Celebrating Ash Wednesday on fraternity row

Rev. Trip Porch speaks to the crowd at Indianola Presbyterian’s Ash Wednesday service. Photo provided.

This story starts with a neighborhood church surrounded by houses on a tree-lined street. But this church also happens to be within walking distance of one of the largest universities in the nation: The Ohio State University. Over the past 40 years, many homeowners in the neighborhood decide to sell their homes to large property rental companies, making way for a sea of 18-24-year-old Buckeyes. That neighborhood church, Indianola Presbyterian, is now an island engulfed by student housing, and it is a campus church with a very big question hovering before it: “What does loving your neighbor look like when your neighbors are all frat houses?”

This past Ash Wednesday, it looked like 40 Presbyterians gathered to worship around the fire pit at one of those houses: Alpha Gamma Rho Fraternity. It was an experiment in what happens when a church steps outside of its comfort zone and goes beyond the safety of its walls. The results of the experiment? Well, it turns out, the Holy Spirit blows just as powerfully at a frat house as it does in any sanctuary, and when you open yourself up to your neighbors even a little bit, they open up too.

Photo provided.

It started with an idea: “This year for Ash Wednesday, let’s have a vespers service outside around a fire!” Then someone happened to notice that the fraternity next door had a beautiful large stone fire pit on their patio, perfectly suited for a group our size to gather around. “What if we worship … over there.” The next thing we knew, it was being discussed as a formal agenda item at the fraternity’s chapter meeting, and we were given the go-ahead.

In the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, we began to feel cautious about it. Would the solo cups be cleaned up in time? How many volunteers would it take to move the beer pong table? We were even making jokes that maybe the frat house was, in fact, a perfect setting for a service about “confession and repentance.”

When we arrived early to set up on an uncharacteristically warm evening in March, we were amazed to find that our assumptions could not have been more wrong. Without any advance coordination, the space was already prepared for us. They had a roaring fire ready, a PA system out for us to use, and a group of the brothers bringing out all of the chairs in the house so that everyone would have a seat.

Photo provided.

There was one issue though: the thumping bass from the lawn parties across the street at Theta Chi and Alpha Tau Omega. We nearly moved the service inside, not wanting to be the nagging curmudgeons telling our neighbors to “keep that racket down.” But we decided to trust our gut and trust them. So we went to share with them that we were about to have a worship service outside and ask if they’d accommodate 30 minutes of quiet. They graciously and emphatically agreed. When the service began not only was there silence on fraternity row, but six brothers from these fraternities came to join us in worship. After the service, we lingered by the fire and dreamed about what future church-frat partnerships could look like and how we might work together around service and mission opportunities to better care for our community.

Lessons learned:
1. Loving our neighbor may mean confronting the reality to our assumptions are wrong. Loving them means not only seeing the best in them but giving them opportunities to share the best of themselves.

2. Frat houses can be hallowed ground. People beyond the walls of the church also have the full capacity to be saintly human beings. God is at work through us all.

3. There is never harm in asking. If you feel a tug causing you to wonder “what if?” Follow it! That is the Spirit’s favorite question.

4. From one of the students in attendance: Next year, bring marshmallows.

Trip Porch is the pastor at Indianola Presbyterian Church in the heart of the University District of Columbus, Ohio. He’s a passionate lover of the arts, the underground coffee scene, and getting lost in the woods with his family