Every August, a stream of first-year students from Lake Forest College walks across the street from their campus to our sanctuary. Led in by a bagpiper, they straggle in behind a line of their professors. It is matriculation: the ceremony of welcome to new students.
I’m fortunate to be part of the ceremony that welcomes students not just to the college but also to our town, and — no matter what their religious affiliation or lack thereof — to our church as a spiritual haven. It hasn’t always been this way.
Lake Forest College and our congregation were founded together in the late 1850s by the same Presbyterian families who settled the town. For a century, the partnership was strong. Numerous faculty were members of our congregation; college trustees served on our session; students had their own large section in the sanctuary for worship.
But in the 1960s and 70s, town and gown began to divide. Student protests over Vietnam … faculty declining to endorse professions of faith … the tension between liberal-leaning academics and fiscal-conservative captains of industry … rising property costs prohibiting professors from living in town — bit by bit, “the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14), or at least a chilly skepticism, began to grow. We were no longer one community.
To some extent, it is still that way. Most professors and staff live out of town, and there’s not much action in our leafy suburb for students to enjoy. Rarely do local residents attend college football games or concerts; only when a big-name lecture happens does the community show up in number. And sadly, it’s still the case that occasionally, when students of color walk into our predominantly white town for coffee or to catch the train, local kids hurl epithets at them.
But I am encouraged: The wall is beginning to fall. I’m not sure exactly when it started to happen or why, but I do know that it’s a blessing to our congregation. In the decade that I’ve been here, I’ve begun to see more connection, a greater sense of community. The caring goes both ways. A few years ago, a couple of young women decided to sing in our choir — to the utter delight of our largely-graying singers. Then a football player chose to help in our year-round rummage room, week after week lugging heavy donations so our band of volunteers could focus on sorting. Another student joined our mid-week women’s Bible study; when health problems required her to withdraw from school, they surrounded her with love. When church members discovered that a group of international students couldn’t go home over Christmas break, families invited them to dinner. Soon, hearts were opened. A religion professor led his students to create a video-history tour of our sacred space. The chair of the department of Islamic world studies came to lecture on Wahabism; the crowd from across the community went away with much deeper insight into dynamics in the Middle East. And I have been personally blessed by students and staff who have welcomed me to the table — sometimes for pastoral care, occasionally to teach and often for the joyful feast of intellectual conversation.
Bit by bit, brick by brick, the wall is coming down. Thanks to the generosity of a handful of our members, our church has a director of college ministries who serves as a chaplain across the street. Thanks to a family foundation of another church member, we’ve developed a scholarship program for Lake Forest College students who are interested in mission service and spiritual growth. And thanks to the trust of the president, faculty and staff of Lake Forest College, our church is seen as a place of collaboration and welcome.
Is it a sign of God’s delight that we’re a PokeStop, too?