‘A Sharp Mind and an Open Heart’: Davidson College Welcomes New Chaplain
Author: Angie Rice-Figueroa
So much of what drew Julia Watkins ’14 to Davidson College as a high school senior is exactly what is tugging her back now as the college’s new chaplain and director of the Religious and Spiritual Life Office.
“I found this to be a collaborative rather than competitive environment,” Watkins said, “a community where people are here to support one another. I could imagine myself here from the get-go, where relationships could be built in such a small, intimate community.”
The Atlanta native arrived at Davidson with an interest in campus ministry. After visiting different campus ministries during her first semester, friends invited her back to both Westminster Fellowship, now UKirk, and the weekly ecumenical worship service run by the Chaplains’ Office. Those personal invitations helped her connect with the groups that would become her spiritual homes throughout college. She emerged as a leader, working alongside and forming a bond with Rob Spach ’84, who is retiring after three decades as College Chaplain. That experience continues to shape her views of communities of faith and how she sees God.
“Julia’s caring and thoughtful approach is immediately apparent, and we are confident that religious and spiritual life at Davidson will flourish under her leadership,” said Byron McRae, vice president for student life and dean of students. “Her emphasis on and vision for interfaith initiatives is impressive and stood out to the search committee.”
Watkins, who earned a bachelor of science in psychology with an Arab studies minor, grew up in the Methodist Church and became involved with interfaith initiatives as a college student. Arab studies were a big influence on her early interfaith interests. Through education abroad programs she spent a summer in Jordan with a Christian host family and a semester in Morocco with a Muslim host family. She said being a religious minority in those international contexts was impactful and contributed significantly to her professional life.
Watkins also took part in a Chaplains’ Office spring break trip to a monastic community in Taizé, France.
“Julia has a kind, joyful, open spirit and a playful sense of humor that I expect will endear her to students right away,” said Spach. “She’s a bridge-builder who will both engage thoughtfully with Christian students with a range of backgrounds and beliefs, and actively support students of every religious tradition in their own faith and practice.”
As a student, Watkins eyed several post-collegiate career paths. The ministry was not one of them. She was exploring roles at nonprofits or a stint with Teach for America. Faith and service, though, had always mattered to her.
Early in the first semester of her senior year, she learned of a Charlotte group that offers a year-long program in the seminary specifically for people who don’t think they’re going into professional ministry. Participants gain exposure to theological education, at a minimum, all the way up to being ordained Presbyterian pastors. After a winding journey through seminary, Watkins eventually did feel called. She earned a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. She has since held pastoral and board positions with churches and faith-based community organizations in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania.
We need leaders who help us to see the humanity in others and to appreciate the religious and spiritual backgrounds that they contribute to our campus community. We are exceptionally fortunate to have Julia join us with the strength of her experience in partnerships across different faiths and communities.
Davidson College President Doug Hicks ’90
She comes to Davidson from her role as associate pastor for outreach and congregational life at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, where her responsibilities range from visitor and new member welcome, adult faith formation groups, and church-wide gatherings to local and global partnerships. At the heart of these roles is connection.
“A large part of current and former roles in the Charlotte area were building community partnerships,” Watkins said. “There’s so much we can focus on that divides us from people of other faiths, but in my mind, hands-on service is an opportunity to connect and work together from a place of shared purpose. When I work with people from other congregations, it’s our faith that’s motivating us in different ways. It’s powerful to engage with people who have different experiences but share the same driving purpose—to love their communities, to love one another and to participate in work that renders the world a better place.”
Her work has been significant and meaningful to her current congregation and, while they’re proud that she will embark on this new journey, she will be missed.
“Julia’s gifts are numerous: she thinks well theologically, she has a sharp mind and an open heart, she will appreciate the diversity of religious and spiritual places in which students at Davidson find themselves, she is compassionate and cares well for others in times of need, and she is a splendid colleague,” said Ben Dorr, Westminster Presbyterian Church pastor. “While we are deeply saddened to see her leave Westminster, we are also immensely grateful for the ripple effects that she leaves within the life of our church. She will be a tremendous leader and a wonderful addition to the Davidson community.”
Watkins plans to begin her new role by meeting with people, listening, connecting with students and staff, and building relationships, which is at the heart of the Davidson community and especially the Chaplains’ Office.
“The Davidson community has maintained the integrity of humane instincts and lives of leadership of service and kindness and all of those things that really stuck out to me when I was a high school senior considering colleges,” Watkins said. “I’m conscious that I’ve changed. Davidson has changed and the world has changed since I graduated. I would say my posture toward this experience is one of gratitude for the deep knowledge and experience I already have with Davidson. And humility in the face that I have a lot to learn about what Davidson is now and who is a part of Davidson now. So, that will be a process of discovery and I’m looking forward to it.”