Snapshots of the ‘New Ecumenism’: Collegiate Ministry

Author Rev. Miriam Foltz (Right)
Author Rev. Miriam Foltz (Right)

“Can I ask you a question? Hugging during the passing of the peace… is that an all-Lutherans thing or just a Lutheran Campus Ministry thing?”

Of all the ecumenical worship service’s elements that were different than our usual Sunday UKirk worship (including the use of real wine rather than grape juice during communion!), my UKirk students were most curious about the passing of the peace. They gathered together around Pastor Rebecca, the ELCA Campus Minister, to ask after the service.

UKirk – St. Louis is the Presbyterian campus ministry at Washington University and Saint Louis University. A new worshiping community of the Presbytery of Giddings–Lovejoy that receives additional financial support from area congregations, UKirk gathers for Sunday evening dinner and worship with communion, as well as during the week for service and fellowship opportunities. In addition to these events, we also participate in several joint activities with an already-existing Lutheran Campus Ministry.

I’ve had the privilege of serving as the organizing pastor for this new ministry since January 2015. In the midst of great shifts in the PC(USA), it’s been an interesting time to pastor a new Presbyterian campus ministry, but one of the greatest joys along the way has been finding an ecumenical partner with whom to share the journey.

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UKirk and Lutheran Campus Ministry’s partnership remains informal, unofficial, and non-institutional.
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UKirk and Lutheran Campus Ministry’s partnership remains informal, unofficial, and non-institutional – although the two denominations we represent, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have officially been in Full Communion since the late 1990s. But what happens here on these campuses in St. Louis began simply as collaboration and mutual support between the pastors of the two ministries. As Pastor Rebecca Boardman of LCM and I continued to work together on planning joint programs, the partnership felt increasingly natural and grew organically. Students at Washington University and St. Louis University comprise both of our communities, and we have found joy in sharing our time and resources to plan gatherings together, from a Maundy Thursday Seder dinner to small group on-campus discussions. Especially as UKirk – St. Louis is in its first year and still forming, LCM has provided encouragement, hospitality, and friendship along this community’s journey.

Photo Credit: UKirk - St. Louis
Photo Credit: UKirk – St. Louis

However, as our joint 2015 Fall Retreat approached, it began to feel a bit like the ultimate test. Could our two communities share sacred space together for 36 hours? Could we play together, dance together, sing together, grow in our faith together? And most of all, could our community with deep roots in two different denominational traditions be a safe and welcoming space for honest spiritual dialogue and experience, embracing our commonalities while respecting – even celebrating – our different understandings of and encounters with God?

A few hours into our weekend retreat, it became clear that the students’ answer to those questions was a clear and resounding, “Yes!” Many of the students had some pre-established connection – a shared class, mutual friends, living in the same residence hall. Getting to know one another in another context, a faith context, was a new space for them, but it was delightful to see how quickly they warmed up to one another.

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Could our community with deep roots in two different denominational traditions be a safe and welcoming space for honest spiritual dialogue and experience, embracing our commonalities while respecting – even celebrating – our different encounters with God?
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Ecumenical partnerships can bring up a whole new range of questions. Instead of a bunch of Presbyterian students sitting together over a meal and awkwardly assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that everyone believes general ‘Presbyterian things,’ there was suddenly this tremendous room for dialogue! And the flow of questions went both ways.

Group Photo from the UKirk/LCM Fall Retreat Photo Credit: UKirk - St. Louis
Group Photo from the UKirk/LCM Fall Retreat
Photo Credit: UKirk – St. Louis

There were questions asked of us, Presbyterians: “What do y’all believe? Something about predetermination? Predestination?”

The Presbyterian students had their fair share of questions for the Lutherans, as well: “Some Lutherans actually drink from the cup during intinction?! So what do you actually believe about communion?”

And beyond theological tenets, even our assumed practices could be questioned – why does UKirk shake hands during the passing of the peace instead of hugging like the LCM students? (In case you were curious, the UKirk students from the beginning reported back – it appears that the hugging is primarily a ‘Lutheran Campus Ministry thing’ rather than an ‘all-Lutherans thing.’)

