Hamline News

Passionate Lives, Compassionate Leaders


When Major General Howard Stendahl ’73 remembered some wounded soldiers he chatted with in the dining room of the Pentagon, his usually strong voice choked with emotion. 

“I stopped by a table of three wounded warriors,” said Stendahl, chief of chaplains of the U.S. Air Force, from his office in the Pentagon. “They were all multiple amputees.”

“One fellow sat beside his mother,” Stendahl said. “His job had been to diffuse explosive units. He had lost an arm and a leg and had been blinded by a detonation. When I got up to leave, he took my hand and asked me, ‘Would you say a prayer for me and my mother?’

I told him I would, and he held my hand a little longer. He said, ‘Chaplain, is there any way I might be able to get back to my unit?’

“That was so moving,” Stendahl said. “Here was a man who gave himself up so others could be safe. And he still wants to know, ‘What else can I do?’ There’s a priceless gift that men and women give to their country—and I’m honored to be the leader of spiritual care providers for those people.” 

As chief of chaplains, Stendahl heads an Air Force Chaplain Corps of about 2,000 active-duty and Air Reserve chaplains and chaplain assistants. In addition, he is the senior pastor for more than 680,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian forces serving in the United States and overseas.

Stehdahl said he still draws on valuable lessons he learned at Hamline. 

“My professors stressed respect for the individual and encouraged our spiritual development, and to be respectful of the spiritual development of others,” he said. “They helped me understand and appreciate the sensitivity and standards in the varieties of religious experiences.”

A focus on service and social justice

Founded in 1854 by the United Methodist Church, Hamline is Minnesota’s oldest university, and its mission statement is as applicable today as it was 160 years ago: “To create a diverse and collaborative community of learners dedicated to the development of students’ knowledge, values, and skills for successful lives of leadership, scholarship, and service.” 

Those principles include a strong focus on social justice, service, and personal growth, and Hamline welcomes people of all faiths and backgrounds. Christians, Jews, Muslims, students of many other faiths, and even those who question faith, live and learn together.
The Wesley Center for Spirituality, Service, and Social Justice sponsors numerous programs and events
that encourage students to explore their neighborhood, their world, and themselves. 

“We stress four principles: promoting the common good, being a whole person, compassionate action, and courageous reflection,” said Chaplain Nancy Victorin-Vangerud, director of the Wesley Center. “It’s in the Methodist identity to see those principles not as for preparing students for church leadership or a particular form of religious life, but as a vision of community service that’s good for others.”

The Wesley Center’s Catalyst Programs create awareness for social justice initiatives, like helping the homeless, and give students the ability to practice leadership roles. LEAP Into Saint Paul gives students the opportunity to serve a variety of local community organizations. Values in Action enables humanist, Unitarian, and atheist students to become involved with service work while exploring their identities as non-theistic people. And, the McVay Youth Partnership encourages students to tutor area middle and high school students.

The programs are popular because they emphasize personal growth, Victorin-Vangerud said. “It’s in Hamline’s DNA as a liberal arts college to ask questions, to seek answers, and to care about the common good.”

Achieving spiritual growth

The seeds for Stendahl’s spiritual growth were planted when he was an undergraduate student in the late 1960s.  

“It was a time of great social change,” he said. “The American culture was in great disagreement about our role in southeast Asia, and [it was] wrestling with racism and the sociology of aging. My professors encouraged me to understand and respect all sides of these issues, and they really opened my mind. They didn’t teach us what to think, but how to think.”

In 1977, Stendahl was ordained into the ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and served as a parish pastor in Texas and Wisconsin before entering the Air Force Chaplain Corps in 1985.

“I always wanted to be a military chaplain,” said Stendahl, whose father, Carl, was an electrician’s mate in the Navy during World War II. “Little boys tend to want to emulate their fathers. I was the youngest of three boys, and when we got together to play with our ships, they told me, ‘You be the chaplain.’”  

