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Hard Questions, Free Food

The diocese’s campus ministers create a safe place for spiritual exploration

If media accounts are to be believed, pundits, psychologists and professors all agree that millennials—people born since 1980—are fragile, lazy and entitled. Ask many Episcopal leaders about young adults and you’ll hear that getting them to come to church is both nearly impossible and essential to the denomination’s survival. But campus ministers in the Diocese of Chicago, who stand at the crossroads of the culture’s assumptions and the church’s anxiety about young adults, say the reality of working with college students is both more complicated and rewarding than people might assume.

The Rev. Stacy Alan, the longest-serving campus minister in the diocese, became chaplain at Brent House, the Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Chicago, in 2005. She says that the world is a more diffi- cult place for college students now than when she began.

“There is a lot of rhetoric about the fragility of this generation,” Alan says, “but there is something to it being a harder world to live in that it was 12 years ago in a way that I’m just beginning to understand. Since I’ve been here, Westboro Baptist Church—that’s the ‘God Hates Fags’ church—has shown up three times. They came back last fall and were demonstrating against gender-neutral bathrooms. I have a couple of transgender students and assorted LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual] students. There was a level of fear in the arrival of this group to campus that surprised me. People were scared. They know that their lives are at risk. The public rhetoric of the last year has made the hate of groups like Westboro seem more mainstream.”

Her job, she says, is to provide a safe space that says, “you need not fear here.”

But these days, many students don’t assume the church is safe.

“I think fewer students come from institutional religion,” she says. “Across the church, we can’t assume that people know some of the common stories that were part of the culture before. It isn’t a bad thing; it’s just different. It is probably accurate to say that people are suspicious of institutional Christianity. We have a lot of assumptions to overcome with folks coming in, especially after all that’s happened in the country this past year.”

A few miles across town, the Rev. Ben Adams, a Lutheran minister in his third year as campus pastor to the shared Lutheran-Episcopal South Loop Campus Ministry, encounters the same attitudes among students at Roosevelt University, Columbia College, Robert Morris University and DePaul University.

“I think the question I hope to answer, that I think students are asking, is, ‘Is there hope for the world?’” Adams says. “The ques- tion comes from the threat of nuclear war, from climate change and the effects of pollution that seems irreversible at this point, that racism continues to rear its head, and the fact that a lot of LGBT people are suffering and are experiencing suicide at a rate that is quadruple the national average. I do think it is something to worry about. Obviously, since we dropped the bomb on Japan, we realize the destruction we are capable of. That was a mind changer and a game changer, that we, as people, are capable of being responsible for our own apocalypse. All these things are in the forefront of my students’ minds every day.”

Convincing students to trust the church with those concerns, however, can require competence in both pastoral care and popular culture.

“Most of the students, when I talk to them about their opinions about religion, all they know of it is what they hear in the media,” says Adams, a 2014 graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago who sports a beard and sneakers and rides a penny board. “That’s a hard stereotype to overcome. I find myself saying, ‘I’m a Christian, but I’m not that kind of Christian.’ And that’s a divisive- ness we don’t need. Sometimes I only have a few moments with a student to debunk that.”

GOD TALK, BUT MORE CASUAL

Grace Place, the Episcopal-Lutheran ministry that serves Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb, has first-hand experience with the world in which today’s young adults have come of age. On February 14, 2008, Steven Kazmierczak, armed with a shotgun and three pistols, opened fire in a campus lecture hall. Five people died and 17 were wounded before Kazmierczak took his own life.

In 2014, faculty members on Grace Place’s board became aware of a quieter student crisis. Thousands of niu students—as many as 3000, according to one study—were food insecure. In response, Grace Place opened a food pantry for students. The project initially served about 30 students each week, but within two years the pantry was serving 75-90 students each week, at which point the university took it over because it was too big to be sustained solely by volunteers.

Today Grace Place partners with First Lutheran Church to provide free lunches. On Sundays, members of First Lutheran pack the lunch bags, which include a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a dessert, chips and a bottle of water, and deliver them to Grace Place, where they are handed out to students on Monday mornings. “Last week, they handed out 125 lunches at Grace Place in less than half an hour,” says the Rev. Andrew Kayes, a Lutheran pastor who is acting president of the ministry. Each bag includes information about both Grace Place and First Lutheran.

There’s free food, too—usually sandwiches and pizzas—on Wednesday evenings before worship. “Some students come for the meals and not the worship,” Kayes says. “Others for the worship and not the meal. Some come for both. I can think of one student who shared with me that he depends on food pantries in order to get enough to eat.”

