Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Year-end Review

At the end of the semester, I often put together a newsletter for my students and “Friends of Absalom” to remind and share with people the events of the semester. Here are a few highlights and reflections on the semester:

The Minute-to-Win-It Ramadan Party

This year marked the second annual Ramadan If-tar for the Center, and this time “play” was the theme. Sprung from the belief that Interfaith dialogue is most effective when people are allowed first to laugh with and at each other, the Atlanta University Center Muslim Student Association teamed up with AJEC for a night of food and fun. After hours of laughter, play, and some very important theological conversations (such conversations seem to naturally emerge at the Center), it was clear that new friendships had begun and trust was being established.

Absalom Jones Students “Come Out” for Pride

HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have many great attributes, but they have often struggled with creating a safe space for their LGBTQ students. A quick google search of “Morehouse College” and “gay” will reveal a small piece of Morehouse’s difficult journey towards caring for out gay men on their campus.

Over a decade ago, when Morehouse College would not allow a gay/straight alliance (GSA) student organization to meet inside of it’s gates, the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center welcomed the young men into our space and the chaplain assisted them with the process of becoming a recognized student organization on Morehouse’s campus.

While we no longer host GSA meetings at the Center, we continue to offer support for Morehouse College’s queer community by registering and marching in Atlanta’s Pride Parade. This year, 17 young black men representing Morehouse College and AJEC, came out to the Pride Festival and marched in the parade.

The Troy Davis Solidarity March and Vigil

I wish that I could write about my involvement in the struggle to halt the execution of Troy Davis... I wish that I could better articulate my gladness for the countless students from all of the AUC who rallied on his behalf... But the reality is that my grief and disappointment have rendered me speechless. So, perhaps this clip will tell enough of the story of the hope and the strength of my students.

This prayer circle, led by students from the AUC, was held outside of the prison in Jackson, GA on the next that Troy Davis was executed.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Campus might be the quietest place in the city this week. After all, it’s reading week. You know, that week when all the students get to read, catch up, cram, prepare, memorize, repeat, all for their final papers, tests, presentations or projects. I love this quiet. It’s solemn and serene and it’s a great way to wait, anticipate, and prepare in the spirit of Advent.

Reading week happens twice a year, but in the fall the quiet of reading week is particularly noticeable. Maybe it’s the cold weather that gives the students permission to bury themselves inside. In the spring, it’s hard to say no to a beautiful sunny day.

While I enjoy this quiet, I am quickly reminded that the pressures to succeed academically are so intense that students aren’t at all experiencing the quiet. In fact, it’s the busiest time of the year for them, and it’s loud and nervous and pregnant with anxiety.

I saw a video that reminded me of how insane this time of year can be. A large herd of students are gathered together processing into a building like a Black Friday crowd entering a shopping center. But on closer inspection it becomes clear that it’s not a Wal-Mart opening on the biggest sale day of the year, rather it’s the opening of the library at College of William and Mary.

Yes, hundreds of students heading to lay claim on some library property. Maybe they seek their favorite spot, a needed book, or a comfy chair and a room with a view.

The library occupation is like a semi-annual feast of knowledge. Jam in as much as possible and hope for the best. There is an attitude that is shared by many: Do whatever it takes to succeed. For some, the pressure is so much that they feel the need to use Adderall or other “neuroenhancing” drugs. This The New Yorker article describes this phenomenon well. The bottom line is that it’s intense and many are stressed.

It’s not hard to see that in this reading-week/finals craziness coupled with the outside world (off campus) going nuts from the month-long secular Christmas party, that Advent gets violently muted. There is simply no room for this season of waiting, anticipating, and preparing for Emmanuel.

There have been major attempts to direct attention to this beloved season, like the Advent Conspiracy, which was started by a few pastors in 2006 to bring attention to the season, but even the Advent conspirators are more focused on Christmas rather than focusing on the season of Advent.

So how do we wait, anticipate, and prepare in Advent when Bing Crosby is in our head and we have a “Gen Chem” final on Friday?

The bottom line is that it’s really hard to wait. It’s got to be one of the hardest things to do in life. Have you been to the DMV? Uncomfortable, annoying, and beneath us all to wait that long! Even with an iPhone loaded with Angry Birds, standing in line can be the worst! And anticipating is difficult because it’s about looking forward, and when we’re busy looking forward we miss today. And when you start preparing it doesn’t take long to realize that preparation seems more like a metaphor than a literal act, even though there are little things that can be done as we journey toward the light.

