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Youth away at college rarely make it to traditional church services, but they still need the support of a spiritual group. The good news is that setting up a campus ministry is relatively easy and inexpensive, and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has grant money to help.
That was the message from a group of students and adults representing a campus ministry involving three colleges and three UU congregations in Portland, Oregon. "This is not about getting new members or pledges. We want youth away at college to have spiritual support," said Dana Regan, a campus ministry liaison from First Unitarian of Portland. "We want to reach out to these local youth in hopes someone reaches out to our youth at their colleges. It's a pay-it-forward thing,"; she added.
Student coordinators at Reed College and Lewis and Clark facilitate active campus ministry programs in Portland. They focus on bi-weekly check-in meetings, occasional dinners and outreach at stressful times like finals week. Often some homemade snacks or a meal is a part of the gatherings.
"We let students know we are holding a space for them," said Emma Stocker, former coordinator of a Unitarian Universalist (UU) student group at Reed.
The Portland groups agree to provide a student coordinator a stipend of five hundred dollars per semester for their work facilitating a group. They also supply five hundred dollars a year for expenses that typically include snacks at meetings, an occasional dinner and travel expenses to local youth conferences.
Getting those funds allocated as part of a regular annual church budget is an important step, said Regan. The Portland churches were also able to get grants from the UUA to support the campus ministries.
Under a Campus Congregation Connections program, the UUA will provide up to $3,000 a year for college ministries. A separate grant program can help fund a lay leader for a part time position to work as a liaison with the student coordinators. The multi-year grants require congregations to pay an increasing share of the overall costs of the program.
Joseph Santos-Lyons, director of campus ministries for the UUA, said the grants are relatively easy to obtain. Applications (PDF) can be found on the UUA site. More than a hundred campus ministry groups are currently active, according to a database that tracks them.
Taking the movement one step further, a group with a campus ministry in Urbana, Ill., is trying to set up a network of regional campus centers. The Channing-Murray Foundation has its own UU campus ministry building at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign that doubles as a vegetarian café and event center. Several thousand students pass through its doors every year, said organizers who attended the GA workshop. The Illinois center wants to act as a model for a network of similar UU college centers around the country.
Campus ministries are not without problems. Students report difficulties getting groups started in non-residential colleges where students do not linger on campus, and some colleges do not make it easy to start new clubs. A more difficult problem is a wave of anti-religious sentiment on some campuses, said Rachel Cooper, an incoming student coordinator at Reed. "When some people hear the word 'church,' they assume it means blind faith, right-wing politics and people not thinking for themselves,"; she said. "The best way we found to deal with that is through outreach,"; she added.
In addition to lots of frank discussions, the students have found the best way to the heart is sometimes through the stomach. So, UUs volunteer to make pancakes at an annual end-of-the-year party on one campus.
"Sometimes we make chalice pancakes. It's our version of a communion wafer,"; said Cooper.
Reported by Rick Merritt, edited by Pat Emery.
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Last updated on Wednesday, February 22, 2012.
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