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GTU Voices - William D. Glenn Interview | July 2021

William D. Glenn Interview | July 2021

By GTU Communications

On the occasion of being honored with the Outstanding Fundraising Volunteer award by the Association for Fundraising Professionals-Golden Gate Chapter, the GTU sat down for an extended conversation with William D. Glenn, Chair of the Board of Trustees, to learn what motivates his spirit of service, what this award means to him, his new projects, and what inspires and excites him about the GTU’s future. Our exchange has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

GTU: In your own words, who and what has formed you into the person you are today?

William Glenn (WG): I’m from a large Irish-Catholic family in the Midwest, one of eight kids. I went to a Jesuit prep school and a Jesuit University, and then I entered the Jesuits and was a Jesuits for nearly 10 years. I left the Society just before what would have been my ordination. At the time, I was at the GTU studying at the Jesuit School of Theology [now the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University]. 

In very short order, I got sober, which was a necessary step to have a human life; I came out of the closet, which was an equally necessary step, so as not to deteriorate, psychologically. I left the Jesuits the following spring of ’79, when I began a new life in the Bay Area.

I was an educator for 10 years. I was the principal at an all-Black school in Oakland, and then the dean of a large, multi-cultural Catholic high school in San Francisco. I went back to school and got a degree in Clinical Psychology. I opened a practice as a psychotherapist in 1986. I was a therapist for the next 35 years, having recently retired from this what I regard as a privileged and sacred work.

During that time, I took a series of breaks. I led a wrap-around services healthcare organization in the Tenderloin for seven years. We took care of people who were triple diagnosed: late-stage HIV disease, addicted to drugs and mentally ill, and often living on the streets. It was a wonderful place to work at a really important time.  

I had gotten very involved in the AIDS epidemic early on: in 1984, our friends suddenly began to die. Out of moral necessity, I determined to do my part. I went on the Board of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, eventually became its president—at a relatively young age, in my thirties. For perspective, of the eight men who had helped me celebrate my thirty-second birthday, within ten years all were dead but one.

After 15 years working in the AIDS epidemic, I pivoted and spent the next ten years as a volunteer with Insight Out, leading a men’s group for lifers at San Quentin State Penitentiary. No work I have done has been as life changing and life affirming as with these hidden bodhisattvas at the San Quentin.    

I have learned an enormous amount in my adult life, relying on the fine preparation I received as a Jesuit. I’ve raised money for close to 40 years, but it was not a career. It was a requirement to do the necessary work I felt called to do. And I became, as I found out, pretty good at it. I did so because the causes I raise money for I care about, deeply. I raise money for the persons the organizations serve, for their needs, and I was able to communicate that effectively to donors.

As a result of the increasingly pastoral nature of my work, at 50, I came back to the GTU to finish the Master of Divinity [degree] I had started 20 plus years earlier at JST. I went to PSR [Pacific School of Religion] where my husband, Scott Hafner, was the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. We had been among the co-founders of the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies in Religion at PSR, so we had a deep history there. Many years later, the Board of PSR asked if I would serve on the Board of GTU.

Those have been the major public commitments of my adult life.

I’m going to diverge and tell you about the major influences of my life. There are four persons who have had the most formative effect on me. My great teacher is Thomas Merton, the Cistercian Monk, who has been my constant companion since high school. I think I’ve read the whole compendium of Merton, including his voluminous books of letters. He has been crucial in the formation of my interior life.

The Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist and cosmologist, has impacted me largely and differently than Merton. He’s not an intimate to my interior life, but he looms large in giving me a perspective that I can’t get on my own, particularly regarding the virtue of hope. He had the capacity to apprehend the energy of evolution at the heart of creation, propelling it into what he called the noosphere, a full integration of the creative act into unification with the divine. Hence, all materiality, including human beings, he understood as sacred. Breathtaking!

As a therapist, I was most influenced by Carl Jung, maybe my most expansive teacher. He has shaped the way I am in the world, not only as a psychologist but as a person, as a friend, a brother, a mentor, sometimes a confessor. His understanding of not just the human psyche, but of the phenomenon around and within human beings, has really touched me. He and Teilhard de Chardin are in some kind of symbiotic relationship!

And, finally, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has impacted my life profoundly. Like these others, he still does. My commitment to social justice has been shaped and modeled by him. He’s not so current in our conversations right now about race and social justice, but we wouldn’t be having these conversations without him.

I retired from my professional life two years ago to write a book, which is now in the hands of its first potential publisher. It’s called I Came Here Seeking a Person: Notes from the Interior. In the book, I take 30 incidents from my life, epiphanies, dreams, a word, a look, the presence of a person, something I heard, which moved my life in a slightly different or in an extraordinarily large direction. 

I put these events in larger context, and then reflect on them by inviting the reader to recognize and trust these movements of grace in their own lives, over against how we might have been trained or stifled or suffocated by cultural norms, both religious and secular, which deny us the understanding of the presence of the divine within us.

“I came here seeking a person”—the person I am called to be, the person you are, and the divine You. Those are the three persons I have come seeking. I’m still seeking.

 

GTU: You have extensive and robust involvement serving communities in the Bay Area. How did you get started in volunteering? Where did that spirit of service come from?

WG: The Jesuits are extremely mission driven, and they invite the quirks of human personality to realize their mission. I went to a Jesuit prep school and there were little Christian communities called sodalities, and I joined, and learned some rudiments. I grew up in Omaha, and we were sent into North Omaha, where the Black community lived, and I worked with kids there. I loved being there. In the Jesuits, we were sent on many different missions: I taught on Native American Reservations, at a Jesuit prep school, in the inner city of St. Louis, a very beleaguered city, and as a Jesuit I did my first work in the Tenderloin.

