Campus Ministry Presentation, 2007 Diocesan Convention

This is the text of Margaret Wessel Walker’s presentation at Diocesan Convention, November 10, 2007:

No general definition of campus ministries can really do them justice. Even the four here in Chicago, which we represent, are each very individual and unique. So I’d like to tell you some personal experiences, both my own and those of my friends at Brent House at the University of Chicago, to give you a better feel for what we’re like.

When we were first thinking about this presentation, the other delegates from Brent House and I asked ourselves how best to describe our ministry at the UofC. Our answer was quite simple: food and prayer. I think I need to say a bit more than that, though.

Why food? you may ask. At Brent House, our Sunday services are in the evening, and we all take turns to cook a wonderful supper for afterwards. We all sit around the living room of the house, with our plates balanced on our knees and discuss deep theological topics, or just whine about our homework loads. These conversations, whether profound or banal, are an important part of how our community is built and strengthened. We aren’t just a group of people coming together for an hour or so to worship on Sunday and then ignoring each other for the rest of the week. We are a community of good friends, who can relax in one another’s company, and eating together is a key component of that.

Brent House has a comforting atmosphere. It is in fact an actual house, with a kitchen and living room, and so on. I think this helps the home-like feeling. At the end of her four years at the University, one girl wrote, “When everything at Chicago was new, [Brent House] was the first place I felt at home.” I think that most of us feel that way about Brent House. It’s the kind of place where you can wear jeans to church if you like, or if you’re like me, and prefer dressing up, you don’t feel out of place either. And if things ever get to serious, Casey the dog is sure to break the mood by jumping into someone’s lap and demanding attention. Most importantly, on an academic campus that can sometimes be, if not openly hostile, then at least unwelcoming to religious students, Brent House is a place to rest and take shelter from the occasional condemnation of our “irrational” beliefs.

This feeling of a refuge is common among the campus ministries. The students from the campus ministry at Northern Illinois University say that their campus ministry provides a relief from the daily grind of grades and homework and a chance to relax with people who share similar values. Canterbury, the campus ministry at Northwestern University, is also known as a safe place for gays and lesbians, a place where they are accepted as who they are. Most importantly, the discussions and conversations carry on outside of Canterbury house, extending to a wider community.

Discussion is also very important at Brent House, and that is one of my favorite aspects of our ministry. I’m a cradle Episcopalian, and like many, I was never really comfortable talking about God when I was growing up. In fact, I didn’t get over that until two years ago, when I lived and worked at an evangelical Lutheran retreat center in Bavaria, Germany. There I learned to talk about my faith and my God without embarrassment. Coming back, I didn’t want to change that, and to my great joy, I found in Brent House a community of people as eager to discuss God as I am. We are all questioning and seeking; I think especially at our age, everybody is, and it is so wonderful to have a place where it is safe to ask those questions and talk about our doubts. Last year on Easter, one of our members was baptized at the Cathedral. She had converted to Christianity about a year earlier, while she was living in South Africa, and when she came to Chicago, she was used to “praise songs and hellfire preaching” as she put it. And yet, she found in Brent House and the Episcopal church the kind of community she was looking for, a place to strengthen and grow her faith, a welcoming group of people, ready to talk to her.

At Brent House, students are involved in planning and carrying out the liturgy. We tend towards the traditional side, using the prayer book and hymnal, and even breaking out the incense on feast days. Unlike the popular misconception of youth, we don’t need trendy music and modern rewordings of the liturgy to appreciate worship. Although alternate services can be fun as well: last year Brent House helped plan a U2charist, a Eucharist service to the music of U2. The South Loop campus ministry, serving the several universities in the Loop, celebrates in a more relaxed style, singing along with guitars and other instruments. They also have quieter forms of worship, such as contemplative prayer and meditation.

Over the years, many Brent House students have gone on to divinity school or lay ministry, and currently 3 of us are discerning whether we are called to ordained ministry. Brent House provides a nurturing community to explore a sense of a call, which can be rather difficult to do sometimes. I am so glad to be part of the wonderful community that is Brent House, which supports us through whatever spiritual journey we are on. I know, regardless of our calling, all of us look forward to serving God in the wider church and the world.

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