By: Vicky Liu ‘20, Staff Writer
As students, we know our teachers best as educators. We are often oblivious to the other enthralling aspects of their lives which occupy the time during which they aren’t in their offices grading our papers! An interesting phenomenon among our Upper School faculty is that there are a few teachers who are members of the clergy in their respective religions: Bill Darling, the Math Department Chair; John Gruber, science teacher; Al Verrocchio, English Department Chair and Sexuality Educator; and Jim Rosengarten, History Department Chair. While all of these gentlemen are spiritual leaders of some kind, their practices differ greatly from each other. As part of their duties, some guide themselves towards the “divine illumination,” while others reflect on the power of stillness to surroundings or witness couples enter the halls of marriage. One thing they all have in common, though, is a keen appreciation of life’s beauty and a firm belief in and gratitude for both their work and faith.
Mr. Darling was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1978 after his graduation from
Princeton Seminary. He served two small parishes in Granville, a town in Northern New York for three years. After that, he worked at a school in Connecticut for a year and served a Congregational parish as a part-time minister. In the mid-‘90s, however, Mr. Darling left the Presbyterian church and resigned his post to become a Quaker. He has been a Quaker ever since. He confesses that he was drawn to convert to Quakerism because of the unique style of worship it offers: “I know there’s a divine presence that is helping me heal myself each day.” The unique magnet of Quakerism, according to Mr. Darling, is that if you listen, God will speak to you. As George Fox said of Quakerism, “Christ came to teach his people himself.” A priest or minister can’t tell people what God wants, nor does a priest or minister have a “holier” connection with the Lord than any other believer. Instead, in the Quaker religion, it is believed that each individual has his or her own connection to God.
While many would argue that there’s no divinity in parabolas or two-column proofs, Mr. Darling explains that he finds ways to infuse his love of religion into his current profession: “Talking about [spirituality with students] has been a continuation of what I see as a minister. In many ways, I’ve continued my ministry in my years at the school.” His background allows him to serve as a mentor, and personally guide some of his students who are struggling. He summarizes, “Lots of our struggles are the spiritual struggles that are in each person.” He then mentions how the Quaker ideology continues to affect the way he lives his daily life: “When I get distracted, I don’t spend time [on my faith]. The connection gets weaker. When I spend the time, the connection gets strong. For Quakers, it’s about getting rid of anything that distracts you.” Mr. Darling believes his strength comes from the experience of his inner-Christ. He elaborates, “Spiritual presence is what gives strength in grounding I held.”
Another ordained upper school faculty member is Mr. Gruber, a Zen Buddhist.
In December 2014, he was named a Beginner Priest and now holds the title of Senior Priest, or a “Denkai” in Zen. He talks about his practices: “Its center is about meditation. It helps us to be present and aware of things that happened in the inner and outer world, and to be mindful.” He observes the overlaps between Zen Buddhism and Quakerism by mentioning that Quakerism and Zen both encourage people to keep their promises, to be honest, and to not deceive people. However, Zen has higher requirements on the maintaining of stillness. Mr. Gruber highlights, “When you’ve done this meditation a lot, you are not restricting moving. You are in very soft posture like a rock and a mountain - perfectly present but very still, not sleeping.”
When asked about how religion influences him day-to-day, Mr. Gruber responds, “Everyday when I wake up, there’s some work that I can do.” He believes that by being a Zen Buddhist, he gains a deep appreciation of the world. He continues, “We realize that life is fragile and time is finite. We most appreciate having conversations. How lucky we are to have the life we have.” Moreover, Mr. Gruber gains patience in the practices of inner-peace. He expresses, “Things can be difficult in all of us in different times. [We should] not let difficulties throw us [but] persevere, be present, [and] not avoid or skip them.” He is also calm and faithful while encountering others’ difficulties. He shares, “It’s my practice to help relieve the suffering and navigate complicated things in people’s lives where we can. [We shall all] be available for that.”
“I became [an officiant] in 2010 and I’m still doing it. I have married about 70 couples,”
Mr. Vernacchio states about his side-career as an interfaith officiant working with an organization called Journeys Of The Heart. Mr. Vernacchio explains the title of the job as Interfaith Officiant: “It’s not a traditionally ordained person, but one who is certified to officiate at life-cycle events after special training. [Due to our being ‘interfaith’], we as officiants can do ceremonies regardless of the couple’s religion.” In addition to being an officiant at Journeys of the Heart, he is a client, as he used the agency when he got married.
Mr. Vernacchio reflects on his experience officiating weddings: “It’s really fun being part of a happy day with people.” In fact, Mr. Vernacchio has married many FCS alumni, and, English and Spanish Teacher Mr. Courtland Van Rooten! He shares that he is honored to be an interfaith officiant and he is convinced his work will give couples the opportunity to be their best selves and create a relationship that is going to make the world better. He declares, “The world is very troubled today. It can be hard to stay hopeful. Being able to serve as an officiant, hearing promises help me to be hopeful.” Besides, officiating helps him connect to his personal vows: “[The job helps me] remember the promise to my husband when I got married, and remember how special that is.” He believes a wedding can benefit all the people who are there: for those who are married, the wedding inspires them; for those who don’t married, they realize what is possible. Jim Rosengarten also is an interfaith officiant for Journeys of the Heart, but was unable to be interviewed.
Another fact worth noting is that three-quarters of our ordained faculty are currently the department chairs of their respective academic departments at school, and Mr. Gruber, the only one who isn’t currently a department chair, served as Science Department Chairman from 1996 to 2014! One student speculates, “Perhaps a higher power played a role in these teachers’ achievement of their high positions.” Or, just maybe, our teachers are multi-talented, and thrive at what they do, whether it be chairing a science department, or delivering a sermon.
Faith is like WiFi. It is invisible but it has the power to connect you to what you need.