“I actively avoided campus ministry or religious affairs. It wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of until I did a community meal at Grace Place.”

Local need also drives the South Loop’s largest campus ministry program, called The South Loop Community Table. Every Sunday, students gather for a meal and serve roughly 75 people who are homeless.

Taking it to the Streets is a monthly feeding ministry. Student volunteers pack up lunches when it’s warm, or soup when it’s cold, and walk the city streets serving anyone they come across in need. This is what originally attracted Raychel Brown and Eduardo Zagalsky to the ministry. Both are students at Roosevelt University and receive a small stipend for helping Adams in the day-to-day running of the program.

The ministry, Zagalsky says, “gave me a chance to see people who needed it just a little bit more, who just didn’t have the energy to get to the church to get food. To see how their eyes lit up, to see how much it meant to them. I didn’t think I would care about it as much as I do.”

Brown first started volunteering through her service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega.

“I go to church, but I didn’t really do a whole lot of service-based things with my church,” she says. “I actively avoided any campus ministry or religious affairs. I’d see them and I’d walk in the other direction. I didn’t want to be a part of anything like that because it seemed it would be impeding on my college experience. “It wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of until I did a community meal at Grace Place. It was different from anything I had seen or heard about campus ministry. There is God talk, but it is more casual. It is this idea that Jesus can connect to your life outside of religion. We tell people it is faith-based, but you can be of another religion or you can be no religion at all.”

To Alan, the diversity of campus ministry programs and styles in the diocese makes sense. “One of the crucial things for campus min- istry is being very attentive to the particular campus you’re working with,” she says. “The University of Chicago is an incredibly high-pressure place. Most people have ‘imposter syndrome.’ They feel like they got in on a fluke, and everyone is smarter than they are. So we have an open invitation for people to come, say, for afternoon tea, no agenda.

“I think it is crucial in this work to constantly be listening to what is going on on campus. And in the listening, I find that it usually becomes pretty clear what needs are out there that we can respond to.”

ASK QUESTIONS AND BE LOVED

Sitting in a church office waiting for students to walk in doesn’t work on their campuses, say Alan and Adams.

Because South Loop Campus Ministry serves four colleges, Adams moves around a lot. He has an office at Grace Place Episcopal Church and uses the sanctuary space there for Saturday night worship services, but he can usually be found on one of the campuses.

“We meet students by word of mouth and by me being on campus holding informal office hours,” Adams says. “I have a sign that says, ‘Let’s talk about anything.’ I’ll usually just be doing work and have the sign. It’s a non-threatening situation. I have an office at Grace Place, but it’s two blocks from campus. Sometimes I’ll sit in a study lounge or cafeteria.

“It’s kind of scrappy. We don’t have a center or a place, but we do have a lot of spaces where we can be public about who we are. On a weekly basis, I probably interact with anywhere from 25 to 40 students.”

Alan, too, relies on a sign. “Recently I’ve been doing more work out on campus with other religious advisors,” she says. “Just being out there with no strings attached. We have a table in the student center. We have chocolate. Some people avert their eyes when they go by. They have the assumption that we are going to try to convert them. We have a sign that says, ‘Ask Lucy’, inspired by Lucy’s booth from the comic strip Peanuts. I sat there with my Muslim colleague and that got their attention. Sometimes it’s just a matter of saying, yes, the chocolate is free.”

In DeKalb, Grace Place’s visible and accessible location across the street from the student center is an advantage in attracting people, says Kayes. “It is surprising how many people just drop in,” including parents of students, walk-ins from the streets, and someone who had run out of gas, he says.

“When we ask students about what brought them in, most of them say they just saw the sign, or the fire we have on the first Wednesday of the semester, or just the open doors. The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. When we asked students, ‘Why do you continue to come to Grace Place?’ one of the things that kept coming up was that it embodies its own name. It exhibits grace to people who come by.”

Visibility helps make the first connection with students, but what keeps them coming back, says Alan, is the ability to ask questions and wrestle with the kind of hard issues that face young adults trying to chart their courses in life.

“Discernment is a constant. It’s part of what we do,” she says. “I work really hard for the word discernment to be as broad as it is meant to be. In some of the groups, we’ve wrestled with job questions, field of study, relationship questions, where am I going to live and why? I really emphasize that discernment is a habit for life.”

Earlier this year, Brent House was awarded a $29,300 grant by The Episcopal Church to develop an initiative that will introduce students at Brent House and several other campus ministries to the spirituality and prayer practices of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. The program, which will include a series of retreats and facilitated small prayer groups, builds on the informal Ignatian programs that Brent House already offers.

