Professor a man of many faiths

In the search for meaning, says a USF instructor, all religions "have something to offer."

Published March 26, 2006

TAMPA - A collection of goofy knickknacks fills Dell deChant's office.

With each piece, a story unfurls.

There's a miniature Buddha statue on his desk. An alarm clock in the form of a mosque. An empty bottle of He'Brew: The Chosen Beer rests on a shelf.

Not to mention a plastic action figure of Moses.

"I've got to remember to take this one to class," he says.

These pieces make for lively discussion in deChant's religious studies courses. Over the past two decades, deChant has become a popular instructor at the University of South Florida's religious studies department. He landed the job straight out of college.

DeChant, a religion scholar who lives in New Port Richey, lectures about various world faiths. He scurries about campus wearing his signature purple beret.

When it's hot outside, he swaps the beret for a big straw hat or baseball cap. It's not a fashion statement. DeChant simply digs hats.

Students flock to deChant's classes, says Danny Jorgensen, chairman of the school's religious studies department. One course, religion and popular culture, fills in a flash. The classes are rigorous but interesting.

DeChant has co-authored a textbook, Comparative Religious Ethics. He later penned The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture.

But when it comes to his own faith, deChant is pretty tight-lipped.

Students are curious. "They want to know, and they can't figure it out," deChant said.

That's because, as an instructor, he strives for objectivity.

"We're appreciative of all religious traditions," deChant said. "I'm not trying to teach you that one religion is right and the other religion is wrong. They're all religions. They all have something to offer.

They all move people and inspire people."

In reality, deChant's spiritual background is as eclectic as his office decorations.

"My background is the great American smorgasbord of religion," he said. "I've tried them all. . . . No one (religious) tradition is any more rich or meaningful to me than another." he said.

As a boy, deChant was a devout Lutheran. Later, he began to explore Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. These days, deChant rarely goes to church except for an occasional lecture. He spends his Sundays grading papers and reading.

When he does go to church, he favors the Unity movement, because it's "a very tolerant tradition, and (it) celebrates the good in all religions."

Years ago, deChant was ordained into the Unity movement, serving as an associate minister for a while.

Now the bulk of his time is spent in the classroom.

"I see this work as a vocation," said deChant, 51. "In a broader sense of my life's calling, this is my work. This is how I serve the world."

"DeChant genuinely cares about people," Jorgensen said. "He genuinely cares about the students. He's so enthusiastic that it just sort of rubs off."

Jorgensen and deChant go way back to when deChant was a USF student majoring in religious studies. Even then, religion fascinated deChant. He couldn't get enough. DeChant would read everything he could get his hands on.

DeChant "was exuberant, zealous, very dynamic, very anxious to learn and develop. That was unusual. It was more than schoolwork to him," Jorgensen said.

Now, in turn, deChant passes his knowledge to more than 500 students each year. But, in some ways, DeChant says religion is still a mystery to him. He doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

"If we can figure out what religion is,'' he says, "we can begin to understand what it means to be human."