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Liberal evangelists on campus

Young Unitarian Universalists are sharing their faith and building worship groups on college campuses — and the UUA and local congregations are scurrying to support them.
By Neil Shister
September/October 2002 9.1.02

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UU college ministry advocates

Unitarian Universalist college ministry advocates at the 2002 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. (Photo by Christopher M. Cirker) (Christopher M. Cirker)

Erica Johnson could be on a poster for Unitarian Universalist young people. At eighteen her personality vibrates with optimism wrapped around a core of precocious gravitas. Raised in a Unitarian Universalist household, she grew up at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., active in all kinds of local and district activities. A chalice pendant hangs around her neck. She has an engaging, offhand way of downplaying suggestions that she’s special. It’s the promise of Unitarian Universalism and social justice that she takes seriously, not herself.

She has biked over to our meeting at a coffee shop in Washington and before sitting down she removes the bandanna that had been wrapped around her head to beat the heat. As soon as our conversation finishes, she’ll work out in the swimming pool. Erica, who grew up in the District of Columbia and graduated from Wilson High School (class of 2001), shrugs off the conventional middle-class Washington buzz about hopeless public schools. Her public education didn’t keep her from getting admitted to Yale. She also got in to the University of Chicago, but was turned off when she visited and nobody in the admissions office seemed to know anything about a Unitarian Universalist presence on campus. (Ironically, the spire of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago rises only one block from the heart of campus, just across the street from the Unitarian Universalist Meadville Lombard Theological School.)

Instead, Erica chose the University of Wisconsin, where she plans a double major in computer science and international studies. On her second day she spotted a freshman dorm-mate with a UU patch on her backpack. When Sunday rolled around, Erica and her friend went to the First Unitarian Society of Madison, an easy twenty-minute walk from their dorm. That Sunday, her first at college on her own, would be the last time she attended services there during her entire freshman year. How come? “Worship services were at eleven. That meant I’d have to get up by ten,” she said. “I never went to bed before midnight on Saturday; sometimes it might be as late as three. Sunday is for sleeping in.”

Erica’s story is hardly atypical. Young people like her, raised in the faith and active in their home congregations, too often fall away when they go off to college. This situation is not unique to Unitarian Universalists. Undergraduate life is not ordinarily associated with church attendance and devotional discipline. For a small movement like Unitarian Universalism — only about two thousand UUs graduate from high school each year, and estimates of how many never return range as high as 90 percent — this loss is particularly painful.

Parties and long hours of study are not the only distractions for college students. Other religious groups, sensitive to the critical importance these years play in an individual’s spiritual history, are pouring resources into campuses. When Unitarian Universalists arrive at college, they’re likely to notice an array of ministries for students — Hillel, Catholic Newman Centers, Mormon Institutes of Religion, the Campus Crusade for Christ. In part they are there to keep the faithful from falling away, in part to offer seekers an alternative religious experience perhaps leading to conversion. Happily, Erica’s campus has a Unitarian Universalist student group and she has found a religious home away from church. On most campuses, however, Unitarian Universalism is conspicuously absent.

For the first time since the 1960’s, though, that’s starting to change. A concerted campaign to promote Unitarian Universalist campus ministries is under way, fueled both by the Association and by UU students themselves. The push side of this initiative is coming top-down from the Association — but an equally strong pull is emanating from students who want a Unitarian Universalist spiritual community. In recent years students at campuses across the continent, without formal support, have organized themselves into weekly worship groups. The challenge now confronting Unitarian Universalists — and the great opportunity — is to find ways to nurture these nascent cells into viable groups that mature and endure.

“Youth and younger adults don’t find programming for them” in our congregations, says Michael Tino, the UUA’s director of young adult and campus ministry, from his home in Durham, North Carolina. “They need things that address them in the space that they’re in and the life issues and transitions they’re facing. It’s a time for the natural questioning of values and traditions you’ve been brought up with. The questions become difficult to answer. Other religions have better ways to deal with this because their philosophies ‘have answers.’ But UUs don’t.”