Later, one brother enlisted in the Navy; the other joined the Air Force.  

In August 1990, Stendahl was deployed to Kuwait during the first Gulf War. His duties included ministering in hospitals to wounded civilians and troops. 

“The reason we as chaplains exist is to support our fighters,” Stendahl said.  

“Whether it’s in a parish or a combat setting, whether it’s due to a life-threatening illness or the loss of life, it’s very moving to be their special spiritual care provider. . . . Nobody’s prayers for peace are more ardent than those in the military.”

Following his heart

Rev. Peter Harrits ’01 had many profound teachers when he was an undergraduate student, including former religion professor Tim Polk, who showed him that Jesus developed into a great leader when he embraced the ideals of social justice. 

The religion and theatre arts major experienced the heartbeat of humanity through his involvement in social causes, like volunteering with Habitat for Humanity during spring breaks. In his senior year, he spent a semester in Bali, immersing himself in the religious and cultural traditions of Indonesia. 

“It was an amazing, eye-opening experience,” he said. “When I arrived at my host family’s house, they took me to the shrine area of their home and said: ‘This is where we pray to our God. Feel free to worship your God there too.’”  

After graduation, Harrits served as the director of youth ministry at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley and then entered missionary work. He spent the summer of 2008 at Ilula Lutheran Hospital in Iringa, Tanzania, providing prayer support and pastoral care to patients and staff in rural Tanzanian medical facilities. 

“I often went into villages where people lived in mud huts with thatched roofs, and I sat with elderly people and prayed with them in times of need,” Harrits said. 

Upon returning to the United States, he earned a Master of Divinity and a Master of Sacred Theology at Yale University. After his ordination in 2011, he worked in Malaysia, first as a pastoral intern of the Lutheran Church in Malaysia and Singapore, and then as the national coordinator for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Young Adults in Global Mission program.

He especially enjoyed boat trips to visit small churches in rural Malaysia. “The heart feels the spirit of adventure,” he said. 

This year, Harrits steps into his new position as coordinator of Bega Kwa Bega (Shoulder to Shoulder), where he will coordinate missionary work between Lutheran congregations in Saint Paul and Tanzania. 

“I look forward to using my passion in God’s ongoing work in the world,” he said.

A missionary in America

Rev. Amanda Lunemann ’06, associate pastor of Hamline Church in Saint Paul, practices missionary work at the local level. In addition to leading services, she works with area youth. 

“Missionary work in Africa is very important, but the call to mission can also be in your own backyard,” said Lunemann, who was commissioned in the Methodist Church in June 2013. “My background in Wesleyan theology says there is no holiness except social holiness. It’s the reason we were called. Loving God is loving your neighbor—you can’t separate the two.” 

Being a religion and communication studies major helped her be a better preacher, as well as a more effective listener when practicing pastoral care, she said. She recalled ministering to “Sara” (not her real name), a mother of two who had undergone a traumatic family crisis.

“She had an amazing perseverance that touched me deeply,” Lunemann said. “She always had faith God would get her through her problems. ‘Doors always open for me,’ she told me. ‘Miracles have happened in my life.’ And, today, she gives back to the community by being an advocate for people who have nothing and speaking for the United Way.”

Social holiness

Adam Zagoria-Moffet ’11 found that Hamline awoke his “social holiness.”

When he began attending the university, the Jewish student was not very religious. But caring professors opened his eyes and his heart by impressing upon him the value of humility and compassion for others. 

After graduation, Zagoria-Moffet entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he is studying to become a rabbi. 

While undergoing his awakening at Hamline, Zagoria-Moffet and Mikayla (now his wife) ran the Jewish Student Life group at the Wesley Center. In his senior year, he won the John Wesley Leadership and Service Award. 

“I developed the image of being a person who could lead a total religious life and then help others lead a religious life,” he said. “I see myself as becoming someone who will help people who come under my wing by reaching out and caring. Hamline offered me a lot of examples of how to do that.” 

-Benjamin Gleisser