When I came out of the closet, I had spent many years reflecting on pervasive and insidious homophobia and, in the process, I learned an enormous amount about trauma and what happens when individuals are stifled at the spiritual, psychological, and emotional level. It increased in me an enormous amount of empathy for people who suffer. 

I also co-led a group for years at San Quentin State Prison. The men I worked with—mostly Black and brown men—almost all of whom had taken a human life. For ten years, I co- led a three-hour weekly group, addressing the soul-lacerating experiences they had each had.  There were many spiritually and emotionally processed men in that group, and I learned so much. Over the years working together, I came to experience a deep love for these men, these persons

That work was among the most gratifying work I’ve done. The AIDS epidemic was in a real sense an obligation, par excellence. But working in prison came out of the blue, like things do in life that are meaningful. It was the place for me to be. I had gifts to bring, I knew that. But the men, they gifted me, profoundly, and they changed me.

The things we're called to do, we're called to do them, ostemsibly, to provide service. But we're really called to do them to be cured ourselves—in the sense of a ham is cured by being hung on a hook in a smoke house, for years, while it is made ready. It can’t be cured unless it’s hung up on that hook. Similarly, the works we do cure us—not from our ills, but from our egos, and from our enormous privilege and presumption.

That’s my best answer to why I do the things I do. I really love them, I love the work I’ve done, and I love the people I work with—holding in your arms men dying of AIDS— it shudders normal life. Sitting with a man who surrenders his profound shame at SQ [San Quentin State Prison], it quakes you, and it takes you to a place of profound privilege and awareness. I’m very grateful for my life trajectory, and the things I’ve been invited to do.

 

GTU: What does being named Outstanding Fundraising Volunteer of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals-Golden Gate Chapter (AFP-GGC) mean to you? 

BG: When [I heard] the news, I laughed out loud. This must be a mistake, I thought. I have been raising money for a long-time and I’ve raised a lot of money. But I looked at the list of celebrated past honorees, and this award is counter-intuitive for me, totally.

My husband and I have led three capital campaigns. One for Continuum, the agency I ran. We raised money and built a building for these abandoned women and men in the Tenderloin. Later, we were asked to chair the PSR Boldness capital campaign, and we raised a significant amount of money for PSR. Horizons Foundation, the LGBT+ community foundation, asked us to lead a capital campaign six years ago. We raised north of $125 million in endowed gifts for those in need in our beloved community. All three of those campaigns were for organizations we love, and we are endeared to their missions.

I’m honored by this award, and I’ll speak about my experience working for those whose needs are enormous and who have such limited ability to address them. The root of philanthropy is philia—the notion of sister-brotherhood, in Greek—which is a sublime motivation, caring for our sisters and brothers.

 

GTU: In both professional and philanthropic capacities, you have been involved in deeply personal ventures. How does your involvement with the GTU fit into that?

WG: I care very much about the GTU’s interreligious mission. I see its potential for being a place where the enormous problems of the world can be spoken to in a rational and thoughtful and even loving way. We are contributing to the spiritual welfare of the world. Why else do this work?

I work with Uriah Kim, who I am very fond of and respect very much—his leadership style, his breadth of concern, and his humility. I would describe him with a word that isn’t used so much anymore, but he’s a gentleman, somewhat exceptional in our current culture.  It defined a certain kind of male who is circumspect, balanced, respectful, thoughtful, and genuine. I love working with Uriah, and I get to work with a great Board.

My spiritual life is the integrative force in my life. It’s something I attend to, I trouble, I’m devoted to, I question, I become apostate about. But it’s the riveting feature of my life, and that’s been true since I was very young.

I have a very attenuated spiritual life, and what I noticed at the GTU is that a lot of people do. A lot of people [there] don’t fit in in any one clear file folder. There’s a desire here to have a conversation at the deepest level about what it means to be a human, a creature in relationship with that which we can’t quite name, but we choose many names for. I choose the name ‘Divine’ because it seems less encumbered than the word ‘God.’ 

My intellectual life is a big part of my spiritual life. I’m always reading spiritual writers. And the GTU seems like a place where this is taken with the utmost seriousness.

The longer I’m here, the more faculty I get to know. I meet incredible human beings on this faculty. They could be doing anything with their lives because they’re really gifted, and they choose to do this deeply thoughtful work exploring the presence of the Divine and how that is manifest—particularly in the demands of justice that come from every religious tradition. That’s where I’ve gotten the impetus for this work. I’m honored to do it.

 

GTU: What excites and inspires you about the GTU’s future at this time of rapid change and responsibility for theological higher education?

WG: The integrity of the Board, the quality of our executive leadership, the Strategic Vision, and our work to become an even more inclusive and just institution. GTU 2.0 has given me renewed hope. It’s a vision that plants us both into a mission future and a financial future, and they’re complimentary. We are going to understand ourselves increasingly as a place where this necessary dialogue happens, and we’re going to engage lots of people, beyond academic specialists, who can come and engage with us. 

That place doesn’t quite exist in the Bay Area, in the United States, and perhaps beyond, where all the major world religions have placed a stake in the ground together to create an interreligious academic program that fosters dialogue and praxis, honors the spirituality at the heart of each tradition, and provides potential solutions to the problems we face. As we continue to work toward pulling it off—and the future is not guaranteed—I think we will have done a tremendous thing for the world.

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