There was a time when Unitarians and Universalists actually dominated several colleges. Throughout the nineteenth century Unitarianism was associated with Harvard. The Universalist church founded Tufts University near Boston and St. Lawrence University in upstate New York (see “Looking Back,” page 64). On these campuses and several others, Unitarian and Universalist students studied and practiced their faith, forming ties and commitments that shaped local and denominational leadership for several generations. Unitarians and Universalists also invested in campus ministries after World War II, but as congregations became more inwardly focused, that effort largely faded away. “The result,” Tino says, “is what we now have — the gap.”

In many UU congregations, two age groups dominate — children and youth at one extreme, middle aged and older people at the other. There is a gap between these two groups because so many UUs go off to college and do not return as young adults. The work needed to fill this gap, by keeping Unitarian Universalist high school graduates linked to the faith through campus ministries, is under way. But, as those involved in the program concede, we have a long way to go. Joseph Lyons works with Tino to coordinate services to congregations reaching out to young adults. He says that his office currently knows of ninety-six campus ministries, only about half of which are associated with congregations. “We’re constantly hearing about ministries starting and then disappearing. Our goal is to catch them before they burn out.” To that end, the UUA hopes to raise $2 million in congregations this fall to support youth, campus, and young adult ministry. The slogan of the fundraising campaign is to the point: “Mind the Gap!”

Erica Johnson is now part of the oldest continuous Unitarian Universalist campus ministry, dating from 1886 when it was founded as the Channing Club. During her first days at the University of Wisconsin, though, Erica wasn’t all that interested in checking out the weekly Thursday evening meetings. Instead, she was waking up at 5:30 every morning to row varsity crew, one of her high school sports.

“I was too tired to do anything at night but sleep,” she reports. After a month of the rowing regimen, however, she’d had enough and left the team.

With more energy and free time, she went to her first worship session of the Madison UU Young Adult Campus Ministry, known by the initials MUUYACM and affectionately pronounced moo-yackum. “Once I started going, I think I missed maybe three or four all year.” What hooked her? “The sense of community and the open-minded, liberal environment. Socially I usually hung out with people from my dorm. Frisbee is huge. MUUYACM gave me something more spiritual.”

The group Erica joined is uncommonly strong. With a mailing list of several hundred names, some fifty active members, and thirty or so showing up regularly for services, MUUYACM is probably the largest Unitarian Universalist campus group. Despite its long history, however, a few years before Erica arrived the group looked like it had run out of steam.

Insuring continuity is a problem that plagues campus ministries, even those with long histories like Wisconsin’s. The reasons are easy to understand. Even among flourishing groups the annual turnover of students leaves a void that has to be filled annually. Charismatic leaders graduate, and are not easily replaced. Membership renewal is a continual process. The presence of an ordained or lay chaplain provides a stabilizing element to the group, providing adult ballast as well as a kind of institutional memory. In this respect, UU students at Wisconsin are lucky. Over the course of its history an endowment has been established that provides funding for a professional minister. In 1998, the Rev. Mary Ann Macklin, an Indiana native fresh from divinity school, arrived to find only a few diehards.

Macklin downplays her role in the revival of MUUYACM, crediting support from the First Unitarian Society and its minister, the Rev. Michael Schuler, but even in her modesty one hears the prescription for a thriving campus ministry. “Young adult years are the critical years in faith development,” she says. “Key decisions are made during these years about faith and how you’re going to live it. What I hear all the time from students is, ‘I don’t feel religious, I feel spiritual.’ Although I didn’t fully appreciate it when I started, the thread that carries through the campus ministry is that it’s worship-focused.”

Others agree with Macklin’s insight: The hot button that pumps up student interest is worship. Students crave a community of sharing where they feel safe enough to probe the kinds of deep-seated personal concerns and ethical quandaries they wouldn’t dare raise in the cafeteria. At stake for them is a Unitarian Universalist version of the kind of solidarity usually associated with conservative religious youth — a community that doesn’t neglect the power of reason but still leaves a lot of space to ponder the ways of the heart. Social justice programs remain important, but unleashing the enthusiasms of campus ministry requires attention to the spirit.

