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College ministry: The mission of the whole community

I used to think I knew a lot about college ministry. My spouse is department chair for a doctoral program in clinical psychology. The congregation I pastor sits next to UCLA; my most recent pastorate was across the street from a Presbyterian-related college. In between, I served on staff at Pittsburgh Seminary. Life in higher education is familiar territory.

But now, what do I know? Everything is different about college, and every college is different. Classes are delayed … or online … or hybrid … or in person. Sports, choir, theater, orchestra and band are canceled … or limited … or all-in. Dorms are closed … or partially open … or full.

And things keep changing. Just as campuses planned to open, myriad schools reversed course. In mid-August, Smith and Holyoke Colleges announced they would not open for in-person instruction. Brown University set a mid-October start date for fall semester — notably after Brown’s president wrote a New York Times opinion piece making the case for in-person learning to support low-income students, revive the economy and support college revenue. And, weeks after opening, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill abruptly shut down in-person instruction for undergraduates after an outbreak of COVID-19. I do not envy anyone involved — students, family members, decision-makers, professors, board members. There is no perfect answer.

And on top of all that, we have a movement for racial justice reverberating across the country. And, of course, we are facing a presidential election that portends to divide us even more than we already are.

So what on earth does college ministry mean at a time like this? In some ways, it means more than ever.

Our value of justice presses us to call out systemic racism, and genuinely manifest that Black lives matter.

Our value of compassion requires us to love our neighbor – and even our enemy – especially at a time when “speaking the truth in love” is urgent.

Our value of care for the vulnerable urges us to tend to students who may feel more invisible than ever, including those who are isolated from family and friends, struggling under the weight of debt or wrestling with issues of sexual identity, mental health or a thousand other internal challenges.

These values are not just the work of a chaplain; they are the mission of the whole community. Even in “normal” times, the ministry of church members near campuses makes a profound impact — and, in turn, they are blessed by the gifts of the campus community. On one campus, a member reached out to college staff to find ways to connect students to local jobs and internships — leading to a networking system far beyond graduation. At another school, a number of members collaborated with campus sports leaders to ensure students felt individual encouragement and the support of the local community. And then there are professors who are active in local churches — including Westwood Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles where I serve. Their commitment, creativity, compassion and resilience are remarkable.

College ministry has a lasting impact, as I can attest. For my first two years as an undergraduate at University of Illinois, I was in a period of doubt and exploration. A religious studies major (and Russian minor), I’d set aside my literalist understanding of Scripture (learned in conservative Presbyterian Sunday school), and begun an adventure as I sought to appreciate contextual, historical-critical and multivalent readings of the Bible. I was excited to learn much more about other religious traditions, including Judaism, Eastern religions and ancient Greco-Roman philosophies. I admired my professors’ intellectual rigor and integrity.

But in the midst of my seeking, I grew hungry for faith. My third year, I wandered into the Presbyterian church on campus just to experience something vaguely familiar. And there, in the choir loft, were two of my professors: Vernon Robbins and David Peterson. And suddenly, the dividing wall between scholarship and faith fell. I will be forever grateful.

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