The Spirit at work

Several years ago, at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, I attended a Styberg Library lecture by Stephen Ray Jr. that connected the nature of Reformation (with a capital “R”) to the work of the Holy Spirit. Ray’s is a voice to which I pay attention. His wisdom consistently challenges Christians and calls us to our commission, and it is drawn from a depth of discernment that, I confess, terrified me as a doctoral student. He knows.

In this instance, his precise and timely challenge was directed to the church universal, with the warning that our beloved material and earthly church needed to get going on finding the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is out in the world working through Black Lives Matter, civil disobedience, prophetic calls to compassion and solidarity with those in the margins. So where are you, church? In this challenging lecture, Ray reminded us that the church is always invited to participate in work outside the sanctuary — but, with or without the church’s engagement, the Spirit moves. The real question is whether the church is willing to follow the Spirit’s lead.

I have now spent as much time in a validated ministry outside the walls of the church as I have in spaces of pipe organs and stained glass. I see, indeed, that the Spirit is alive and well on the campus of a small liberal arts college in rural Indiana, breathing into art galleries, performance halls and classrooms. My flock is a collective of Generation Z students, all around half my age — the very population that has never darkened the door of either the proverbial or the literal sanctuary. I have described to colleagues that I again feel like an expatriate, living in a country uniquely different from my own. But instead of Scottish highland “coos” and Irn Bru, I find TikTok cat videos and, in my particular locale, a love of regular bingo games. I also find prophetic teachers who challenge me to be a better follower of Jesus by their curiosity, questions and actions
of solidarity.

When preparing for the end of finals after the fall term, I was using Instacart, as usual, to make purchases from Aldi to put in our food pantry: a service providing nonperishable foods (pastas, sauces, peanut butter, fruit cups), personal hygiene products and other goods for students who might not have time in their schedule to get to the cafeteria, who might be commuting or who might lack a steady income, to name a few possibilities. The food pantry was a brilliant idea of alumnae Tynisha Little ’18 and Emily Perry ’17. The women took time to survey the campus and connect with their fellow students. They determined that, despite our shared cafeteria, dormitories, courses and athletic fields, all students come from very different spaces of privilege and might not have regular access to meals or shampoo. After presenting their quantitative and qualitative research to the school’s cabinet, they were told they could “have a go.” The pantry began in the prayer room of our campus chapel and, in due course, moved to a central location: our student activity center, in an open kitchen area accessible to all. A student organization was founded to oversee inventory and assist with general maintenance, and an endowed fund has been set up to purchase groceries on a regular basis. We simply built upon the faithful work of our students, and we know that it was their witness that compelled us.

Going out of my office in the campus center to run errands in the late afternoon, I passed by the campus multicultural center, a beautiful space with big windows looking out on the bright winter sky. A Buddha serenely sits across from worktables, coloring books and a comfortable sofa, the room radiating with a feeling of sanctuary and the laughter of students. This center was once located in the basement of our building: a tucked-away corner analogous to the youth room of a local congregation (likely filled with the same donated, mismatched, gently-used couches). Senior Alex Edison ’22, president of our Black Student Union, noted that that physical setting hardly spoke of inclusivity or general hospitality to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students on campus. In her first few days in office, Edison was invited by recent graduates Kiki Crowe ’20 and Simone
Henderson ’20 to speak to the board of trustees about this matter, alongside other concerns raised by the Black Student Union regarding the safety and well-being of BIPOC students.

After challenging conversations held over the course of several months, the exertion, courage and vulnerability of students led to the multicultural center’s relocation. These students knew in their bones what hospitality did and did not look like, and they called us out when we had difficulty seeing the same. The center’s shift alongside other changes during the 2020-2021 academic year was not ideal. But these little steps were taken, made possible by the faithfulness of students. Loving our neighbor has been made very real for the Black Student Union: not just in advocating for a more welcoming multicultural center but also welcoming BIPOC counselors and demonstrating a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion training for all employees — to name a few concrete examples.

In this same spirit, the senior class of 2019 created a Home Away From Home fund to provide housing, lodging and activities for international students here in Indiana during school breaks. Hospitality and care look like warm meals, safe spaces, mental health services and community accountability.

Hospitality can also manifest as righteous indignation and anger toward injustice and a declaration that all God’s children are precious, even when our world deems some bodies ungrievable.

During the 2020-2021 academic year, student Lauryn Steele ’22 partnered with classmates, staff and faculty to stage well-attended walkouts to honor the lives lost to murderous violence, including our beautiful Black sibling Breonna Taylor in neighboring Louisville, Kentucky, in addition to our dear Asian sisters in Atlanta, Georgia. At each event, students offered testimonies, poetry, educational brochures and solidarity, and they grieved with the holy anger that channels compassion and empathy. Steele admitted to a professor that she was terrified to prepare a campuswide walkout to lament Taylor’s murder. But, with courage, she invited all of us to mourn, rage and commit to doing justice and lovingkindness.

In southern Indiana, we are not far from the former home of Thomas Merton. It is clear to me that his recognition that “all that is, is holy” is well understood on this side of the Ohio River. When students speak up for each other, carefully plan their discussion(s) with a board member, show up in a professor’s office to plan a campuswide walkout, start a food pantry or insist on creating accessible space in a newly renovated dormitory, the holy is recognized, and the Spirit is moving. I don’t host regular chapel services on campus, and we do not have a large contingent of students who regularly attend worship in a Christian congregation — but these facts do not mean that God is elsewhere. On the contrary, the Divine shows up in our everyday actions and decisions on campus, and our task is to listen when the Spirit is speaking.

Our hope on a liberal arts campus is to foster a commitment to lifelong learning and transformation, which I believe is more a walk into faith than a mere academic inquiry. At our best, we acknowledge that we are students for all our lives, receptive to what God might be up to in spite of our assumptions, eisegesis or privilege. The witness and actions of the Spirit are ever new and unfolding, and we would do well to take the example of young collegiates and allow ourselves to be surprised and challenged by them. A professor of mine made the cheeky remark that “the Spirit is not house-trained,” but this can be easy for us to forget in the ecclesiastical community. It can be a great temptation to assume that the third member of the triune God is a kind of possession, something that we can carefully acknowledge in our bright red Pentecost banners only to tuck it away again until we take it back out for the next liturgical year.

In my expatriate space, there is no reserving something for Pentecost, and the opportunity for growth and learning is ever-present, whether I’m willing to go along or not. In my better moments I can listen, and my guess is that this is possible for all of us in the church. Let us connect with wisdom that comes from teachers who are much younger than ourselves, and let us humble our hearts to be receptive to that which we don’t understand. The Spirit moves, and we’re invited to participate.