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Presbyterian campus ministries share kindness and compassion with Israel-Hamas war protestors

As college protests against the Israel-Hamas war spread around the country, local Presbyterian ministries seek to offer refuge and care to all students.

Photograph by Arya Hodjat for the Washingtonian.

Demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war have spread to dozens of campuses around the country since the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent retaliation against military and civilian targets in Gaza, and Presbyterian campus ministries and nearby churches have responded by offering support, respite and spiritual care to those involved in the protests.

Tensions have risen between pro-Palestinian protestors, counter-protestors and university administrations as demonstrators have attempted to expand their rallies and set up encampments to pressure schools to divest from holdings in Israeli companies. For others, protests continue to challenge administrations’ protection of free speech for students. Some have called for the resignation of university presidents over the mishandling of protests and the use of force against demonstrators.

Columbia University

An epicenter of the protests has been Columbia University in New York City where, on Monday, students refused an order to remove an encampment of 120 tents from the campus and signed a declaration saying they would abide by university policies through 2025. While police were not initially called to disperse the demonstrators, the university followed through on its promise to suspend protestors.

Later Monday evening, protestors occupied Hamilton Hall on the campus. The university eventually called on the New York Police Department to remove demonstrators Tuesday night, resulting in 300 additional arrests.

Chris Shelton, pastor at Broadway Presbyterian Church, which sits across the street from Columbia University, said the entire neighborhood was shocked when administrators called in police to arrest protestors last week.

Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City hosted its annual “Midnight Pancakes” finals week event as a respite for Columbia University students. Photo by Chris Shelton.

“The protests had become part of our routine over the past few months,” he said. “And we were feeling all of it. We were feeling the passion of our pro-Palestinian neighbors, feeling the fear of our Israeli and Jewish neighbors. I think what’s most natural to our community is trying to veer toward ‘love your neighbor’ and ‘be kind,’ and we have experienced that work in a number of ways.”

As the standoff between administration and faculty escalated, the church offered meeting space for professors to teach classes in which suspended students were enrolled. In a show of thanks, the church’s soup kitchen received leftover pizzas from the protest encampment.

Broadway Presbyterian wondered if it should hold its “Midnight Pancakes” event – a finals-week tradition – given the gravity of the protests in the area.

“The amount of stress the students are under is so intense that we just wanted to say, ‘Can we provide a respite?’” said Becca Seely, ecumenical campus minister at Broadway Presbyterian. “Can we provide a space where students can just come and experience some peace or some joy, blow off a little steam — and not because we’re apolitical, but to set aside the rancor and instead say can we all just sort of be together in this moment and take a breath?”

The event happened as planned on Monday night, although with a slightly smaller showing than usual. The gathering happened to coincide with student protestors’ occupation of the Hamilton Hall administrative building on the campus.

“I looked out at the room and saw folks from all over the world,” Shelton said. “Students from China and from India and from the Middle East and from places across the United States and from Latin America. And I see us all coming together and eating pancakes and singing karaoke. And I glimpse it and I say, ‘This is what the Kingdom looks like.’ Even as the world falls apart, the Kingdom of God is still at work amongst us.”

“Even as the world falls apart, the Kingdom of God is still at work amongst us.” — Chris Shelton

UCLA

Demonstrations at the University of California-Los Angeles have recently become more intense. After a long period of relative calm in which protestors asked for the school to divest from Israeli interests, and the school’s administration saying divestment would not happen, violent clashes erupted on Tuesday between pro-Palestinian supporters and pro-Israel counter-protesters.

“We have students that are part of the encampment, students within our congregation providing medical and other support,” said Jake Putich, director of youth, college, and adult faith formation at Westwood Presbyterian Church, located just south of the UCLA campus. “We have students that are opposed to the encampment, as well. It’s a very fraught and complex situation, obviously, and we’re trying to do our best to minister to students affected.”

Westwood Presbyterian’s pastor, Chris Chakoian, echoed this thought, saying, “The feelings are so tender right now, and I would even say there’s a sense of futility and lack of clarity for students about how to move forward, and that in itself has been a heavy burden for them to bear.”

But she says the complexity offers the church an opportunity to imagine what respectful, thoughtful and kind engagement with difficult issues of justice and faithfulness might look like in their community.

The complexity offers the church an opportunity to imagine what respectful, thoughtful and kind engagement with difficult issues of justice and faithfulness might look like in their community. — Chris Chakoian

“Our theme song at this church is Micah 6:8 — do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God,” Chakoian said. “It’s never easy to have all of those going at the same time, but it’s crucial. And that’s where I want us to continue to be. Justice absolutely matters. But if we don’t approach it with humility and also with kindness, [and] a sense of compassion for the other, then we will have lost the point.”

University of Texas

At the University of Texas in Austin, police were called to the campus on Wednesday, April 24, to disperse the student protest resulting in 50 arrests. On Monday, April 29, more than 100 students attempted to set up an encampment, but police eventually used pepper spray and flash-bang devices to clear the demonstration, resulting in at least 40 more arrests.

Matt Gaventa is the senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church, which sits on the west edge of the UT campus. He and Carter Grant, University Presbyterian’s associate pastor who oversees the UKirk campus ministry, have joined with a coalition of other churches to provide physical and spiritual care to students, faculty and staff involved in the protests. Although not participating in the protests, Gaventa observed last week’s demonstrations.

“I was at Wednesday’s protest when police came to campus last week,” he said. “On Thursday, there was a follow-up protest that did not have a police response, so we could see the difference between what protest looks like here with and without the use of force.”

He and Grant have been working with students at a church that’s close to the University of Texas and is hosting a rest center with first aid available.

“We have a partner church that is trying to keep their doors open as much as possible and has been making sure they have water and snacks and, in the case of yesterday, saline solution and changes of clothes for students who were pepper sprayed,” Gaventa said. “We’ve been helping to make sure there are volunteers working with their ministry and that has snowballed into a multi-church effort.”

University of Texas sophomore Ellie Nicholson, who is an active member of the UKirk campus ministry at University Presbyterian, has seen the protests on campus firsthand. UKirk campus ministry director Grant contacted Nicholson to ask if she knew of students who needed legal or medical help. Nicholson also helped the ecumenical ministries distribute food and water to protestors last Friday.

“My faith is my moral compass,” Nicholson said. “I’ve grown up in the Presbyterian church … it’s nice to have a community of Christians who are loving and supporting and wanting to show that same support to the protestors, even if they aren’t Christian, for them to know they are cared for by the community.”

“I’ve grown up in the Presbyterian church … it’s nice to have a community of Christians who are loving and supporting and wanting to show that same support to the protestors, even if they aren’t Christian” — Ellie Nicholson

While the UKirk ministries are not helping to organize students or advising the protest at UT in any way, they are providing a safe space for those who have been affected by their involvement in protests.

“Last night, I sat with a student who was arrested last Wednesday and spent the night in jail,” Gaventa said. “He’s a freshman at UT and wasn’t involved in [Monday’s] protest, but simply came last night because he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable on campus right now and needed a place to go and be still. He sat at a table by himself for several hours, and I talked to him on and off. He just needed someplace that could be safe, and that’s what we’re trying to offer.

“He just needed someplace that could be safe, and that’s what we’re trying to offer.” — Matt Gaventa

“It has been incredibly heartening to see the ways in which churches in the community have responded,” he continued. “Seeing different volunteers from all these congregations show up and do whatever they needed to do and sort of rise to the moment. It seemed like the best possible version of church, even under terrible circumstances.”

Editor’s note: Events regarding the campus protests are changing rapidly. The details published here are the latest developments as of press time.

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