James Edward Avery was born July 7, 1949 to Robert and Betty Avery and grew up in the small farm town of Mendota, Illinois. During his early school years he studied Latin, played in the band and enjoyed sports. He was an active member of the United Methodist Church in Mendota. After graduating from Mendota High School in 1967, Avery enrolled in Northwestern University where he majored in history and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1970. He was also active in campus politics and worked with Eva Jefferson Paterson who became the first African-American president of the student government. As an undergraduate student, Avery was active in the covenant community at Northwestern’s Alice S. Millar Chapel, and was very much influenced by the ministry of University Chaplain Ralph G. Dunlop.
Jim earned a B.A. with honors in 1971. He then enrolled in seminary at the Yale Divinity School. While at Yale he served as interim minister at the Park Street Congregational Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He returned to Northwestern to serve an internship at Millar Chapel with Dunlop. When Chaplain Dunlop abruptly resigned, Jim was hired as the university’s interim chaplain for the 1973-1974 academic year, even though he was not yet ordained. His enormous talent, energy and brilliance shone through that year as he shuttled back and forth between Evanston and New Haven. After interviewing several candidates for the Northwestern chaplaincy, the search committee determined that they preferred what they already had in Avery who, until the very end of the process, had not been under consideration. He was offered the permanent position which he accepted with the condition he get a one-year leave of absence to finish his degree at Yale. Avery received his Master of Divinity degree from Yale in 1975 and was ordained in the United Church of Christ. He became one of the youngest-known chaplains of a major U.S. university. A Chicago Tribune story that year described him as a "long-haired, blue-eyed former farm boy from Mendota."
Jim Avery, Ralph Dunlop, Tim Stevens,
Northwestern University ChaplainsCollege campuses and university chaplains played prominent roles in the political world of that day. Influenced by the example and encouragement of Yale University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Avery became recognized as an articulate spokesperson for and strong advocate of social justice. He participated with students and other members of the Northwestern community in the political protests of the era. Avery spoke for the equal rights of women and gays and lesbians. He was active in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa.
Popular with students, faculty, and staff, Avery often spoke at or presided over receptions, convocations, and religious gatherings. He was a very gifted preacher. Under his leadership the worshipping community at Millar Chapel grew significantly, drawing from both the campus and the surrounding community. His sermons were carefully constructed on biblical exegesis yet strongly proclaimed equal rights and justice. In 1977, Midwest magazine cited him as “one of the best young preachers in the Chicago area.”
Avery provided compassionate counseling and guidance to many students and also modeled and espoused the relevance of religious vocation. The university reported that Avery inspired more than 40 students to pursue theological education and enter religious vocations during his tenure.
Jim with David Pattee, Thom Hunt & Paul Abels, ca. 1987Avery advocated justice for gays and lesbians and served as counselor and advisor to gay and lesbian groups on campus and for events in the community. He also believed that being public about his own sexual identity would seriously compromise his influence and effectiveness. When a reporter asked him in an interview about rumors that he was gay, Avery replied that “some days I’m gay, some days I’m grumpy, but every day I try to be faithful and helpful.” There was a hint of scandal on campus when senior NU student David Pattee, captain of the swim team, moved into the chaplain’s residence to live with Avery in 1978. Jim and David were visible as a couple on campus and in the community. Avery walked the fine line of not denying his gay identity while also not self-identifying publicly. He circulated in gay religious circles and served as confidant and supporter of a number of openly gay Christian activists, including Rick Huskey and Paul Abels.
While Avery thrived publicly in his leadership role as university chaplain, he was suffering privately. His alcohol addiction grew more severe and began interfering with his work and his life. After a long struggle, he decided to resign the chaplaincy in 1986 to try to find balance and solace in his personal life.
David Pattee & Jim Avery, 1988Jim and David moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago while David completed his Master of Divinity degree at the Chicago Theological Seminary. From Chicago they moved to Connecticut where Jim continued in postgraduate studies at Yale and David served as pastor of Whitneyville United Church of Christ in Hamden. Avery earned a Master of Sacred Theology in liturgical studies in 1987 and started working on a Ph.D. in religious studies. Jim excelled in this academic work but the alcohol addiction continued to take a toll on his personal life and relationships. In 1991, David moved back to Illinois to serve as senior pastor of St. Peter’s UCC in Frankfort and Jim stayed in New Haven where he continued in a downward spiral and withdrew from the doctoral program.
On his own, without participating in a recovery program, without support services, Jim stopped drinking and mounted a courageous effort to rebuild his life. In 1997, he loaded up his few possessions and moved back to Chicago where he lived in a small apartment on the North Side. He worked retail and settled into simple routines. He renewed friendship with David and others, and reconnected with family, enjoying a time of relative peace and contentment in his life.
Jim did not yet have health insurance in his new circumstances, he had a long-standing aversion to seeing the doctor, and he remained a heavy smoker. During a severe heat wave in early summer 1999, he developed serious asthmatic symptoms, which induced a heart attack. He died on June 6, 1999.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview with David Pattee, biographical information in the finding aid to the James Edward Avery Papers at the Northwestern Library and a Chicago Tribune obituary dated June 19, 1999.)
Biography Date: September 2016
Avery, James Edward | Clergy Activist | Chicago | Illinois
“Until I read this profile, I didn’t realize the James was a new Chaplain in 1976 when I was a freshman, who signed up to live in the Philosophy and Religion Residential college in the Foster-Walker dorm complex. We had our own little dining room in the dorm reserved for us and Jim would regularly dine there. I was in the marching band and would have my uniform on when scrambling in for the evening meal after practice fall quarter. Jim was a good friend throughout my time at NU and inspired me to pursue my passions for producing student theater and making different kinds of friendships with different religiously affiliated students, which I will always appreciate. I remained friends w/ Jim after graduation, visited him in New Haven and again in Chicago when he was working at the bookstore and enjoying his reconnection time. Jim inspired me to write for the Chapel magazine while at NU.”
– as remembered by Robert Mendel on January 30, 2017
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