“Students have a lot of social justice options elsewhere, but what most universities are lacking is the opportunity to get this kind of spiritual grounding,” observes Jesse Jaeger, the UUA’s youth programs director, who previously worked in the young adult and campus ministries office. “I’m like lots of my peers — we believe in a higher order of things than just science. There’s a lot of mystery worth exploring. That’s a good message on campus. The spiritual part is the most important part of campus ministry.”

Integrating the spirit into campus ministries means going beyond the conventions of straight sermonizing, which can be a challenge. The Wisconsin group benefits from the presence of an on-site minister as its guide. Describing herself as a “spiritual midwife” who prefers to stand in the background — “My role is a balance between stepping in and stepping out” — Macklin encourages the students to regard worship as “a time and place for your soul to catch up to the rest of your active lives.”

“We’ve developed into a ‘circle worship,’“ she says, “gathering in a participatory sharing of joys and sorrows every week. We usually also do meditation, a centering time to bring people into focus. I’ve led them at first and as time goes on I invite other young adults to lead. Then later we have the more intellectual discussion.”

Most groups, however, have to make do without the guidance of a trained professional. Worship in such a context tends to be improvisational, spontaneously created by the group without established orders of service. Insofar as there is a presiding presence, it tends to be an adult lay chaplain, sometimes a Unitarian Universalist professor, sometimes a member of a sponsoring congregation.

A spirit of evangelism — declaring one’s UU faith publicly and vocally — plays an important part in the resurgence of the campus ministry movement. Erica Johnson makes a point of wearing a chalice necklace and eagerly answers the questions she gets about it, using them as a springboard to talk about Unitarian Universalism. More than a few members of her worship circle are newcomers to the faith, their curiosity piqued by learning from their classmates.

There’s often a spirit to campus services that reflects the spontaneous exuberance of young people ministering to each other without reliance on any orthodox standards. “It’s more a participatory thing,” Jesse Jaeger says about weekly campus meetings, which are tailored to deliver what the students can derive from each other as embodied in the liberal UU tradition. “There’s the group experience of singing and sharing, reading stories and meaningful poems. Many conduct a ‘soulful sundown’ service — exuberant worship that integrates the arts, dancing, social justice, and the spirit. Services tend to be multimedia, not so much straight-up sermonizing. There’s a testing of the bounds of creativity.”

Kim Mason heads the campus ministry program for the Joseph Priestley District. Her job is to link congregations in the Mid-Atlantic region to campus groups. “This is an evangelistic program,” Mason says unabashedly. “It’s about us reaching out and not being afraid to talk to people about our faith. We’re not trying to convert people; our goal is to raise awareness for students at a critical point in their lives. This is when they have to decide all kinds of huge issues about work and relationships and who they are. Having the support of a faith community when you’re dealing with these kinds of issues can make a huge difference.”

While few would disagree on the value of campus ministries in principle, getting congregations to commit to start and sustain one is tough. Currently only six churches in Mason’s district, which covers five states and the District of Columbia, have campus ministries; the goal five years from now is to have forty. Too often, Mason observes, congregations don’t regard campus ministry as a pressing priority. “To do a campus ministry requires volunteers and commitment,” she says. “The congregation has to give up the idea that there will be tangible returns; this isn’t an improvement tool that’s going to build membership or contributions.” Not surprisingly, many choose to put their energies elsewhere, but her counterargument is forceful. “Students are saying, ‘We’re here and we have needs.’ They’re part of the interconnected web and we need to offer outreach to this underserved community. It’s an investment in the future.” Does she ever get discouraged? “It can be frustrating,” Mason admits, and then adds emphatically, “But I’m stubborn!”

