- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) - There is little about how Hastings College chaplain Damen Heitmann conducts his ministry that would fall under the umbrella of conventional.

For starters, unlike his predecessor, the Rev. David McCarthy, the 32-year-old minister - who assumed his position in July - is not a member of the faculty. It’s a distinction he notes with a twinge of favor, one he believes may render him more approachable to students.

“The chaplain’s job is - at least in part - to form open and honest relationships with students,” he told the Hastings Tribune. “It’s a lot easier to do that if they don’t have to worry about how you are going to grade them on something.”

Committed to the environment and a believer in exercise, he hopes to incorporate both passions into his ministry at some point. His unconventional lesson plan includes a series of chapel services devoted to environmental preservation, emphasizing how being a good steward of the Earth can help set one right in relationship with God and his creation.

“The series will focus on paying really careful attention to how we’re living on the planet,” he said. “We’ll be hearing about these environmental concerns from a faith perspective.

“If I can figure it out, I would also like to do an outdoor service on bicycles or walking, to encourage people to get out and look at this stuff. Faith isn’t right here in this particular spot (chapel), it’s everywhere you go. In the same way, it should really inform all aspects of your life. And I really want it to end up at Dairy Queen so I can have an ice cream treat!”

As one with a fascination for so many different facets of life, Heitmann’s palette is filled with the colors of imagination and infinite possibility, elements he believes are essential to the development of teen minds looking to make a difference in the world. And while he doesn’t claim to have all the answers quite yet, his focus as chaplain is to encourage students to bring inquisitive minds and open hearts into each and every undertaking in their lives. To that end, he has introduced a question-and-answer series on video, “Questions Siri Can’t Answer,” in collaboration with Hastings College student Mason Lindbloom.

The series of three-minute short stories shown during chapel services features interviews conducted on campus with students and staff, with responses given to a series of questions that delve into such relevant topics as to who a person chooses to trust in life and why.

“I want chapel services to be a place where students can participate in the message in some way,” he said. “Whether it’s having a quick discussion with the person sitting next to you, or a space for them to ask big, important questions in life. I want to help people do that.

“The thing that excites me about being here at Hastings College is the opportunity to work with students whose job it is to be curious and ask questions. I’m excited about getting to have these conversations with students, because it’s hard to think of more important questions than these. It’s fun to journey with people as they consider these things and move out into the world in whatever way, shape or form that might be for them.”

Lending credence to his normalcy are some of his college-friendly hobbies, which include: brewing dark beer in small quantities at home; playing video games, including his latest find, “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor,” based on the “Lord of the Rings” series by J.R.R. Tolkein; and playing acoustic folk rock songs on guitar. And while his affinity for good beer may set him at odds with some conservative Christians, Heitmann has found his brewing hobby to be more of an ice breaker than anything else. And setting people at ease is often the best way to open doors to new friendships.

“It seems to be a relief to a lot of people,” he said. “It makes me relatable in some ways, I think. It sort of sends the message to folks that, ‘OK, I don’t have to worry about everything I say or do in front of this person.’”

That isn’t to say ministry is strictly fun and games to Heitmann, whose upbringing as the youngest of three children born to David and Karen Heitmann of Victor, Iowa, revolved around participation in church activities. As one looking to be “all things to all men,” as the apostle Paul endorses in his letter to the Corinthians, he is forever striving to walk that fine line that separates frivolity from fervency: a time for every purpose under Heaven.

“I’m laid-back, easygoing and have a sense of humor, and really like sarcasm,” Heitmann said. “But I also know when to take things seriously and how to really pay attention to things that need to be paid attention to. My goal is to have a presence on campus that students recognize as open and approachable, one who is able to maintain confidences and is willing to take them seriously.”

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Information from: Hastings Tribune, http://www.hastingstribune.com

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