University Chaplain Joe Eldridge Looks Back at 19 Years at AU

Originally published online by the Eagle in April 2016.

University Chaplain Reverend Joe Eldridge will retire from American in May after 19 years of service, during which he established the alternative break program, aided in the creation of the School of International Service master’s program in Social Enterprise and fostered friendships with countless students and colleagues.

Eldridge took on the role of University Chaplain in 1997 as he was seeking a change from his lifelong dedication to international human rights advocacy. Eldridge began a masters degree at AU in the 1970s and was ordained in the same decade. He said he was surprised to have ever gotten the job as chaplain given his lack of experience.

“I wanted to do something different, and this job opened up,” he said. “I applied for it, and to my astonishment, I was selected, not having had any prior experience as a chaplain.”

He said he took the next natural step and asked a colleague, Brien McCarthy, the school’s former Catholic chaplain, what a chaplain actually does in a university setting.

“He said, ‘A chaplain loiters with intent,’” Eldridge said. “That’s a pretty good job description. I took that job description very seriously.”

Eldridge’s laughter filled his bright office in the basement of Kay Spiritual Life Center as he recalled that conversation with McCarthy. But his numerous accomplishments in almost two decades of service to AU show that he has done much more than loiter around Kay.

In 1998, he arranged the first alternative break trip to an area in Honduras that had been devastated by Hurricane Mitch. Eldridge was well-connected to the community after living in Honduras for three years and he garnered student support for the trip to help the country with their relief efforts.

On that first trip, he said the group camped in tents on a soccer field in a village with no running water or electricity. On their first night in the country, it rained so hard that they woke up with three inches of water in their tents. But the program continued to grow with two alternative breaks the following year and four the year after that — a rate of increase that Eldridge credits to the students.

“The students not only want to study the world, they want to change the world,” he said.

AU’s alternative break program is now nationally recognized as a model for universities around the country, Eldridge said, because of its commitment to social justice advocacy.

Despite his prominent impact on programs at AU, Eldridge said his proudest accomplishment has been his ability to build and maintain friendships with students and faculty members.

“I have worked for the most remarkable people in the world — the most committed, dedicated, smart, able people in the world,” he said. “[The Office of] Campus Life is a very nurturing, supportive environment in which one works, and in which one is privileged to work.”

He said he feels both nostalgia and gratitude as he departs from AU, but plans to remain involved with the school in some capacity as a volunteer.

“It was a magnificent opportunity for me, so I am filled with gratitude for the privilege of being able to be here for as long as I’ve been here,” he said.

As for his retirement, Eldridge is looking forward to the simple things in life.

“I want to spend more time reading the papers,” he said. “You can’t be fully present as a human being unless you know what’s happening in the world — the brokenness, the suffering, as well as the times when communities pull together and achieve something significant.”

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