We build bridges, not fences: Reverend David Sheen
University Chaplain Rev David Sheen discusses his work building friendships and breaking barriers
Stereotypes are not always true. Not many religious people are actually narrow-minded and judgmental. Take Anglican Priest and Cardiff University Chaplain, The Reverend David Sheen, who organises events throughout the year to promote friendship, inclusivity and wellbeing among students.
“There’s a lot of fear out there and fear is formed when we often don’t understand or recognise ‘the other’,” David poses. “When the bonds of friendship and understanding are built it breaks down that fear.”
Sitting in the University Chaplaincy common room, a warm and inviting area with a large window looking out onto the business of the student high-street, David looks comfortable, relaxing into one of the large sofas. He’s had this job for over three years now, so it’s no wonder he feels at home.
David works alongside a team of chaplains representing a variety of faiths, but he assures that each chaplain is there to support anyone and everyone. Pastorally, they provide each person they encounter with the same non-judgmental and positive outlook. In fact, they guide a lot of interfaith work, encouraging students of faith, or non-faith, to talk to each other about their beliefs.
“The idea is about sharing our narrative, sharing our story,” explains David. “It’s about sharing our faiths so that we can both learn something.”
David organises many one off inter faith events throughout the year, but mostly his work focuses on running weekly gatherings. Weekly evening talks, £1 lunches and drop-in cafes mean that David sees hundreds of students and staff. He claims that his contribution may be little (although judging by the amount of work he does, it surely can’t be) but that what impact he does make encourages a positive, open and honest experience.
Of course, David had many experiences before becoming University Chaplain. Nostalgia kicks in as he tells the tale of his journey to the present day, a warm smile on his face.
Attending university in Coventry, David studied physiotherapy and then worked for the NHS for several years. For part of this time, he didn’t consider himself an overly devout Christian, but after falling in love, starting a family and finding a local church, he felt the tone had been set for what was to come next. There was no ‘blinding light experience’ but after several years he realised that perhaps he was being called to ministry.
David whizzes through the list of events that followed – read Theology at Cardiff, was ordained a Deacon, went to a Parish and became a priest a year later, completed a part time Masters, served for 10 years in three different parishes in Cowbridge, served in Penarth; served near Pontypridd, and finally applied for his current position.
David grins, remembering his time in Cowbridge, rushing down country roads to get from church to church.
“It was the only place where I could genuinely say, ‘sorry I was late for this service, there were sheep in the road’! It wouldn’t be the first time that I’d had to jump out the car in my cassock and herd sheep”.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that David has settled down completely now that he is University Chaplain. He plans to do a part time PhD with the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff, working alongside his role as chaplain. Clearly David enjoys being busy and working his hardest to feel fulfilled in his life.
David seems down to earth, wise, and easy to talk to. In the hour spent at the chaplaincy with him, conversation passes from inter faith work, to LGBT+ inclusion, to rights for people living with HIV in the 80s. The topic then falls onto politics, America and Brexit, in what David terms as a good thing as well as a bad thing. Telling the story of an Indian friend who has lived in the UK for 20 years and has recently received racial hatred for the first time, David looks frustrated.
“What’s been revealed is something ugly, but was obviously already present. So in a sense it’s a good thing, we now recognise that there are things to be constantly guarded against. You can’t actually take homophobia, racism, islamophobia or whatever, and make it suddenly go away.”
In these testing times, David keeps a positive outlook. His claims the university is one of the best places to disembowel hatred, with a rich and diverse variety of students, open to education and confronting deep issues. Likewise, the current political climate gives David even more to strive for with his aims as chaplain.
“When people become friends they enter different levels of conversation, like politics, or other pressing issues that people often fear or turn away from. Actually, these are very important topics that a large number of people take very seriously, and so we must not shy away.”