In Times Like These: Dean Warner on Faith and Tragedy
Newly appointed Associate Dean of Students Rick Warner was getting ready for church on Sunday, October 5, when he received the news that Wabash freshman Johnny Smith had passed away early that morning. The tragedy pulled him away from his usual Sunday worship and back to the Wabash campus to deal with the situation.
Three days later, a noticeably tired Dean Warner attended the Wednesday night meeting of the Wabash Christian Men. He thanked the students present for the opportunity to attend and worship with them, and he told them that in the days ahead, the campus would need moral leadership. He had personal as well as professional reasons for attending the meeting. On the professional side, he wanted to reach out to the student leaders to engage them in the oft spoken of “grand conversation.”
“I wanted to make an early connection with guys who I knew would prove to be leaders in the days to come,” he told me in a recent interview. “And it became pretty clear right away—since the president’s Chapel Talk even more—that we’re going to be depending on students to step up and all become leaders…I knew that the Wabash Christian Men was a fairly sizable group of students who I think understand the idea of having a solid moral center.”
But he goes on to explain that his other reason for attending was a bit more personal. “[The death] was pretty hard on me and everyone around who dealt with it,” he tells me. “I actually responded as I was getting ready to go to church on Sunday…I went, perhaps from a selfish perspective, just to be in an environment that would be spiritually supportive.”
Spirituality can take on a special resonance during times of tragedy. American church attendance shot through the roof in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, as it has in other tragedies, only to wane after the sense of urgency had diminished and things seem to return to normal. For many at Wabash too, the initial reaction upon hearing the news of another young freshman’s death was to turn to prayer—for Smith’s family, for the Wabash family, and for their own peace of mind. It is when events prove to be beyond our poor control that the religious impulse is most powerful and pertinent. Much has passed since the initial shock of that Sunday morning—a memorial service, an investigation, a mandatory presidential Chapel Talk—but Wabash men of faith would be remiss in their duties if they let allowed their desire to help the community through this time to pass as well.
And what can they do to help? In my discussion with Dean Warner, he repeatedly urged students to look inward. In his view, the way forward is linked to personal responsibility, which in turn is linked to the Gentleman’s Rule. “All of us need to take a step back and do as President White suggested, and weigh what our personal responsibility might be,” he says.
And there should be no doubt that Dean Warner is committed to the Gentleman’s Rule. He speaks of it almost religiously itself. “The Wabash community, in a sense, operates under a covenant,” he tells me. “It’s a different covenant than perhaps you may read about in the Good Book, or that the pilgrims signed, but we have a covenantal relationship with each other, and that’s something that makes us a little different than a much huger place. But I have a level of responsibility as a member of the community to other members of the community. And most of the time, this really works quite well here. I think we need to relax a minute, and see that it really does work quite well.”
He speaks often of “relaxing a minute” or “taking a step back” and “speaking up for the Gentleman’s Rule.” There has been some pressure since the tragedy last month to rethink the Rule and its implications. Do students at Wabash have too much freedom? Did the Gentleman’s Rule enable this tragedy? Dean Warner says the critics who believe this miss the point. “President White pointed [this] out during the Chapel and has taken some shots against the side,” he says, “because there are a lot of people in this world that don’t understand what it means to hold young men responsible and therefore allow freedom as a result of that.” In his view, President White’s defense of the Gentleman’s Rule was the right one.
For him, the Gentleman’s Rule is not up for negotiation. Any response, he says, “needs to be done in a way that’s respectful to students because that’s who we are. One of the reasons that the Gentleman’s Rule is not on the table—because there are plenty of people that I imagine would like to see it there—is that that is the real basis of our identity. That is who we are.”
When I mention that the public perception of Wabash College among many in Crawfordsville is not that of a particularly pious community, Dean Warner returns to the same theme of taking a step back and looking inward. “Perceptions are important,” he says, “Our standing in the polls may have been shaken…I think, though, that many of us are now thinking that we should perhaps be a little bit less concerned with the perception that the outside world has, and move inside, and think about what we should do, and what’s right.” He then returns to the idea of individual responsibility and suggests that that is where the solution lies: “I think that the perceptions will improve if we can become stronger inside with our own ethical behavior.” This is not to say that outside views should be ignored completely, he is quick to add. “It’s easy to overreact to public perceptions,” he explains, “but I think that they need to be listened to also, because there’s often an element of truth to them.”
He quickly brings the discussion back to the Gentleman’s Rule and explains the folly of getting rid of it. “I know that if we are patient, and if we look within to where we need to work, that the Gentleman’s Rule, in the end, will be a stronger response to this than hiring, say, a bunch of rental cops, for example, to travel in and out of living units. If that happens, you just push the problem underground.”
Dean Warner is able to make parallels between administration policy and his own personal faith. He explains that as a Quaker, he sees a need to “stop the banter of business and mediate upon what right action might be—meditate upon where God may take me, and is asking me—calling me—to behave in a more righteous way.” When I ask him how his personal faith helped him respond to the tragedy, he explains in more detail:
“In my own tradition, we have a term called ‘seasoning,’” he explains, “which means that if you have an idea, rather than acting on it right away, in an impetuous way, maybe it’s better to let it season a little bit, and in the end, if you get some of your other concerns out of the way—your ego, or your desires that may not be as pure…and allow and wait on my God to help me think through a problem, in the end, it always works better. So that’s a principle that I’ve applied because I had to be very patient with all this investigation. And there’s all sorts of things and lots of people to tell us to act now fast, and some of you may think that you’re dragging your feet.” But thoughtful consideration can often be mistaken for feet-dragging, he says. It is better to focus not so much on the loud complaining created by outside perceptions, but on the still, small, inward voice, and then act upon it. “Point of fact, patience can be a real virtue,” he says, and action should take place “when you have the strength and courage” to act in the right way.
Just as Dean Warner relies on his faith to guide him through these tough times, Wabash men of faith should take the time to step back and seek God’s guidance in order to act responsibly. Inherent in the Gentleman’s Rule is the idea that the students are capable of taking care of themselves—capable of making responsible decisions. For Dean Warner, that faith in the student body has not been shaken. He is confident that the students will come together to make Wabash a better place. “I have great faith in the Wabash community in this regard,” he says, “and that is I have seen Wabash students unite when they needed to on many different occasions, and come together…That’s enormously exciting to me as a person of faith because I see people engaging the Eternal Spirit, and I really believe in human potential. I think that we see that powerfully on our campus.”
“I’m very bullish on the future,” he concludes, “mostly because of who our students are.”