Bahai News -- Campus religious leaders reach out to new students

Campus religious leaders reach out to new students

2:30 p.m., July 10, 2003--Susan Detwiler knows most Jewish freshmen don’t have synagogue services at the top of their to-do lists when they hit campus in September.

Susan Detwiler

Detwiler and other campus ministers begin planning welcome events before incoming freshmen mail their housing deposits in the spring.

“If I wait for them to come to a religious service, it just isn’t going to happen, at least not for most of them,’’ Detwiler, whose Hillel community serves Jewish students, said. “College is a time of exploration. It is a time when they’re no longer being dragged to services by their parents. We have to make it relevant.”

If David Letterman had a top-10 list of techniques to draw college freshman to religious events, number one would be free food.

“If you feed them, they will come,’’ Detwiler said. Number two would be upperclassmen who are natural connectors.

Blake Hardcastle

“Ninety-nine percent of the students we make contact with come through friends who are members,’’ Blake Hardcastle, director of the Baptist Student Ministry, said. “Parents will stop by our table at orientation and say, ‘Oh, look at this. Isn’t this great?’ But it’s totally the students’ choice when they’re at college, regardless of what mom or dad want. We will or will not see them, based on their own desire.
The University Religious Leaders Association posted a “Religious and Spiritual Life” web site in April at []. It includes information on the religious and spiritual leaders who serve the campus community and how to contact them. Also included are links to the 22 faith-based student organizations at UD.

“Anything that gets done on this campus gets done because of a relationship,’’ Hardcastle said. “Somebody really needs to hold someone’s hand and bring him here. One time, when we started a coffeehouse, we handed out 2,000 fliers, and we saw no new people.’’

The Rev. Laura Lee C. Wilson, a United Methodist minister who runs the Wesley Foundation Campus Ministry and serves as a liason between UD and the religious community, said campus ministries are no different than local churches.

“A local church gains its members by word of mouth, and campus ministry is the same thing,” she said. “When students are excited about what’s going on in their campus ministry, then they invite their friends. We all want to go where we find a community of friends, a community that has as close to our morals and values and our world view as possible.’

The burgeoning Catholic campus ministry is so popular that the Rev. Michael Szupper asked adults who attended Sunday Mass there to attend Mass elsewhere. Still, there’s standing room only.

Laura Lee C. Wilson

“They go to Mass and all of a sudden they find it’s only students there,’’ Szupper says. “And, these are people who are going through the same things they’re going through. I think that’s a powerful support for them.’’

Szupper, who has been the Catholic campus minister since 1964, says he wraps his sermons around the subjects that can put students in a tailspin—grades, college costs, soured romances and divorce, death or job loss within their families.

About 50 to 70 students come to the basement of the Catholic ministry’s Thomas More Oratory every night, studying together, sometimes all night long. They eat free peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and drink 25-cent Mountain Dews to stay awake. The space was originally designed for social events, but the students requested it be used as a quiet study hall.

“It’s amazing to watch them because they’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at these long tables studying. I could never do that,’’ Szupper says. “It is crowded–so crowded that sometimes there’s no chair left.’’

Michael Szupper

S. Ismat Shah, associate professor of materials science and adviser to the Muslim Student Association, said, “The way to get them to accept the invitation is to offer food, but the way to keep them in is to offer people with similar interests.”

Shah stages soccer matches and basketball tournaments. The Rev. Bruce Heggen of the Lutheran Student Association slates fondue parties, hayrides and service projects. Grant S. Wolf, adviser to the Baha’i Club, arranges student activity nights, volunteer opportunities and an annual barbecue. The Episcopal Campus Ministry invites students to dinner and a movie or a field trip to an ice cream store.

On moving-in weekend in September, Hillel will sponsor “Freshman Fest” for new students. Freshmen will move into their dorms early and join Jewish upperclass students for three days of activities and sharing. "It's very powerful to have new students learn about campus life from other students," Detwiler said. "Our counselors will represent a cross-section of the Jewish spectrum here at the University."

Wilson said she’s known students who joined four denominations’ campus ministries seeking friends who share the same values and sometimes groups that don’t drink alcohol.

Media-savvy ministries communicate with students the same way students communicate with each other. Rabbi Eliezer Sneiderman, of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life, instant messages them. Jose G. Ramirez of the Delaware Zen Group has an e-mail list.

The Rev. David Blackwell of the Blue Hens for Christ said discussions with students center on moral issues they relate too, such as burning their own CDs of copyrighted songs.

Patricia E. Davis

Campus religious leaders said they try to react to students’ needs—and those needs change as the students do.

“The students are looking for support. Many of them have come out of a religious background and now they’ve come to college and they don’t have that kind of support,’’ said Patricia E. Davis, adviser to the UD Gospel Choir and the Warriors for Christ, a Bible study group. “I find many of our students are looking for alternatives to all of the other activities on campus because lots of the activities don’t fall in line with their values.’’

Szupper, who has been working at UD longer than any other clergy person, said new students are usually thinking, “How do we get through this thing called school, not just academically, but socially.

“Campus ministers can’t work miracles,’’ Szupper said, “but we can walk with a student.’’

Article by Kathy Canavan
Photos Kathy Atkinson

©Copyright 2003, UDaily (Delaware, USA)

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