The Faces of Vanderbilt’s Response to COVID-19: Gretchen Person

As Vanderbilt reflects on the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact, we are honoring the dedicated staff, faculty and students who rallied to support our One Vanderbilt mission and ensured that the university adapted amid unprecedented challenges.

Rev. Gretchen Person

Associate university chaplain and associate director of Religious Life

The Rev. Gretchen Person, associate university chaplain and
associate director of Religious Life

“Gretchen was already leading our storytelling program, Narrative 4 story exchanges, which we use as a non-sectarian way to create connection across lines of difference and to develop empathy for different viewpoints. As programs moved online, Gretchen and her team adapted and found a silver lining. In the past our Narrative 4 programs have focused on connecting people on campus. In the virtual context of the pandemic, Gretchen has used Narrative 4 programs to create connections across the United States and around the world. The Vanderbilt N4 student group has hosted exchanges with students at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and at Nile University in Nigeria. In addition, Gretchen has partnered with Global Education to build Vanderbilt community and connection by hosting story exchanges between students on campus and international students who are attending remotely.”

–The Rev. Christopher Ross Donald, Office of Religious Life

How has COVID-19 affected you?

COVID has impacted me in many ways. Emotionally, the thousands upon thousands of deaths in our country and around the world, along with the resulting myriad losses that reverberate through families because of those deaths, make my soul weep. Go Nakamura’s photo of Dr. Varon gently holding a patient on Thanksgiving Day, 2020, at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston is one that is forever etched in my memory. Without words, it speaks volumes.

The Rev. Gretchen Person speaks at Vanderbilt’s vigil for victims of the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka in 2019. (Emily Gonçalves)
The Rev. Gretchen Person speaks at Vanderbilt’s vigil for victims of the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka in 2019. (Emily Gonçalves)

As have countless people, I have missed family celebrations and gatherings and felt the physical pangs of absence from loved ones. Knowing that people with COVID are dying without their family with them weighs on my heart and mind. I’ve pivoted and adapted, as have countless chaplains, to doing ministry on Zoom. I’m grateful for technology and various platforms, even as I miss in-person interactions. COVID has sharpened the focus on economic and health care disparities in our country and has renewed my determination to continue working for positive change. It has shown me again and again the tremendous work that health care providers do and the sacrifices they make to care for us all. This virus has made me more grateful than ever for the researchers and scientists whose expertise and work has given us vaccines.

I must also say that the music of Blair faculty and students has been a source of joy during the pandemic and that Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one piece I’ve turned to for comfort.

What keeps you motivated to help?

My faith and the privilege of serving others keep me moving! I am motivated because I can play a role in helping to influence, in positive ways, the affairs of the world by helping to send into society thoughtful and compassionate students who are committed to interfaith cooperation; devoted to understanding how faith and/or values are important in life; passionate about justice; and dedicated to peace, healing, hospitality, service and sustainability in a religiously pluralistic world.

Who do you step up for?

I’m excited to step up for our VU community each day. My work/ministry includes the privilege of working with and supporting students, faculty, staff, graduate interns and affiliated chaplains. I am excited to have mentored the first cohort of Vanderbilt Interfaith Fellows this year, and I’m eager to see where their professions will lead them. It is always a great joy to advise the Vanderbilt Interfaith Council. This diverse group of students always inspires me with their commitment to interfaith cooperation, to understanding and to creating welcoming spaces.

Walking with those who are grieving loss (of various kinds) is especially important to me. And I’m here for those who are asking questions of meaning, purpose and vocation. I work to cultivate connections, empathy and understanding across lines of difference so that our community and world become ever more just, inclusive and compassionate.