December 18, 2015

University of Virginia English professor Michael Suarez once wore his priest’s collar to class, having just finished presiding at a funeral.

“I got a lot of stares,” he recalled.

Suarez, who also directs UVA’s Rare Book School, has been a Jesuit priest for 21 years. He is one of several faculty members who balance academic responsibilities with leadership roles in religious congregations. Like his colleagues, Suarez is careful to distinguish between his academic and religious roles while capitalizing on how the two enhance each other.

“Part of the power of the University as a community of diverse thinking is having people with many religious points of view,” he said. “For me, the work that I do as an explicit leader of a faith community presiding at liturgy and the work that I do as a professor in the English department are mutually enriching.”

UVA Today caught up with Suarez and a few of his colleagues to learn more.

Michael Suarez

Suarez is a Roman Catholic priest at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Charlottesville. He entered the Jesuit order – an all-male priesthood within the Catholic Church – as a 22-year-old college graduate, and studied and trained for 12 years before his ordination in 1994.

“I very much like the spirituality of finding God in all things, one of the hallmarks of the Jesuit order,” Suarez said. “Jesuits have traditionally been bridge builders between the intellectual life and the spiritual life. They have always taught, from the 16th century onward, that the two are not inimical, but rather that the incarnation of God as Jesus calls us to a profound engagement with what is authentically human.”

Before coming to UVA, Suarez lived in community with other Jesuits for 27 years, presiding over a parish in Oxford, England for 15 years after his ordination. He sought similar spiritual community in Charlottesville, in church and on Grounds.

“The University affords opportunities for spiritual conversations of various kinds, often when students are facing tragedy in their lives,” Suarez said.

UVA founder Thomas Jefferson famously disapproved of the Jesuits. (He called their reemergence during his presidency “a step backwards from light into darkness.”) However, Suarez believes that Jefferson would approve of the many religious perspectives welcomed on Grounds today.

“I am very proud to be part of a community that honors Jefferson’s vision of pluriformity of religious perspective, and happy to contribute what little I can to it,” he said.

Dr. Emaad Abdel-Rahman and Dr. Saher Sabri

Dr. Emaad Abdel-Rahman, a professor of clinical internal medicine, and Dr. Saher Sabri, an associate professor of radiology, have each served on the board of the Charlottesville-based Islamic Society of Central Virginia. Abdel-Rahman currently serves as president, a role he has held several times during the past 20 years.

“It follows the same mission I have as a physician at UVA – trying to help people as much as I can,” Abdel-Rahman said of his role in the Islamic Society. “In both jobs, you are trying to save lives and improve quality of life, within your limited capabilities.”

Sabri previously served as the society’s religious activity coordinator and helps organize activities with other local faith groups. He recently returned from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which “gave me a great sense of what we can do as a community,” he said.

“Many members of our community are in flux – a lot of students, residents, fellows and new faculty coming to UVA, as well as refugees,” Sabri said. “It is important to help them feel welcome, mentor them and show them that they have a home where they can practice their religion freely.”

The Islamic Society conducts daily prayer services; offers tutoring, education programming and Arabic lessons; and helps lead many interfaith charity projects, such as Habitat for Humanity and IMPACT Cville, an interfaith social justice organization.

“Practicing our religion in Mr. Jefferson’s town, where religious freedom started, that is very important to us and we appreciate the fact that everyone is encouraged to practice their religion freely and without prejudice,” Sabri said.

Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs, a religious studies professor, was ordained as a rabbi three years ago. Several former students who had become rabbis participated in the ceremony and many UVA colleagues were present.

It would have been impossible for Ochs to become a rabbi as a young woman in her denomination, so she worked as a writer and academic. She was also a Jewish feminist leader, one of a group of academics seeking to expand female leadership in the religion. She has been especially interested in giving Jewish women the right to enter into advanced study of sacred texts and to fully participate in prayer services in all places, including the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“Our advantage was that Jewish feminists who were professors in secular universities had a lot of freedom to work autonomously as scholars without worrying about what we were permitted to say,” she said. “We used both scholarly and religious skills to investigate what changes were possible, how change could happen and how we could be change agents.”

Today, Ochs said, there has been “an enormous amount of change and growth.” Most Jewish denominations allow women to become rabbis and fulfill other leadership roles.

“When I act in my capacity as a rabbi, officiating at weddings or funerals, teaching or participating as a leader in worship and rituals, I am aware that these privileges are so very new,” she said.

Heather Warren

Associate religious studies professor Heather Warren is a minister at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, located directly across University Avenue from the Rotunda.

“I have always been intellectually curious about the way people lead their lives, which almost always involves a religious question,” Warren said. “I am interested, historically, in how people have done this, which is why I study and teach American religious history. I am also fascinated with how people do this today. As a minister, I walk with people through their lives, through some of their most significant questions.”

Warren originally was ordained in the United Methodist Church, but switched to the Episcopal Church because she was uncomfortable with some theological changes in the Methodist church and could not continue in ordained ministry having come out as a gay person.

In addition to leading worship on Sundays at St. Paul’s, Warren is involved with the Clinical Pastoral Education program at the UVA Medical Center, teaching future ministers and chaplains how best to care for those dealing with a health crisis.

“It is always, always a privilege to care for someone in that situation,” she said.

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

University News Associate Office of University Communications