On the other end of the spectrum from the University of Wisconsin’s established ministry is the one that is emerging at American University in Washington. Charlotte Jones Carroll, who had taken early retirement from the World Bank, was persuaded by Mason’s predecessor to help launch the ministry. “I’m the kind of person who fills a void,” she says of herself. “I don’t seek office, but offices seem to seek me.” A longtime member of the River Road Unitarian Church in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, and involved throughout her career in social justice, Carroll began working with a group of four active students in the spring of 2001. “They were happy to have me, an adult, interested in them,” she says. Finding material to fill the biweekly session sometimes proved difficult and there was no how-to guide. “I wish the UUA would provide more content for the work itself,” she says.

In preparation for the fall semester, Carroll wrote to each of the incoming freshmen who had identified themselves as Unitarian Universalists, inviting them to the ministry’s introductory meeting. On a tiny budget, welcome kits were prepared. Then, four days before the scheduled meeting, September 11 intervened. And on the day of the meeting itself, a bomb scare shut down the campus. Carroll showed up that night fearing she might be the only one in attendance: “By golly, eight people came!” The ministry coalesced throughout the year. Several times only one person showed up — one evening Carroll found herself alone with her chalice — but by year’s end she counted ten active members. “I’m amazed that they come,” she says. “Their lives are so busy.” With support from River Road, Carroll has arranged for a seminary student to be paid a modest stipend in the new academic year to be available to the group. “We’ve got institutional momentum building,” she says.

Folks like Charlotte Jones Carroll, supported by congregations like River Road, are critical to the growth of campus ministries — but no more than twenty-five people are currently paid even a minimal stipend to support UU campus ministry. To help congregations get over the financial hurdle of campus ministry, the UUA is offering a variety of grants financed by its current capital campaign.

One category of grants will help congregations establish professional positions to support young adult and campus ministry. It is targeted at large congregations (550 members-plus) and offers grants of $50,000 over five years to create a full-time position, $19,500 over three years for a half-time position, and $10,500 over three years for a quarter-time position. For small and midsize congregations not in a position to take on a campus minister, there are grants of $3,000 to support campus coordinators who might be ministerial interns doing two-year internships, students on campus, or a person in the congregation. There are also grants providing up to $500 for specific projects or programs run by congregations, districts, young adult groups, and campus ministry groups. The Association is also beginning a program to help districts hire staff to do young adult and campus ministry work; Kim Mason, whose position is part-time, is the only district coordinator so far.

Grants, however, are unlikely to inspire a congregation in the absence of other benefits. Joseph Lyons points out how the campus ministry relationship is a two way street of give-and-take, with the congregation deriving often unexpected payback. “Campus ministry is not about creating a whole separate program from church,” he says. “On the contrary, it’s trying to get a connection between students and congregants in which each side prospers. Campus groups need good worship and spiritual support. They need folks with leadership training and expertise. All of which congregations possess, sometimes in abundance. Congregations, meanwhile, see themselves as being a community with people of all ages to provide the energy and commitment for a diverse spiritual exploration. Having students in their presence gives a wholeness for a richer spiritual journey for all members.”

On another level, Lyons points out how students can bring a whole array of skills and talents to the congregation. “They contribute computer expertise,” he points out. “They teach and mentor kids. They sing in the choir. They contribute a whole range of creative expression.”

In the final analysis, there is consensus among campus ministry activists that a program’s fate ultimately relies on a congregation’s backing. “It’s very difficult,” concedes Lyons. “We scramble for the crumbs when it comes to churches but all it takes is one or two lay adults who see this as their primary commitment. In the past it’s been tough to get churches because we haven’t had a system to connect congregations to campus groups. Now that the system is up, we’re more aware of the demand from students that we couldn’t see before because we didn’t have people on the ground. Sure, it’s a tough sell to churches but we’re saying, You can get started for as little as $500 a year. That buys a pizza party at orientation and the chance to do a couple of events every year. The challenge is that we need a leader at the church to say ‘yes’ to campus ministry.”

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