So maybe Advent is about tension, and maybe it’s our call to live in the midst that tension. It’s in this tension between darkness and light, quiet and loud, the already and not yet, and the unborn and the born that we find ourselves. And it’s when we find the solemn beauty of living in the quiet chaos when we are truly living out our Advent call.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pepper Spray, Protests, Police, and Finals

People all over the world have seen video footage from November 18th, when a group of protesters here at UC Davis were sprayed in the face with pepper spray.  Justified outrage flowed from all corners of the globe and multiple investigations are now underway.  How could this happen?  Why did it happen and who allowed it?  These are questions that the investigations will hopefully help to answer.  Since then, the drumbeat for Chancellor Katehi to resign intensified and now seems to have subsided a little - pending the investigation.  Tents have taken up residence on the quad, as have port-a-potties, heat lamps, and electrical cords.  In many ways, things are suddenly quite different in the UCD campus' world.

I wasn't here when the pepper spraying occurred.  I was in New York City at church headquarters, and saw the headlines when my plane touched down in Sacramento late that night.  I have students who were on the quad that afternoon and witnessed the incident.  Several expressed great fear and alarm at what they saw.  One has some EMT training and was furious to learn that the paramedics on the scene only had enough saline for four patients - not nearly enough to treat the number of students in need.  She felt very helpless in the midst of much pain.  While many students are united in the belief that the amount of force used was disproportinate to the level of treat posed to the police, I do have some students who feel the protestors had been warned repeatedly to move out of the way, and because they chose not to, they knew what the consequence would be.  These differences of opinion are also reflected in the larger community.

At the big rally on the quad the following Monday, which was attended by thousands of students, faculty, staff, and throngs of media, students shared their experience of being pepper sprayed, and they repeatedly called upon Chancellor Katehi to resign.  She took the stage and apologized for what happened.  After she spoke the crowd visibly began to decrease.  There was a shift in the mood on campus.  While those deeply connected with the Occupy movement remain focused and resolute, it seems the the majority of students have adopted a different stance.  Students in my ministry have stated that while they disagree with the pepper spraying, they no longer think the Chancellor should resign.  Likewise, many of them deeply disagree with the protestors' call to get rid of the police force on campus.  Students want to feel safe, and having a police presence helps provide that.

So what is the role of a Christian ministry in all of this?  First and foremost, I have been incredibly impressed by the students' committment to protesting non-violently.  I mean, part of what makes the video so disturbing is that the protestors are simply sitting on the ground with no way to defend themselves or to return the aggression.  Likewise, Jesus chose the path of non-violence.  He abhorred violence and as Christians we should too.  He also made it a point to consistently challenge the status quo: to expose injustice and the oppressive social systems the benefited only those in power.  This is part of why they killed him.  So all of those aspects are good and right and praiseworthy.  However, we also have an important role to play in fostering dialogue and opening avenues for those who disagree to try to come together.  My colleague Kristin Stoneking has written powerfully on her decision to agree to help mediate between protestors and the administration.  While her sympathies were certainly with the students, she modeled a way to 'respect the dignity of every human being' (as our baptismal covenant states), and in doing so to open a pathway for dialogue to happen.

But most of all, what our faith tradition has to offer in times like these is the ability to proceed without fear.  For a tense few days, everyone was afraid: students were afraid, the police were afraid, the administration was afraid.  And when people operate from a place of fear, oftentimes negative results follow.  But if we can stand in our truth - in the reality that we are all children of God and that in the midst of terrible wrongs there is a path to repentance and forgiveness, then we can help to dial down those fears, and move toward reconciliation and justice.  That is our ministry in this moment on this campus.

I've been asked repeatedly what's going on right now on campus.  Most students are wrapping up their finals.  Some are still in the tents, or sitting in Dutton Hall, but by and large, most are ready to go home for break.  I don't know what next quarter holds, but I'm thankful that we can be here during this important time on campus.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Episcopal Campus Ministry at Atlanta's HBCU's

The Campus Ministry

As I sit in my office typing this blog, a group of food service providers from Morehouse College are working with local labor organizers in our large gathering space called the Koinonia Cafe. Across the hall, two men of Morehouse are studying in the computer lab, and next door to my office I can hear the buzz of the copier as two volunteers prepare the leaflets for tomorrow's worship service. It's actually a bit noisy inside of the Center on this blustery winter day, but the rowdiness is the welcomed sound of life and hope.

