Photo courtesy of Rev. D’ana Downing

Assistant University Chaplain Rev. D’ana Downing made campus news in 2022 when she brought the first Beyoncé Mass to Northwestern. The service used Beyoncé’s music to discuss faith and spirituality as it relates to Black women and their lived experiences. It was a perfect combination of all the themes that inspire and unite Downing’s work: art, womanism, identity, spirituality, and faith.

Downing first joined Northwestern in 2019 as a graduate assistant for the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. There she worked with Black and African American students before becoming resident chaplain in 2021. As part of Religious & Spiritual Life, she advises students of any faith and belief and provides support in their spiritual journeys.

“I think that's kind of a misconception that I'm trying to evangelize people,” Downing said. “Really, I just want you to connect to the fullness of who you are.”

During her ordination with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Downing completed a Master of Divinity degree at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. The proximity of Garrett and Northwestern as well as the connections between Black student activism at both schools eventually led Downing to join Northwestern part-time.

Downing said her own experience as a college student dealing with loss and grief on her own motivated her to become a university chaplain.

“My father was diagnosed with lung cancer during my undergraduate experience, and unfortunately, my university did not have a chaplain,” Downing said. “...I didn't have folks who I could actually have those open, honest and hard conversations with, and it's critical particularly for, I believe, college-aged students to have someone that they see as a trusted partner in these conversations.”

Before entering ordained ministry, Downing worked in the non-profit sector and was a fundraising executive for nearly 20 years. Since many of the organizations she worked with were connected to the growth and development of persons, particularly young adults, this experience provided a solid foundation for her future role as a university chaplain.

Today Downing’s non-profit and chaplaincy work are still intertwined: the skills she learned, such as grant-writing and story-telling, help her in her work on campus.  

“Storytelling is very much so a part of nonprofit management, organizational development work, being able to tell a good story about an organization or helping organizations tell better stories about themselves,” Downing said. “And that same skill set translates into Northwestern: like helping students share their stories and creating spaces or curating spaces for them to explore who they are in the world as well.”

Downing’s interest in storytelling goes back to her college years: she completed her undergraduate degree in English Literature and Composition at the University of the District of Columbia. She continues to engage in creative writing today and is currently auditing a writing workshop class called Art as a Theological Practice at Garrett.

Her passion for art translates into her work as a chaplain. Downing’s current initiative, The Middle Space, organizes events that combine conversations about spirituality with different art activities.

“It is an opportunity for folks to explore faith, spirituality, meaning and purpose through creative expression,” Downing said. “[...] A lot of times people use their art in whatever mediums that look like to also connect to their faith, a higher power, the universe, Spirit."

While working with the non-profits, Downing got to help the organizations whose missions she was particularly passionate about. For example, she once worked for Sisters Academy of Baltimore, a private, all-girls middle school. Downing said it was beautiful to support the mission of the Academy and see young, primarily Black and brown girls grow and come into their own.

“I think having worked in the nonprofit sector, I just love being connected to organizations that were mission-driven, that were people-centered, [and] really connected to the flourishing and thriving of people,” Downing said.

Downing continues her non-profit work at Light+Essence, a consulting firm she founded. The firm offers a multitude of services including fundraising, working with boards, leadership coaching, assessment and program evaluation. It also assists in conversations about religious diversity, cultural competency, equity, and inclusion. Downing’s most recent project was with The Current Project, an organization that works directly with Black single mothers and aims to create spaces that support and promote economic stability.

In 2021, Downing’s commitment to social justice brought her to Faith Matters Network, an organization that works with community leaders and activists toward spiritual sustainability. Downing completed FMN’s movement chaplaincy course, where she studied spiritual and emotional care practices accompanying social justice movements.

“Faith is often at the front lines [of social justice movements], because of one's values, because of the ways that we see ourselves in the world,” Downing said.“It's really important for, I think, faith leaders, in particular, to show up as it relates to their own sacred text and how that text might show up in the world.”

Downing now serves as a teaching assistant for the Movement Chaplaincy course. She provides students with technical support and hosts community circles to help them process the course content in the context of their ministry or activism work. Downing also tries to incorporate her movement chaplaincy training into her work on campus, be it through the events she organizes or the meetings she has with students.

“My work as a movement chaplain is a personal commitment to an ethics of care and trauma-informed practices,” Downing said. “It is my hope that I can help students navigate [their] life issues and struggles so that [they] can be seen, heard, deeply known, healed, and whole.”