of him. But Tom’s impact on Humanists wasn’t just limited to Greg and the many people Tom served in our local community.

Humanism would not be where it is today without Tom’s example. There are now Humanist chaplains working on six college and university campuses in the U.S. and serious efforts are underway to allow for Humanist chaplains in the U.S. military. Simultaneously, the idea of community for atheists, agnostics, and Humanists—an idea Tom dedicated his life to—is gaining significant traction all over the world.

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Tom’s contributions extend far beyond Humanism, too. Deb Dawson, Assistant to the Harvard Chaplains, has long spoken about Tom’s role as a powerful advocate for diverse religious communities.

“Tom was not only very endearing and engaging in intellectual conversations,” she said. “He was also responsible for suggesting that the United Ministry [now known as the Harvard Chaplains] invite the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and many other representatives into what was once an ‘exclusive club.’”

Indeed, Tom frequently expressed pride about having pushed the Harvard Chaplains—which, prior to his arrival, had only included mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish representatives—to be more inclusive. He once spoke of the diverse body of chaplains, which today includes nearly 40 members from many different religious and philosophical backgrounds, as a “living example of what is possible.”

Tom’s impact on religious diversity at Harvard was apparent in a recent meeting of the Harvard Chaplains, where many reflected on Tom’s work with great admiration. It was obvious that his influence will be felt for many years to come.

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How do you pay tribute to someone who did so much, for so many people, over so many years? No single reflection could do his life justice. But all of us who have been influenced by him will carry him forward in our work, hoping to mirror even a fraction of his wisdom and compassion in our actions.

A month before Tom’s death, his good friend Joe asked me if I wanted some of Tom’s old suits, saying that Tom wanted them to be of use. I suspect that Tom would grin if he saw me trying them on now—that he would tease me by saying, “There. Now you’re dressing for the job.”

But the suits pale in comparison to Tom’s greatest gift: A trailblazing and generous life of service defined by courage, innovation, and an example of the importance of kindness.

Tom Ferrick’s memorial service is scheduled for March 2 at the Humanist Hub in Harvard Square. Visit harvardhumanist.org for more information, and read his obituary in the Boston Globe.

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