The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center is located in the heart of Atlanta's historically black colleges and universities (HBCU's). Founded in 1957, we are a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and seek to serve the communities of Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College, Spelman College, and the Interdenominational Theological Center (these institutions of higher learning are known collectively as the Atlanta University Center). Over the years, our relationship with students, faculty, and staff from these institutions has shifted and fluxed. Currently those most actively engaged in this ministry are people from Morehouse College.

We worship in the Chapel twice a week. On Wednesday's there is Holy Eucharist, and on Sunday nights we do Compline together. Compline @ 9 follows the traditional liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer and is combined with musical selections that range in tradition from Taize to Spirituals, to contemporary praise and worship songs. We are a small worshiping community, so the atmosphere is both intimate and sincere.

The Chaplain

Hmmm... this part of the blog is much harder for me to write. It's hard to know what information will be most captivating to the blogosphere. Thus, for now, I'll keep it simple:

Long before I knew the words "Episcopal" and "priest," I felt compelled -- indeed, called, to serve God. Thus, at age 5, I was fully immersed in the baptismal pool of a country black Baptist church, and I emerged from the waters fully committed to loving God with my whole heart. Little did I know that loving God would at times be much easier than the process of learning to love myself - my black, kinky-haired, same-gender loving, female-bodied self.


Today, I'm a black, kinky-haired, same-gender loving, female-bodied, Episcopal priest. I have a great passion for social justice and a large part of my ministry to these campuses centers around helping the students be involved in justice-seeking work within our community and city.

.... enough about that for now...

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Joys and Challenges of Joint Ministry

Back in the mid-90s, I went off to college sensing a call to ordained ministry, but I had no idea what that could mean for me practically.  Then, I watched the Campus Chaplain (who, as luck would have it, was an Episcopal Priest!) minister to my college community and I knew this is how God could use me too.  I then proceeded to spend 10 years at various universities, accumulating degrees.  So I feel like I know all too well what students are facing as they navigate the halls of academia.  And, having been both a TA and an adjunct professor, I also know a little bit of what faculty experience.  So I guess you could say God has well prepared me for doing ministry on a college campus.

What I wasn't so prepared for was landing in a joint Lutheran and Episcopal campus ministry.  The place where I serve - known as "The Belfry" - began as a Lutheran ministry over 50 years ago.  In the 80s the Lutheran Campus Council of Davis bought the building that still houses our ministry (and is the closest campus ministry to the campus - yay for us!).  Also, in the late 80s, they intentionally hired an Episcopal chaplain and joint ministry was underway.  A series of Memorandums of Understanding made the relationship official.  So all this pre-dates the official CCM stuff, when our churches officially came into full communion.  The staffing of the ministry up until the recent past was a Lutheran pastor with affiliated Episcopal lay or ordained folk working with him.  Now, I'm the only staff person (well, and one peer minister) here.  I've looked at old Belfry photos showing 7 or more staff, a mix of Lutherans and Episcopalians, with total longing.  They were lucky to have each other.  I have had to feel my way through figuring out a lot of Lutheran stuff, and how to mesh that with Episcopal stuff - and make all this palatable to the many unchurched students who come here seeking Jesus.  It's been a challenge!

Indeed, there is much our churches have in common.  Our liturgies are practically identical, although there are subtle differences, so we alternate each week.  But we definitely have some different theology around things like sacraments, and even the various orders of ordained ministry.  I often find myself asking Lutheran colleagues, "Well, how do you do ____?" I've come to realize that some things Episcopalians have rules about liturgically are left to local custom in the Lutheran tradition.  So working out how we worship at times has been an interesting dance to perform. 

Astutely, one of my students once compared living joint ministry to a marriage - no one gets their way all the time.  If there's a decision to be made, sometimes we go with Lutheran tradition, sometimes with Episcopal.  But like a marriage, we reap so many blessings from being together - like the depth of reformation theology, and the beautiful tradition of music (if you've never experienced Holden Evening Prayer - do it!!).  And, the ELCA is a huge proponent of campus ministry.  True, they are now in the process of downsizing their resources allocated to campus ministry (a tragic move), but point being the Episcopal Church did that decades ago.  So in general, I'd say Lutherans have embraced ministering to young adults during these important formative years and have been protective of this ministry, even as funds have continued to shrink.  Because of that, they have wonderful training and best practices that has allowed me to get many questions answered without trying to reinvent the wheel.  For that I feel profoundly blessed to be serving a joint campus ministry.

