Baha'i News -- Reaching out
Carmel Zucker

Father Robert Stuenkel greets Kris Phillips, an incoming CU fresman, during the first service of the new school year.

Reaching out

Campus ministries seek to strengthen students' faith

By Kevin Williams, Camera Staff Writer
August 31, 2002

Robert Stuenkel's rich voice reverberates through the chapel at University Lutheran, bouncing off cozy pews and stained-glass windows.

"Being right at the corner of campus is a real advantage to us," says the 64-year-old pastor, referring to the chapel's location at Folsom Street and Colorado Avenue.

In his 24th year, Stuenkel has seen his ministry, and campus ministry in general, change gradually over the years. But through it all the guiding principle has remained the same, he says.

"Campus ministry will always be there for the strengthening of the faith life of youth as they become young adults."

University Lutheran is one of roughly 25 different campus ministries that serve the University of Colorado. Each is distinct unto itself, although they often work together in mutually beneficial ways.

Aside from the Muslim Student Association, the Jewish group Hillel and the Bahai Faith Club, the ministries are overwhelmingly Christian, made up of traditional denominations and nondenominational groups. Most of the ministries are based on campus and are easily accessible to both graduates and undergraduates.

Despite the convenience, Stuenkel says that 80 percent to 90 percent of the university's students don't have an active church connection, a statistic that has increased over the decades. But that doesn't mean that campus ministry is becoming obsolete.

"We're a small proportion of the campus community," Stuenkel admits. "But (we're) significant."

Enough so that an umbrella association, Religious Campus Organization, was created about three years ago to bring the various ministries together.

Laurel Alexander, a pastor and president of the RCO, estimates there are more than 2,000 people involved with campus ministry at CU.

"It's very important ... reaching people at this time in their life," says David Dwyer, associate pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish.

Dwyer says that if they don't catch students now, then they "don't see them for awhile."

A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University backs Dwyer's statement. CARA researchers found that "campus ministry participation increased the frequency with which Catholics currently attend Mass, the level of involvement in a parish and the likelihood that they had donated money to a church organization."

The campus ministries at CU range in size from a handful of folks to hundreds of people. But they all have one thing in common — the students.

University Lutheran, one of the smaller ministries at about 50 people, emphasizes spiritual and emotional growth.

"That word growth really comes out for us because these are such key years for people," Stuenkel says. "Naturally growth in faith (but) also concern about the growth of the whole person."

University Lutheran offers Bible study and Sunday services, along with movie nights, karaoke and retreats. Outreach, community service, counseling and student leadership training are also large components of what the church does.

Hoyt Koepke, a 21-year-old campus ministry ambassador, often leads University Lutheran's Sunday night worship-youth group UNLIMITED.

"This is kind of a forming time in a lot of people's lives and it's exciting to be a part of that," says the senior.

Koepke says that University Lutheran has been a godsend, helping him develop and grow spiritually.

"It's almost a home away from home in some sense," he says.

As with everything though, there are certain drawbacks to campus ministry, Stuenkel says.

"I would have appreciated some of the opportunities for larger team ministry," he explains, referring to parish ministries, "or some of the continuity of being with the same people for a longer period of time."

He says it's difficult with students coming and going, most of them staying at the most four years if they join at the beginning of their college career.

"We work very hard in terms of continuing communication," Stuenkel says. "Still, we would hope to become a larger community than we are."

Although maybe not as big as St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, which has upwards of 400 people if its weekends services are combined.

"I think it's part of our mission to give the message of Christ and the Gospel, but in a language that makes sense to the students," says Dwyer, 37.

Considered a fairly liberal campus ministry, St. Thomas is led by the Paulist priests, a society of priests founded in 1858, whose mission is to spread the message of Christianity and Catholicism within the context of American life. The Paulists will commemorate 25 years on campus at a celebration on Sept. 14.

Dwyer sees himself as following in the tradition of the Paulist way.

"I've kind of lived and can communicate to folks who are maybe a generation or two behind me," he says. "I really see that as taking on the charisma of St. Paul."

Dwyer likes the atmosphere on campus, where there is a spirit of cooperation among the different ministries and the University of Colorado administration.

"It's not an uphill battle," he says. "And I find that comforting."

But he has noticed another trend which he finds somewhat unsettling.

"One of the most significant developments in our generation is there's been a real distinction between religion and spirituality," he says. "Religion and spirituality are distinct, but (can) inform one another."

Stuenkel has noticed it as well.

"It's a decided change in society," he agrees, but says it only adds to the rich faith texture on campus.

"We truly have the full spectrum."

©Copyright 2002, The Daily Camera

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