A Message from Lutheran Campus Ministry: The Belfry
by Kathye Hamm
It was not long after I started as the Executive Director of The Belfry, the Lutheran Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis and home of Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network (LEVN), that I realized I would be asked the same two questions on a pretty regular basis. From students, that question is usually “what’s for dinner?” From everyone else, the question I hear most is “how many students attend your weekly worship?”
For a long time I would just answer, but as my tenure at The Belfry has increased I have toyed more and more with the idea of refusing to tell people.
Because, after 9 months in this role I’m not so sure that’s the question we should be asking about the ministry we do, and after further reflection, I don’t think it’s the question that folks are really trying to ask. It’s the wrong question because a large attendance doesn’t make a worship community. Our Peer Minister came to us after first trying one of the larger non-denominational campus religious organizations where she found she was largely anonymous and mostly ignored. And, it’s not the question they’re really asking because I think when folks are asking me “How many students in your campus ministry?” what they really want to be asking is “Why? Why campus ministry?”
And, to tell you the truth, I’d much rather answer “Why”.
“Why” let’s me tell you about all of the students who come to our Wednesday Night worship every week, or every month; once a quarter, or once an academic year. They gather together for dinner and worship. They hear the Gospel. They come to us for comfort and strength; solace and encouragement, and they get it.
It lets me tell you about the folks who have too many commitments to come to Wednesday Worship but who still get coffee with our Pastor, Casey Dunsworth, every time she invites them because we’re the only organization that doesn’t ask for anything except to care for them.
If I get asked “why campus ministry?” I get to tell you about our new Essentials Pantry which seeks to address student poverty by providing free hygiene and personal care products. Items which are supremely necessary—ever tried to get by without a toothbrush?—but also prohibitively expensive for many UC Davis students. Modeled on a program from the Episcopal Campus Ministry at the University of Arizona, we believe ours is the first of its kind at UC Davis. In the first week we promoted it on campus, four students that we’d never seen before showed up at our door to use it.
“Why?” gives me the opportunity to tell you the story of the young man who lives in our residence this year who’s far, far from his family and disconnected from a previous community he was involved in. He stops by every day to get candy.
It also lets me tell you the story of the student from a very strict denomination who comes by just to talk to Pastor Casey and hear that he is remarkably normal. If you ask me ‘why?’ I can tell you the about the woman who comes to every bible study because what she wants in a religious community is a way to read the bible from a progressive lens.
“Why?” gives me the chance to tell you about our presence as a progressive ministry in the community, about the rainbow flag on our building, the signs about justice in our windows, or our ad in the campus newspaper welcoming and affirming everyone—just some of the ways that we actively confront the misguided idea that all Christians are hateful, judgemental, ignorant, or intolerant of difference. We are ambassadors for our denominations, and for our faith, among a group of people who are wary of us because they or someone they love has been hurt in the name of Christianity before.
I firmly believe that our God is a God of the margins, and the ways in which we minister to people on the margins isn’t captured in statistics about average worship attendance, but I think it comes through when someone asks me “why?” and I get to tell them.
Why also gives me the opportunity to tell folks how we’re raising up faith-informed leaders.
Belfry alums who don’t go on the be priests, or pastors or deacons—which they often do—go on to be grad students, nurses, non-profit professionals, scientists, and lawyers informed by their experience with our traditions even if they have a different spiritual practice. They have been told, and shown, that the people on the margins matter and they live their lives accordingly.
Young adults in our ministry aren’t just the future of Lutherans and Episcopalians, they are the future of our communities; the future of our neighbors; the future of our country; the future of our world.
Now, I’m going to be really candid with you that the old top-down ways of funding this vital work aren’t going to work forever. I don’t have to tell anyone reading this that our denominations, both Lutheran and Episcopalian, are in a period of transition. Over and over we find ourselves one payroll, or one bad month away from disaster, and not because of out of control spending but because promised funding is tied up or church-wide budgets have been cut.
So, if we’re going to ensure this future; if we’re going to continue to raise up faith-informed leaders, community members, and congregants; if we’re going to continue to serve those on the margins who need us most, then we need your help to do it.
I’m inviting each and every person reading this to give as they are able to help this ministry, and all campus ministries in the Sierra Pacific Synod, continue to do the work that we have been given to do.
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