Skip to main content
Luke A. Powery portrait
The Rev. Luke A. Powery Photo by Chris Hildreth

The Rev. Luke A. Powery

Dean, Duke University Chapel

By LUKE A. POWERY, Dean, Duke University Chapel

Soon after my arrival at Duke in 2012, I was given a piece of stone that had fallen from the ceiling of Duke Chapel. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident, but it would have a major impact on the first four years of my tenure, as an inspection of the ceiling led to a historic restoration that required the chapel to be closed for the 2015-2016 academic year. It was an early lesson for me in what Duke Chapel is made of: a providential combination of people and stones, or “living stones.”

The story goes back to April of 1925, when James Buchanan Duke was walking through a forest with his friend and president of Trinity College, William Preston Few. Mr. Duke paused at the highest point of the land and decided that the chapel should stand there at the center of the university’s new campus. He said, “I want the central building to be a great towering church which will dominate all of the surrounding buildings, because such an edifice would be bound to have a profound influence on the spiritual life of the young men and women who come here.”

The next person to give shape to Duke Chapel was Julian Abele, a renowned Black architect whose creative mind gave us the plans for the chapel and the rest of West Campus during a time of legalized segregation. Abele died before I was born, but in a way, you could say that I was introduced to him early in my time at Duke. The day after my installation as dean of the chapel, Oscar Dantzler, the longtime university housekeeper for the chapel, came to my office with a framed, black-and-white photo of Abele. Oscar presented the photo to me, saying he had it hanging in his custodial closet for many years but now he could pass it on to me. I could sense that I was being entrusted as a steward of the stones Abele had designed and Oscar has cared for.

Another photo in my office is of my family with the great writer Maya Angelou. For more than 20 years, she addressed Duke first-year students during Opening Convocation in the chapel with her warmth and insight. One of her sayings sticks with me: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Wise words like those have echoed in the chapel since it was first used in 1932 and formally dedicated in 1935 “to the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.”

In a sermon in 1979 at Duke Chapel, the late theologian Howard Thurman described how the human condition can be illustrated by the chapel’s Gothic arches. He said, “I am a creature, locked in the earth as the pillars of the arch” and yet there is “something deep at my center that reaches into infinity like the sweep of the Gothic arch.” Indeed, the chapel has many examples of this intersection of the divine and the earthly, of “living stones”: the sounds of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” resounding from the chapel walls, the late university carillonneur J. Samuel Hammond, who made music with the chapel bells for fifty years, the silent prayers of people visiting friends and family in Duke Hospital, the countless graduation photos taken on the chapel steps.

Those of us who celebrate, sing, pray, preach and make music at the chapel these days are stewards of its stones as well as its living traditions. It has a rich past, but also a vibrant present and hopeful future, focused as much on what goes on inside its walls as its outward impact on the rest of campus, the Durham community, and beyond. This came into focus for me on the final Sunday service before the chapel would close for a year of restoration work prompted by that falling piece of stone. That morning, I preached a sermon titled “The Great Loving Church” in which I asked, “Wouldn’t it be something if we were not only known as the ‘great towering church’ but also known as the great loving church?”

That is still my question, my prayer, and my vision for Duke Chapel. May the future of Duke Chapel be a campus community known as much for the quiet gestures of kindness by its people as for the majestic sweep of its stones. Built with living stones, may it be a place with deep roots of faith for the flourishing of all human beings in hope and love.