Fr. Christopher Steck, S.J., wears many hats here at Georgetown.
As a theology professor and a member of the university’s Jesuit Community for the past eight years and as a chaplain for the past seven, Steck took on a unique role on campus reserved only for those with the right combination of responsibility and playfulness – taking care of Georgetown’s best friend, Jack. In an interview with THE HOYA, Steck discusses each of these three roles, and offers some insights on how to become a member of the Jack Crew.
How long have you been a Jesuit here at Georgetown?
I came in August of 1999, so that would make this my ninth year. I entered the Jesuits in 1983.
Is there a particular topic you are currently researching?
I came here focusing on Christian and Catholic ethics. Since Georgetown has begun to get involved with inter-religious dialogue, the theology department is starting a Ph.D program in religious pluralism. I wanted to get involved with that conversation, so that led to me doing more work in the area of Islam and Islamic ethics. I know a lot more than I did two years ago, but there is still so much to learn. The idea is that I will be able to do some work in comparative engagements between Christian ethics and Islamic approaches to them.
How do you think the new doctoral program will affect the theology department?
That is a conversation that comes up a lot in the theology department. The concern of a lot of the faculty was if we would dilute or undermine what we do with undergraduate education. The theology department takes pride, and thinks that it does a good job with undergraduate education. People did not want to see that hurt by a focus of resources on graduate programs. The counter argument was that the conversations we could have around doctorial courses and students would be helpful to us, in our research and in our conversation with on another.
How long have you been taking care of Jack?
Ever since he got here in the summer of 2003.
The students who walk Jack are a very spirited crew – how did the Jack Crew get formed?
Early on I tried to get students to help me and I had success, but then more and more people wanted to walk him. I started to look for criteria to help me to decide who was going to walk Jack each semester because it was overwhelming to get all theses e-mails about if I can walk him today or can I walk him next week. Every semester we have a crew who is in place for the semester. One of the criteria is that the walker should be involved with some spirit group; I feel that the best people who have walked Jack in the past have been dedicated to Georgetown. He represents something for these students who have shown that they love Georgetown. It is not a cut and dry criteria. They have to fill out an application but they also have to be able to sing the fight song. They have to pull something out of Jack’s mouth because Jack goes around swallowing a lot of stuff he shouldn’t, and I need to know they are comfortable pulling it out. Jack has this obsession with cones, so they need to show they can walk by a cone without having Jack attack the cone.
What’s it like taking care of him?
It had become more time consuming then I thought. There got to be expectations of people wanting the dog for different events. It got to the point where I could not handle it. . A year ago I got the head of the Jack Crew to organize all of that and now that it is a little off my desk it has become a normal joy and delight rather than this consuming thing I need to do. Now most of my life in regards to the dog is petting him in the evening and playing around with him, which is what a pet is supposed to be. It is still demanding, but now it is more of a controlled thing.
How long have you been a Chaplain in New South?
I stayed here from the fall of 2000 until the fall of 2003 when the Southwest Quad opened and I moved into Reynolds. I was there for two years – as a sophomore dorm it was very, very quiet. When this apartment became open I asked around if anyone else was going to move in and it seemed like nobody else was so I volunteered because I like working with freshmen.
You have a very unique perspective. You are a professor to students, but also get to live among them in the dorm. How is that experience?
It has its hard moments and its funny moments. Funny moments [were] when students told me things that because I live on campus and perhaps live in the same dorm I might find out or see that is not true. Like if they went home this weekend or not. It is a little problematic sometimes; it is not always easy teaching students that you know in a neutral way and then to be the person who has to be their taskmaster. Also, as a person who teaches in the theology department, I will have students who come up to me about their reading in other courses, and I like that conversation, it can be stimulating.
How would you define your role as a chaplain in a freshman dorm, where students are just beginning their college experiences?
One of the reasons I moved to New South was because I thought I could do more with freshmen as opposed to upperclassmen. For freshmen, the first semester in particular is challenging: if the relationships do not work out, if they do not find the right group to be a part of, if they are having roommate issues or if they have disappointments in academic results. They come here and they do not have their old support network, they do not have their parents or high-school friends. All these things are gone. A lot of what I end up talking to students about are not spiritual or moral issues but relationship issues, and helping them see the bigger picture and not to be upset about the bumps on the road.
– Interview by Jimmy Wade