“Students find a new, more mature energy in their relationships with God, and they are given a vocabulary to understand the dynamics of that relationship. These all become powerful resources in discipleship and discernment,” Alan says.

“This is a place where they can be in process, where they can ask questions and be loved,” she says. “We, the church, can do that. Campus ministries do that in a particularly distilled way, because we get people when they are actively asking those questions. There is an intensity in campus ministry, that is true. The folks here say, ‘Yes, it’s good to hear that God loves you. But what happens when I screw up?’ Part of what we do is help people understand what sin is. Sometimes it is no, that is not sin; you were manipulated. Other times it is, ‘You made a choice and what can we do about that?’”

COMMITTED, OR JUST PASSING THROUGH?

Not surprisingly, campus ministers get used to the developmental ups and downs of young adults who are trying on new identities and testing long-held beliefs.

In DeKalb, “we get all sorts of people,” says Kayes. “We have a few cradle Lutherans and Episcopalians. They normally constitute about a third. Then there are a few people who grew up in other churches. The bulk are people who are non-religious or non-committal. Maybe they went to a church as a child, or maybe not. It’s wild how many of our students say they just won’t go to church. Part of their identity is that they’re not churchgoers. Grace Place seems to be an appropriate stepping stone to ‘this is what church is really all about.’”

“I think one of the reasons we’ve lost the ear of a lot of young people is that we are not answering the questions that they’re asking.”

“People are curious about everything, including religion and religious practice,” Alan says. “We have pagans and Jews and Christians. Once we had a speaker come in to talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and religion. At one point I overheard a neo-pagan who was explaining the concept of the Trinity to an atheist Jew. They have both since graduated. Neither became Christians, but the atheist Jew has become much more active in her faith. We also have people who join the Episcopal Church through Brent House every year.”

Campus ministry in the South Loop is particularly diverse, says Adams, thanks to the diversity of the colleges it serves. “We tend to not get the traditional white, mainline protestant students. I think most campus ministries skew white, and Episcopalians and Lutherans are mainly white. We are an ecumenical ministry in that we don’t have to be all Lutheran or all Episcopalian.”

Adams has given a lot of thought to why young people who are attracted to campus ministry are often missing from the church pews. “I think one of the reasons we’ve lost the ear of a lot of young people is that we are not answering the questions that they’re asking,” says Adams, who also serves as an assistant pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where he has started a program called Sweet Home Chicago that pairs students away from home with families who want to host them for meals, evenings out, and practical support. “As we’re getting ready to observe the 500th anniversary of The Reformation, I think back to the questions of Martin Luther’s time, ‘Will I go to heaven? Will I be forgiven?’

“Young people today are not asking about salvation. I’m there myself. I’m not concerned about the afterlife but about the things that are happening around us,” he says. “It’s not that the church doesn’t have anything to say about the afterlife and what happens when we die. The church has a lot to say about that. But there’s an order of things. Can we invite them into our vision of hope and talk about it from there, and not with a heaven or hell starting point?”

“When we asked students, ‘Why do you continue to come to Grace Place?’ one of the things that kept coming up was that it embodies its own name. It exhibits grace to people who come by.”

While the Brent House community attracts many seekers and skeptics, the ministry has a stable membership and a strong history of helping people discern both ordained and lay ministry in the church.

“At the University of Chicago, if you’re doing a PhD, that can take 10 years,” Alan says. “Undergraduates may be here for at least four and people often stay in the city after. We’re not a parish, but we are a congregation.”

Brent House currently has a member in the diocese’s formation program for vocational deacons and another in the process to become a priest. “I had another student who, while he was here, told me he had become an atheist and he had to step away from Brent House,” she says. “Life kept happening to him, and God came around and did the work that God does and brought him home. He is now starting his first year of seminary.

“But we also are forming the lay leadership of the church. We do that with everything from preparing people with basic Bible study, having students be on our board, or being a delegate to diocesan convention. I’m very intentional. If people choose to get involved with a parish, they will have a confidence in offering their services.”

Students faced with coming of age in uncertain times might ulti- mately become ordained leaders, drift away from organized religion, or become what Alan calls “confident, educated in the faith, formed lay people.” Regardless of the outcome, the campus is a mission field, she says. “We build relationships, and we ask them how we can support people in what they need. If in the end of all of that, they want to know about Jesus, we tell them about Jesus. Our job is not to convert everybody but to proclaim the Gospel, which means listening, being present.”

“It requires,” she says, “holding both a really profound confidence in God’s love and Christ’s presence with us, simultaneously with a deep humility.”

(photos by L.E. Eames, Rob Hart; courtesy of Andrew Kayes)