“When we start to ask hard questions, when we decide to grapple for answers together, there’s a community that forms, and God meets you there in a cool way,” reflected Steph Chandler Burns (BA 2012, MTS 2017). Steph is a Pastor at Pastors in Exile (PiE), an organization that “seeks to empower young adults as they explore and deepen the spiritual meaning of their lives, world, work, and activism.” As a Pastor, Steph is involved in planning and facilitating youth events, coordinating Bible studies, meeting with participants over coffee, and applying for grants. “It involves a lot of different pieces,” they summarized.

Steph completed their Bachelor of Arts in Social Development Studies at the University of Waterloo in 2012 and returned to campus in 2015 to start a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree at Conrad Grebel University College. During their time in the MTS program, Steph experienced a pivotal shift in their life: “It became clear to me that I wanted to go into pastoring.”

Steph Chandler Burns

Before coming to this decision—or even choosing to return to Grebel for graduate studies—Steph said they had “felt jaded around church, religion, and faith.” Despite the feelings of hurt and frustration they felt towards church, Steph continued to struggle with questions about their religious identity. “I’ve always had big theological questions, like what our belief in God means for how we live out life—those sorts of questions. I put church aside for a little while in my undergrad, but those questions were always in the background,” reflected Steph.

While in the MTS program, Steph struggled with big questions alongside other students. “There were some hard questions and difficult conversations in my MTS, where it was challenging to find meeting points between people, and it would have been easy for me to stay jaded, but God really became alive in those sorts of conversations,” recalled Steph. Sometimes, caught up in meaningful discussions, students would stay in class long after it had finished. “In one of the courses I took with Derek Suderman, we would consistently stay a half hour after class to just keep talking about things. Some people left, but most of us stayed there and continued to talk, grapple, question, and draw things on the board together.” Steph found it inspiring to see a group of people, from varying backgrounds, united in their search for answers together. Through this inspiration, they ultimately felt drawn to pastoring.

Steph lived at Grebel for the first few years of their undergrad at Waterloo and enjoyed being part of the community. “My friends and I used to play a game where we would count the number of times the word ‘community’ was said at Community Supper—it was always a lot. But it’s true. It is important. That grappling, asking questions together, digging deeper, showing up for each other...I haven’t seen it in many places.” Steph added, “All my closest friends are still Grebel people. The people I met here were phenomenal individuals who showed up for me, were there for each other, who cared, who asked big questions, who grappled with social justice issues; they’re my people.”

The support of peers, staff, and faculty at Grebel helped Steph feel safe expressing themself as a queer person and encouraged them to start the Queer, Allied and Questioning (QuAQ) club. “Ed Janzen, the Chaplain at the time, was so supportive when we were starting QuAQ. That meant a lot to me,” said Steph. QuAQ is still running today, and it continues to provide a safe and fun place for members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community to connect with one another, as well as plan Grebel-wide events.

“They showed up for me,” said Steph, referring to the support friends provided during a very difficult season. “My dad died in my first semester of undergrad. I was in the Chapel when I found out. I didn’t really have time to talk to anyone before being taken home. The police must have informed my roommate, and I think they told my friends because when I came back to get more stuff the next day, there was a big sign on my door that everyone had signed with loving messages.” Steph gathered their belongings from Grebel and stayed at their grandparents’ house to grieve while many on campus were celebrating the end of the term.

On December 18, during a massive snowstorm, Steph opened their grandparents’ door to a group of friends from Grebel. “My friends packed as many people as they could fit into the back of a van and drove two hours through the storm to my grandparents’ house—my grandparents live fifteen minutes from the College. That’s how bad the weather was,” Steph explained. The group played in the snow and laughed together in the blizzard. “There were probably better things for them to be doing, like celebrating the end of the term with their friends. But they drove across town to come have fun with me while my world was rocked. And that’s the kind of thing my friends consistently did for me.”

In both Steph's undergraduate and graduate studies, they chose to lean on Grebel’s community: emotionally and spiritually. When they were struggling to find their place as a queer person, they were shown kindness; in their grieving, they were comforted; and during their search for answers, Steph discovered the richness of searching with others.

Today, Steph continues to grapple for theological answers in their role at PiE. “The best part of my work is the conversations I get to have,” Steph noted. “People bring questions that you wouldn’t hear in church, and they also share cool answers to the questions I bring into a conversation. It’s a discussion. We’re all learning and don’t need to have it all figured out.” Some questions are missing immediate answers, but regardless of how buried an answer might be, people like Steph—seekers—see the beauty in digging.

Steph's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.

By Tim Saari

Steph Chandler Burns (they/them) graduated from the University of Waterloo in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Social Development Studies and minoring in Peace and Conflict Studies. After working in medical records keeping for a few years following graduation, Steph returned to Grebel for a Master of Theological Studies degree in 2015. During Masters studies, Steph began exploring Queer Theology, looking at the intersections between queer identity and faith. Steph has a number of publications and presentations exploring the topics of Anabaptist faith, queer identity and the nature of God. They have worked at the intersections of faith and marginal identity since graduation in 2017, working with people on parole, in congregational ministry, and most recently with Pastors in Exile, an affirming, community-based ministry with young adults in Waterloo Region. Steph enjoys conversations about God, faith, meaning and activism. They also enjoy collecting tattoos, and are particularly proud of their Grebel stained-glass-inspired quarter sleeve. They live in Kitchener with their spouse, Greg, cat, Lulu, and over 200 board games.