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Two Years Into Tenure as Pusey Minister, Potts Says ‘The Biggest Delight’ Has Been Connecting With Undergrads

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Prior to being appointed Pusey Minister in Memorial Church, Matthew Ichihashi Potts served as an associate professor at Harvard Divinity School, where he mostly interacted with graduate students and other faculty.

Two years into his role, Potts said in an interview with The Crimson last month that “the biggest surprise” of the job has been building deep relationships with undergraduates.

“I didn’t really develop deep relationships with students at the College until I became a minister here,” Potts said. “That was the biggest, has been the biggest, and continues to be the biggest delight.”

Potts, who is also a professor of Christian morals at the Divinity School, reflected upon starting his role amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw a range of stringent policies at the College and across campus.

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As such, Potts and his family looked for ways to engage with students socially. He credits his wife, Colette, with devising an idea to host weekly snacks in their home as a way to build relationships within the Harvard campus.

“We just really wanted to create some sense of home, a place where people would feel like they were cared for simply by virtue of the fact of showing up,” Potts said.

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Potts and his family have kept up the initiative even in the post-pandemic era.

“I live with my family across from Annenberg at Sparks House, and we open it up to students once a week,” Potts said. “My daughter and I make free lattes for whoever wants one — we give food like sandwiches and cookies.”

Beyond the weekly snacks initiative, Potts said he is comforted by his family’s ability to make “genuine friendships” with College students over the past two years.

“If you’re raising kids, it’s a pretty unique gift to have a bunch of kind and hardworking and talented people come over to the house, to have all these very interesting role models show up,” he said.

“These are the people who want to come over and play catch with my son, or do origami with my middle child, or chat with my wife or my daughter about whatever’s going on,” he added.

For Potts, creating a “space of belonging” in Memorial Church has remained a priority during his time as minister.

“We have a bunch of students, especially coming out of the pandemic, who may be missing home, might be missing their family, might be missing their dog, and are maybe feeling a lot of pressure because they’re here from home or feeling the sense of not belonging,” he said.

Potts also discussed the following topics:

New Leadership at Harvard

Potts, who served on a faculty advisory panel to the Presidential Search Committee that appointed University President Claudine Gay, said he was “really pleased” with the selection.

Potts said Gay’s selection underscores the necessity of inclusivity and diversity at Harvard, especially given a contentious political climate across the nation and in higher education.

“I’m really concerned about equity and access at elite institutions like Harvard. And now the president is really concerned about those things,” he said. “I anticipate that she will do — and her administration will do — what she can to continue promoting those things.”

Potts was also optimistic about the appointment of Marla F. Frederick as the next dean of the Harvard Divinity School, succeeding David Hempton. Frederick, who will begin her tenure on Jan. 1, 2024, will be the first woman to lead the school in its 207-year history.

“I think there was a ton of real change under Dean Hempton, and that’s going to continue in additionally positive ways in the years to come,” he said.

Religious Administration on Campus

“Unlike a lot of other universities of this size and importance and reputation, we don’t have an office of religious life here,” Potts said of the University.

Potts said that there are currently only two religious leaders employed by the University — he and Muslim Chaplain Khalil Abdur-Rashid. Still, there is a large group of chaplains who lead religious life at Harvard, though they are not officially employees and are “given permission” to serve students by the University.

“There are all kinds of power imbalances, all kinds of access differences, and it makes things tricky,” Potts said of the various roles at Harvard.

Potts also said there is a disparity of resources between his ministry and other religious traditions. Even among the chaplains, there are many more ministers sent by different Christian denominations than by other non-Christian traditions.

“We do have this fundamental imbalance where we have a big Christian church that comes out of the white Christian tradition with most of the resources for religious life at Harvard in the middle of campus,” he said. “And meanwhile, we have students from other traditions who worship in the Canaday basement.”

Reckoning with the Past

Potts said the emphasis on diversity is tied to the greater initiative by Memorial Church to acknowledge the role of violence and exclusion in the history of Western Christian churches.

“Part of the responsibility — of the loving responsibility — of the Western Christian Church, of a church like this, which comes out of that tradition, even though it aspires to be more diverse now, is to really take ownership of that history, acknowledge it, and start to reckon with that history in a deliberate way,” Potts said.

For Potts, the focus should be on the messages and activities of Memorial Church that spread kindness and create deeper roots with Harvard and the surrounding Cambridge area.

One of these activities is the Grants Committee, through which Memorial Church supports small-scale projects by local organizations doing community service work in Boston and Cambridge.

“I’m hoping that we can broaden the reach of the church and think in more robust ways about what it means to be a community that takes responsibility for its history and wants to live with love and responsibility in the future,” he said.

—Staff writer Francesco Efrem Bonetti can be reached at efrem.bonetti@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Megan S. Degenhardt can be reached at megan.degenhardt@thecrimson.com.

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