by Chris Keating
As a resident assistant at Missouri State University, Jay Collier knows his job includes unlocking doors, calming nerves of homesick students and enforcing dorm policies. That’s not the part of his job that concerns him.
Dealing with sexual assault is another matter.
Collier, a Presbyterian student from St. Louis, said rape is a problem that frightens him. “It’s scary,” said Collier. “It is something that I (as a resident assistant) worry about. I can’t imagine what it would be like for the individual involved.”
As an RA, Collier could be among the first to encounter a sexual assault victim. “To me, it’s awful that these things are happening,” Collier said, “but it is encouraging that individuals feel strong enough to report it.”
Collier and other students joined in a discussion about sexual assault during a summer fellowship group sponsored by UKirk St. Louis, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) campus ministry at Washington University and Saint Louis University. The ministry is a new worshipping community sponsored by the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, where Miriam Foltz serves as organizing pastor.
A 2015 survey from the Association of American Universities reveals that slightly more than 23 percent of female students experienced some form of unwanted sexual aggression. The National Sexual Violence Resource center reports that one in five women and one in 16 men will be a victim of sexual assault while in college. UKirk students agreed that sexual violence is a problem — and noted that sometimes students aren’t sure whether or not to report an incident.
Stories like the Stanford rape case are “very believable,” said Tanner Meyer, a student at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. A friend of hers was involved in an unwanted encounter and was unsure of what to do. Tanner noted that as time went by the girl acted “like it didn’t happen.”
Washington University student Kelsey Barter noted that her institution has increased efforts to encourage reporting of sexual assault. Still, a friend of hers struggled with whether or not to report an assault — particularly because she felt the event was not so “clear cut.” The friend eventually ending up leaving school. “For her, the decision not to report haunted her.”
Others expressed concern that students fail to take seriously campus programs designed to heighten awareness of sexual assault. Madelyn Hogrebe, a St. Louis-area student studying at Murray State University in Kentucky, said she was dismayed by the reaction of some students at a presentation on assault and gender issues. “It was disheartening to see how people made a joke of it.”
Foltz, the organizing pastor for UKirk St. Louis, believes the church has an opportunity to help youth and young adults develop a faith-based response to rape. The church often fails to teach biblical stories about God’s concern for victims of rape and assault. “As a college pastor, I would say it is a missed opportunity for the church,” said Foltz.
Students may know the story of David’s affair with Bathsheba, Foltz said, but may be less familiar with other biblical stories, such as the lack of justice for Tamar or the rape of Dinah. “As a church, we fail to tell them these stories,” she said.
Campus ministers are prepared to lead those conversations.
“I think a lot of our campus ministries are dealing with sexual assault,” said Jason Santos, associate for collegiate ministries for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. He believes sexual assault falls into a category of issues such as suicide, shootings and racism confronting today’s college campuses.
Santos said campus ministry can offer Presbyterian students the opportunity to explore the implications of these issues from a theological perspective. Through the UKirk network and related organizations, college students can discern “this is not whom I am called to be,” Santos said.
Chris Keating is the pastor of Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church in Wildwood, Missouri. He blogs regularly for the St. Louis Post Dispatch Faith Perspectives blog and is a contributor for The Immediate Word at sermonsuite.com.