Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In Praise of Campus Ministry

The other night I dreamed I was back in the ELM center: a huge, 2 story building with an attached chapel that housed Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist campus ministries at the University of South Carolina. I spent some retreat/conference time there as an undergraduate attending Newberry College 40 miles away, and I spent a lot of time there as a depressed graduate student while I earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English at USC.

The center had several small bedrooms, which it rented out to exchange students. It had a huge kitchen, where they cooked, and where the campus ELM community cooked a Wednesday meal. We usually had some kind of Bible study afterwards. There was a fairly well-attended worship service on Sundays, but I rarely made it back for those. When I did, I enjoyed them.

What I really enjoyed most was the community. We had inspiring ordained ministers to lead us. We were graduate and undergraduate students from many faiths. We had a wide variety of interests. We spanned the age spectrum. But what we all really needed to remember was that we had a different identity than the one pressed upon us by the university. To this end, we studied different books than we did during the rest of our student lives and worked on different projects. I was at USC during the late 80's and early 90's, and primarily the campus religious groups worked on social justice causes; there weren't as many student groups focused on social justice then as there are now.

Looking back, I realize how lucky I was. I had a source of emotional support that wasn't tied to my academic department. I had a community that rooted for me, even when I felt at my lowest. We had great pastors and lay leaders, which I now know doesn't happen everywhere. We met interesting people from cultures that were unknown to us before we met them; I ate kimchee before I knew what it was--I look back to see a lonely Southern girl and a lonely Korean girl, who shared not much common language, but shared a belief in Christ and a love of food, sharing a meal.

I wonder at the state of campus ministry these days. I hope it's even more vibrant than it used to be, because I suspect that these students will need that strong foundation, even more than past generations. I suspect we've got some trials and tribulations yet to come, the kind not faced since the 1930's.

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