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Performing to a Different Tune

Once hopeful of playing in a professional orchestra, Joe Gavin finds contentment in leading Chi Alpha at the University of Vermont.

While enrolled at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Boston, the studious Joe H. Gavin practiced eight to 10 hours daily playing his clarinet.

The ambitious New York native had a clear goal at the oldest independent music conservatory in the nation: land a job on a metropolitan orchestra. However, the longer he stayed at the school, the more disillusioned Gavin became. His professors seemed unhappy and unfulfilled. He realized a music career might not be such a terrific aspiration after all.

During his sophomore year, Gavin connected with a small group of undergraduates on campus at a student-run organization called Chi Alpha. Despite his arduous rehearsal schedule, he made time to attend meetings.

“I saw in those students something I had never seen before: a real vibrant faith, a love of God,” recalls Gavin, 44. “Some of them were incredible musicians, but they weren’t controlled by music like I was. I’d get depressed if I hadn’t performed to perfection.”

Gavin, raised in a home with good values and a belief in God — yet little spiritual depth — decided he wanted what his classmates in Chi Alpha possessed. Yet it took him more than a year of wrestling with God to fully commit.

“The story of the rich young ruler haunted me,” Gavin remembers. “For a while, I wasn’t really willing to give up everything and follow Jesus.”

A friend named Chris Dollard intentionally kept nudging Gavin. Finally, during his junior year at a Chi Alpha retreat, Gavin was baptized. Upon graduation from NEC in 2000, Gavin rejected several music-related job offers and decided to forgo pursuing graduate school. Instead, he traveled across the country to Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham to become an intern in Chi Alpha’s Campus Missionary-in-Training program. At WWU, he met his future wife, Rachel Spradley, who served as a Chi Alpha staff member. Rachel got involved with Chi Alpha as a student at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

Gavin’s parents expressed concern upon learning of their son’s career choice. They had invested a great deal of money in allowing their youngest of four children to pursue musical training. His mom, Leona, even cried. However, eventually his parents came to support his campus ministry work.

After a 2-year internship and an additional four years on staff at WWU, Gavin headed back to New England in 2008 with Rachel to pioneer Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship at the University of Vermont. The school in Burlington, as well as the state overall, have a secular reputation. The University of Vermont, founded in 1791, became the first such institution to open in the U.S. with no religious affiliation.

“I wanted to go to a place of spiritual need,” says Gavin, a U.S. missionary. The University of Vermont isn’t known for the spirituality of its first-year students. A survey of the incoming 2025 class revealed only 3% identified as “exclusively Christian.”

The school is more noted for its environmental studies program, social justice initiatives classes, and LGBTQ support groups. Gavin has significant hurdles to overcome in reaching the 13,292 who are enrolled.

“Not many of the students have church experiences,” says Gavin, an ordained Assemblies of God minister. “There is no felt need for Christian community. Many are likely to be angry and distrustful toward evangelicals.”

Still, the kindly, soft-spoken Gavin eyes opportunities.

“Students in this generation seem isolated and alone, despite being so connected through social media and other avenues,” Gavin says. “Many are longing for meaningful relationships.”

As happened with Gavin earlier, Chi Alpha stalwarts on campus tend to join the group at the invitation of a friend who expresses genuine concern.

“A student may attend for months without being a Christian,” Gavin says. “They feel they belong before they believe. They will experience a prolonged courtship with Jesus.”

Assisted by staff pastors Daniela and Isaac Shoulderblade as well as U.S. missionary associate Lisa Marie Thibault (who serves with Intercultural Ministries), the Chi Alpha chapter sponsors a weekly meal for 50 students.

“It’s a lot of time, energy, and resources, but it’s worthwhile,” Gavin says. “More are coming, especially international students, who may experience the presence of God for the first time.”

Gavin serves as the Chi Alpha district director for the Northern New England Ministry Network. Rachel, who initially served as director of the University of Vermont Chi Alpha, now is a paraeducator at Porters Point Elementary School in Colchester, Vermont. The Gavins, married 16 years, also stay busy with their three children: Jaeda, 13; Silas, 10; and Caleb, 7.

These days, Gavin’s clarinet mostly stays in the closet, although he once in a while — when ministry efforts seem unproductive and discouraging — wonders what might have been. Such moments also occur when he hears about a former classmate who now is conducting a major symphony or touring as a performing artist.

But then he remembers the everlasting rewards of following Jesus.

“I've been given a life of meaning and purpose,” Gavin says. “God allows me to share life and the journey of faith with some incredible young men and women from all over the world, and I have the privilege of seeing them transformed by His grace and love.”

Mike J. Olejarz mentored Gavin both as a student and when he launched the Vermont Chi Alpha. Olejarz, who spent 15 years overseeing Chi Alpha chapters in Southern New England, thinks Gavin is the perfect fit in the Green Mountain State.

“The Lord is using Joe in the secular school setting,” says the 63-year-old Olejarz, who is a Chi Alpha national training team specialist based in Charlottesville, Virginia. “His low-key, easy-going nature helps. He’s a good listener and he’s not threatened by challenges.”

Olejarz, who is in his 40th year with Chi Alpha, says Gavin has built a healthy group at Vermont through service projects, missions trips, and friendship evangelism.

“Joe has persevered on a tough New England campus,” Olejarz says. “He keeps plugging away with kindness. He’s got grit.”

Sam Chevalier, a postdoctoral researcher in the field of power and energy at the Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen, says Gavin impacted his decision to stay in academia. Chevalier engineers optimization and control algorithms which enhance the efficiency, security, and stability of future power grids.

“Joe helped me think deeply about the importance of Christians doing work which will have impact across all facets of society and the marketplace,” says Chevalier, 29. “During the summer I was transitioning into graduate school, Joe’s teachings really helped me find peace and clarity in my decisions.”

Chevalier says Gavin taught him that all work, even if not explicitly “Christian” in nature, can be sacred.

“I clearly remember Joe fostering conversations in Chi Alpha about how we as Christians need to embrace the here-and-now problems of this world, just as Jesus did,” Chevalier says. “Joe thought and taught deeply about the questions and problems that students at our school were asking.”

Chevalier says Gavin mentored him about the importance of discipleship, which he will utilize next year when he joins the department of Electrical and Biomedical Engineering  at the University of Vermont as a professor running his own lab. He says Gavin led him to understand his Christian faith in a deeper way via well-read, scholarly, and properly contextualized information, followed by honest and personal reflection.

“While I don’t have all of the answers, I often use the tools Joe implicitly taught me when I am considering challenging spiritual questions,” Chevalier says. “Without a doubt, my uncompromised faith is both stronger and better equipped to engage with modern cultural issue because of Joe Gavin.”


John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.