But better than that - is the chance to get to minister to and with BOTH Episcopal and Lutheran students (both of which are amazingly awesome in my experience!).  We are truly stronger and better for having this partnership, and even though it is more work for me (double the polities, double the bishops, double the committees, double the conventions/assemblies, etc), I think it is so worth it.  It's also double the blessings in the people I come in contact with and the resources we can use for ministry. And that is, at the end of the day, what makes it all worth it!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Praying the Liturgy - A Literal Interpretation

Students who worship at the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center are not necessarily Episcopalian. In fact, many of them get their first introductions to a liturgical tradition via the Center. Because of their unfamiliarity with the tradition, some rather odd things can happen during the liturgy. Most of the oddities are non-consequential, but one student's interpretation of the Compline confession has made a lasting impression:

At the last Compline of the fall semester, I invite a student to lead the liturgy. Although he regularly attends this service, this is only his second time leading. So, rather timidly, Peter begins the service. With the first few lines handled well, Peter confidently reads, "Let us confess our sins to God." I make eye contact with him hoping to remind him to provide time for silent confessions before continuing with the corporate confession. Peter pauses for a beat, and then he proceeds by stating his confession aloud.

Softly and humbly, the young man says, "I pray for forgiveness because I have harbored jealousy in my heart." Some of my students begin to giggle nervously, others stare at him in shock, and internally I'm saying some bad words out of fear that he's going to "over-share." He continues, "I really like this girl, and every time I see her boyfriend, I just can't help it. I'm so jealous..." He finishes his confession with a sigh, and then an awkward silence ensues. Facial expressions from other students convey their bewilderment and questions. Their eyes ask me where do we go from here?

Responding to their need for direction, I simply thank the young man for trusting us enough to articulate aloud his confession. Internally, I'm completely thrown off and don't really know what to do. But I continue speaking, "I now invite you all to make your own confessions. You may do this out loud, as so beautifully illustrated by Peter, or you may confess silently. After some time for reflection, we will all together make the corporate confession to God as printed in your leaflets."

The silence blares. I fearfully wait for someone else to speak. I wait fearing that I myself might speak. Should I, the priest, the chaplain of these young souls confess aloud of my sinfulness? Could I, the one who pronounces absolution to them, admit aloud my own personal need of absolution? Would I allow my students a glimpse of my own vulnerabilities and provide a witness to the sacredness of this moment?

Before I can answer those questions, Peter begins, "Almighty God, our heavenly Father: we have sinned..." A chorus of relieved voices joins in the remainder of the confession.

Mother Kim+

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dear Freshman

Dear Freshman,

Welcome to college!

You showed up on campus on a hot summer day with your parents and a minivan full of your effects. Packed neatly was your favorite blanket, pillow, clothes, the collage of pictures from your senior year, and poster of Justin Beiber (JK) rolled tightly into a handy cylinder just waiting to be unrolled and put on your wall. You’re full of energy. You’re mostly nervous, a little excited, and you couldn’t wait to get this thing going! After all, you busted your ass to get here!

If you didn’t notice, your parents were jacked up too. When I met your parents, your mom was super anxious and your dad was the proudest papa ever. I totally get where they are coming from…as a parent I can’t wait to drop my kids off at college and my wife is already anxious about it. My kids are 2 and 4 years old.

What happened when your parents pulled away and you were left to your own devices is what has changed the most since I was a freshman (only 14 years ago). Instead of a weekend to unpack and a few days to get to know your new friends before class begins, you discover that the school has your free-time already booked. You’re important now! There is no time to think. No time to waste. Orientation has begun. Welcome to college!

And if you thought you would have to come up with your own schedule after orientation. Fear not! You’re booked until graduation! The system is in place for you to be busier than a bee until you leave. You have a million clubs to join, sports to play, sports to watch, Greek life, field trips, special speaker series, study abroad, comedians, concerts, campus ministry(let’s make that priority #1, okay?), and of course the very reason you are at college in the first place: school. And just so you know, your professors are famous, your classmates are brilliant, and all of them will be famous one day too…so you better study if you want to keep up. But no pressure, though. College is awesome!!!

This. This is college today. And it’s all a perfected production brought to you by the lovely institution that bares its name on your new sweatshirt. And it’s for you, so that college will be the best part of your life. Ever.

But let me offer you one piece of advice that saved me 14 years ago: Find quiet.