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For many students, college is the first time they have interacted with people from a variety of religious traditions on a daily basis.
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Around the campfire, we shared music as the Presbyterian students taught “Spirit of the Living God,” and we shared communion practices, as Presbyterian students saw Lutheran students drinking from the cup.

Photo Credit: UKirk - St. Louis
Photo Credit: UKirk – St. Louis

In this globally-connected world, we can’t really begin to understand the faith of others until we can honestly reflect upon and talk about our own beliefs. I believe that ecumenical spaces are where this type of honest reflection and open dialogue begins. One UKirk member has shared that her suitemates all come from different religious traditions – a microcosm of world religions all sharing the same bathroom! Just as we learned in our ecumenical partnership, in sharing space with her suitemates, she had the opportunity to experience firsthand the rhythms and practices of others’ religious beliefs. Sharing space and spending time with people of different denominations and religions is important; sometimes we learn more about our own understandings of God by interacting with our brothers and sisters from different traditions.

For many students, college is the first time they have experienced this kind of interaction on a daily basis. Ecumenism in campus ministry provides the space to explore faith traditions, honoring the theological heritage of our own religious traditions while seeking to understand the tenets of our neighbor’s beliefs.

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In this globally-connected world, we can’t really begin to understand the faith of others until we can honestly reflect upon and talk about our own beliefs.
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Ecumenism is not meant to discount that differences in understanding of communion, theology, or polity remain dividing forces within Christianity. Rather, ecumenism provides us the opportunity to recognize and celebrate that our ultimate understanding of Christ’s grace and our salvation bind us tighter than those differences.

Photo Credit: UKirk - St. Louis
Photo Credit: UKirk – St. Louis

In his book Leading from the Table, Paul Galbreath reflects, “The Lord’s Table challenges our notions of self-reliance, that we can work hard enough to provide for ourselves what we need. Slowly, as we gather regularly around the Lord’s Table, the prayer of thanksgiving and the Lord’s Prayer open us up to an understanding of our deep dependence on God’s grace and sustenance for each day and for each meal” (109).

At all levels of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a pervasive fear of change and a distrust of others’ intentions seem to be turning us inward. Some might argue that the same is true for most mainline denominations these days. Whatever the particular rhetoric or context may be, the overarching attitude is the same: only through pure self-reliance will the church persevere.

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At all levels of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a pervasive fear of change and a distrust of others’ intentions seem to be turning us inward. And yet right at the heart of our theology, polity, and praxis, is Christ’s table, bidding us to lay aside that distrust and open our hearts and minds to the inter-connectedness of the world – God’s world – in which we live.
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And yet right there, at the heart of our theology, polity, and praxis, is Christ’s table, bidding us to lay aside that distrust and open our hearts and minds to the inter-connectedness of the world – God’s world – in which we live.

Representatives from multiple campus ministries, representing a variety of religious traditions Photo Credit: UKirk - St. Louis
Representatives from multiple campus ministries, representing a variety of religious traditions an an activities fair
Photo Credit: UKirk – St. Louis

In a time of changing church demographics and realities, ecumenical partnerships present the opportunity to understand the challenges facing the 21st-century church from fresh perspectives. They can also provide the collaborative energy and resources to rise to the occasion. And perhaps, when we open our hearts and minds to listen to our denominational neighbors, we may just find that their stories aren’t that different from our own. We can ask questions of each other, grow with each other, and along the way, we can learn a little more about the grace and goodness of our triune God.

The week after the Fall Retreat, our Presbyterian UKirk group gathered for our regular Sunday evening worship service. When the time came for the passing of the peace, I looked around the room and smiled at what I saw: a fairly equal mix of shaking hands and hugging.

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AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Miriam Foltz is the organizing pastor of UKirk – St. Louis, the Presbyterian campus ministry at Washington University and St. Louis University. A graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, she is passionate about the ways that God calls the church to live out compassion, peace, and justice – from working toward the reconciliation of God’s children to ecological stewardship of God’s creation, and she loves how campus ministry is so much of that theology in action, as young adults ponder how God is calling them to be in the world.

Read more articles in this issue, “That They May be One”: Thinking Ecumenically for the 21st Century!

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