Theological Horizons: A mentoring community at the University of Virginia

by Karen Wright Marsh

This is what the LORD says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).

It’s “Move In Day” here at the University of Virginia. Out on the teeming sidewalk, Jon, a newly arrived first year student, bids his family goodbye and steps out into four years of life at the crossroads.   He stands there in front of his dorm, peering down the twisting campus paths, and wonders: Which way now?

This young traveler has left the stability of family, the only life he’s known. The beliefs he’s grown up with are about to be challenged on every level. Jon will encounter unfamiliar ideas in the classroom and negotiate tricky social dynamics on Friday nights down fraternity row. He will spend four years interacting with professors and classmates from diverse religious, moral and ethical points of view.

Jon will probably have some shipwreck experiences along the way. He might even face the unraveling of something that has held his world together — the loss of a romantic relationship, maybe a physical injury or illness, a failure, perhaps the discovery of intellectual concepts that call into question things as he has perceived them, or as they were taught to him, or as he has read, heard or assumed.

Bonhoeffer_46Rachel, an upperclassman, advises incoming students, “The start of college is a time to think about your faith, what it means and how it intersects with your academic and social lives. At college your faith will be challenged differently than in past years. You will ask harder questions. You might even face doubt at times.”

During these next years, will Jon ask for the ancient paths? And if he finds the good way, will he walk in it?

Jon is not likely to find guidance from his professors, for only one in five faculty members in public universities says that “colleges should be concerned with facilitating spiritual development” and far fewer personally engage in conversations about faith. Belief is considered to be a personal matter outside the sphere of academics. As students’ church attendance drops by almost half in college, chances are good that Jon will walk through this critical time without adult Christian companionship.

Rachel continues, “Theological Horizons provides a welcoming place for engaging faith, thought and life.” Since 2000, Theological Horizons has been creating a Christian mentoring community at the heart of the University of Virginia. The ministry is centered at the Bonhoeffer House, also the rambling home to our faculty family. My children, professor husband, Charles Marsh, and I share our home and our lives beyond the lecture hall.

A house concert brings the community together.
A house concert brings the community together.

While Theological Horizons serves an expansive network of faculty, scholars, graduate students and clergy, our daily ministry is enlivened by undergraduate students: the brilliant, energetic young adults who find a home away from home close to fraternity row. Students arrive for home-cooked food at our weekly “Vintage” study group, house concerts and theology seminars. They read by our library fireplace and have discussions and Bible studies — all accompanied by a sociable dog named Ginger.

Kaylee studied religious studies and finance at the university and became a regular at the Bonhoeffer House. She explains why: “I fell in love with the way that Theological Horizons bridges the gap between the academy and faith communities that surround the University. I was looking for a place that I could come to with my faith tradition and ask questions and be skeptical. The Bonhoeffer House became that sacred space for me.”

As the executive director of Theological Horizons, my philosophy of campus ministry is shaped by the insights of Sharon Daloz Parks, a scholar on leadership. Parks identifies the essential work of the students we serve: “To become a young adult in faith is to discover the limits of inherited socially received assumptions about how life works — what is ultimately true and trustworthy, and what counts — and to recompose meaning and faith on the other side of that discovery.”

How will our young friends recompose meaning after shedding outgrown assumptions, especially in a public university environment where intellectual challenges and social crises can be hostile to Christian belief? Parks asserts that university students’ success in grounding a worthy adulthood depends upon the hospitality, commitment and courage of adult culture, through both individuals and institutions. As members of an adult culture, we’ve taken to heart the responsibility for university students’ journey towards worthy adulthood. To be hospitable, committed and courageous – this is our call to action.

At the Bonhoeffer House you can be yourself!
At the Bonhoeffer House you can be yourself!

A mentoring community meets young adults in their readiness for deep belonging and encourages worthy dreams of self and the world. All knowledge has a moral dimension. Learning that matters is ultimately a spiritual, transforming activity, intimately linked with the whole of life — knowledge enabled by the recognition, presence and faith of caring adults. Young adults need to feel recognized as who they really are and as who they are becoming. Through Theological Horizons, we offer a safe place for questions and yet challenge students in their fragile faith. We embrace students in their emerging strength, their ambivalence and their vulnerability.

At the Bonhoeffer House we invite folks from the “real world” to come and talk about how their faith is lived in many vocations and contexts. It has been said that God is always revising our boundaries outward. This has proved true for the mentoring community here. Our intensive Horizons Fellows Program serves 20 fellows during their final university year. Fellows and their adult mentors wrestle with concepts of calling through one-on-one relationships, small group conversations, lectures, readings and retreats.

p2 MaddyChristen Borgman Yates, director of the Horizons Fellows Program, says, “Our faith and sense of vocation develop best when we’re exposed to differing viewpoints and serving in the ‘real world’. Staying in the college bubble, especially with students just like us, is much more comfortable, but usually reinforces our own point of view. Pulling students out of that bubble is, to me, one of the most exciting journeys to take.”

Maddy, an architecture major from California and a recent graduate, came to faith in Christ during college and has joined the staff of a residential community of adults with intellectual disabilities. Maddy reflects, “Going to the Bonhoeffer House over my years as a student wasn’t an event on my schedule, it became a lifestyle; I have a home and a family there, they considered me their own from the first time I walked through the door.”


KAREN WRIGHT MARSH is the executive director of Theological Horizons. She lives at the Bonhoeffer House in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband, Charles Marsh, and their three children, Henry, Will and Nan.