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Building virtual community as a college chaplain

Impromptu senior send-off from the Presbyterian Student Association

As COVID-19 continues to grow in cases across the United States, those of us in higher education have been bracing for what life would come to look like for our students. In fact, we’ve spent the better part of our spring semester coming up with plans and systems to help the mission of our institutions continue in the midst of uncertainty. As I watched the spread and the growing number of colleges and universities close, I noticed the panic of our students rise.

At that time, with the help of a chaplain network, I created a flyer for our community on ways to remain calm during a pandemic. The flyer listed five steps to help our students remember to be grounded and calm fears that were on the rise. The steps were: remember to breath; unplug; create and cultivate community; ground yourself; and hope. Even as events were canceled, we still entered that particular week knowing that face-to-face course instruction would take place. So, we were to not fear or worry, but rather remember these five steps and be rooted in the current moment and life on campus.

But, when I arrived at work last Monday, for what I assumed would be a typical work day, I quickly realized it was going to be anything but normal. A day that should have been full of worship planning, lecture outlines and dinner with students, turned into running around town to find moving boxes, comforting crying students and helping make sense of why face-to-face course instruction was halted. Those simple five steps we had relied on in the weeks before went the widow and frustration grew across campus.

Impromptu senior send-off from the Presbyterian Student Association

As the chaplain, I am usually the one people turn to when anxiety and stress impact the lives of our students. I spent most of my day with students, helping them process their emotions and figure out their next steps. It was a gut-wrenching day. I listened students say goodbye to each other, knowing they would not return until the fall. I heard the cries of seniors as they mourned the fact that their last eight weeks had been planned for the transition to life after college, but now they were having to prepare for it immediately. I heard words of lament from first-generation college students who wondered if they would even get the big pomp and pageantry of graduation. But through all the tears and sadness, I was reminded of what our community does best: support one another. It was made clear in the stories shared, in the tears cried, in the hopes for next year.

Usually filled with student cars, the parking lot only has a few staff cars now.

That evening, I sat down to think of what to say to our community. What words would be sufficient for us? I was reminded that even if we aren’t all physically on campus, we are a community. I reminded our students that while we have canceled the mission trip, all campus activities and now face-to-face coursework, that does not mean that we still can’t gather together as a community and uphold one another in prayer. While COVID-19 may separate us physically, it cannot stop our community support and love for one another. We just have to get creative with what that community can look like.

For our community, it looks like relying on our social media accounts more — to foster discussion, provide updates and share support for one another. While we already streamed chapel and worship on our social media accounts with a team of students helping lead the way, we will continue to do so — but this time with the clumsy chaplain at the helm. We host weekly meals and devotions, which will continue, but this time from the comfort of our homes as we gather around computer screens.

While worship and community will look different in the coming weeks, we are taking the opportunity to expand what our virtual community support can look like. We are creating what we call “Spiritual Weekend Retreats,” where we will share various spiritual and self-care practices on Friday afternoons to encourage people to try them over the weekend and share back with the group. My office is also continuing pastoral care via Zoom and Google Meet-Up.

The game room in the Lyon student center. It is usually packed with students and lively; today it is empty and quiet.

The important thing is that we continue to gather, even if it is online for the time being. And others should try to do the same as well. You will be amazed at what your community can accomplish. But it is important to know that you do not have to reinvent what virtual community looks like. Do what works best for your community. Use the applications and systems your community is already accessing and try to do worship or Bible study. See what happens.

College students are already tech savvy, which helps us host things online. And due to the current crisis, it means we will spend more time online, expanding what ministry can look like. I am excited to see what comes from this new mission opportunity.

As I finished typing a letter to our students, I closed like I do with most of my letters, reminding them to breathe. And reminding them that we are not alone in the uncertainty. For the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit are with us all, today, tonight, and always — even in the midst of social media glitches and technology headaches as we navigate virtual community.

MAGGIE ALSUP lives on iced coffee, believes that Disney movies are for all ages, is obsessed with hippos and loves living in the foothills of the Ozarks. She currently serves as the chaplain at Lyon College, in Batesville, Arkansas, where she helps empower and equip students for the life and ministry of the church universal.