In the midst of the great chaos and pressure, find a place where you can just sit and be. For me, that place was the southwest corner on the 4th floor of the library, where I would sit and deeply gaze out of the huge windows that overlooked campus. It’s where my busy world was hushed. And in that quiet space, my spirit, body and mind got to know each other.

I hope you find quiet.

Welcome to college!


Episcopal Chaplain

Washington University in St. Louis

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why Campus Ministry?

                “Why do you want to do campus ministry?”  I got asked this question a lot as I navigated my way through the complicated discernment process I had to go through for ordination.  Truthfully, it was simply where I felt (and still feel) called to serve God and the Church.  College students are incredible.  They are learning about independence and adulthood, and their minds are being opened and stretched daily by new and interesting ideas.  Their worlds are also being expanded by new experiences and opportunities – like studying abroad, drinking too much, not being under the watchful eye of a parent, choosing which activities they want to be a part of (like whether or not to go to church).  In short, college is just a really interesting life phase, and it’s a place I feel the church presence is desperately needed.
                But do college students need the church?  There have been a proliferation of articles trying to explain why this generation of ‘millennials’ has fled organized religion.  I have my own theories.  But what I have witnessed in my three plus years of ministry on campus is that even some of the professed atheists sense something drawing them to seek God, or at least to ask questions about it.  And when we look at who is on college campuses (and who is well funded there) by and large it’s not the mainline Christians.  So those who are not persuaded by simplistic theology or culturally conservative viewpoints end up being turned off to religion altogether.  You would probably not believe the number of students who have said to me, “I didn’t know you can be Christian and support LGBT people!” 
                And, it’s also surprising to me how much of the Christian story is really unknown to this generation.  Thus, there’s much of the Gospel that young adults simply do not know.  Whereas in previous generations I think even those who were not Christians knew at least something about the Christian story.  That cultural knowledge is fading fast.
                So the good news is this is a group of people who truly haven’t heard the Gospel.  And some of them desperately want to hear it – not the sound bites that certain fundamentalists spew, but the real what-Jesus-said-and-did version.  And if we are not there on campus to share it with them, then we really do risk losing our chance to reach this generation entirely.  While part of our mission as campus ministers is to serve those who were raised in the church and are now in college, the reality is that a large amount of our time and resources goes to evangelism.  That is, sharing the Gospel with those who haven’t heard it and shepherding them into the beginning of their faith journey.  And having had the opportunity to do this with students has taught me that the notion that this generation is not interested in organized religion is false.  Or at least, not true for all.  And so here on campus the church has a perfect opportunity to connect with them during this intrinsically formative time in their lives.  This is why campus ministry is so crucial and why I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to do it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"You're lookin' like GOD today!"

It’s sometimes frustrating to see and feel the disconnect between Sunday worship and the rest of our lives.  So a couple weeks ago I decided to give our college ministry one simple and specific practice to take home every Sunday with the goal of fostering community and discipleship throughout the week.  Nothing revolutionary.  Just simple practices. But practices that when taken seriously might just transform the way we think about our lives and the way we live them.  The first challenge was to observe a sabbath rest (a difficult undertaking during midterms!)
Last Sunday I told a story about when I was living in the Episcopal-Lutheran ministry house at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. (Go Vols!)  One morning I woke up to discover the phrase “You’re lookin’ like GOD today!” written on my bathroom mirror. Hah! I sure wasn’t feeling like God that day—what a joke!  But when I found the culprit she told me that she just wanted everyone in the house to remember that they were created in the image of God every day of their lives!  What a great reminder! 
I asked the students in our ministry to do the same—to write “You’re lookin’ like God today” on their mirrors.  I challenged the brave ones to even write it on their roommates’ mirrors to see what kind of conversation might emerge! 
Amazingly, the imago dei spread like wildfire this week, in our ministry and beyond!  I heard accounts of students receiving text messages and facebook posts, finding the phrase on their dorm room doors, and inspiring RA’s to post it on their bulletin boards all week long.  One dance instructor who teaches teenage girls with low self-esteem received the note from one of our peer ministers and wrote it on her ballet class mirror!  All of a sudden, students had an excuse to contact other students in the ministry with whom they had little in common, and random roommates were talking about God. 
And it was so simple.  It is so simple.  Even in the intellectually rigorous and theologically rich vineyard that is campus ministry, we mustn’t take for granted the profoundly simple and simply beautiful fundamentals of our faith—like the notion that we really are made in God’s image and empowered to be God’s presence in the world.
The takeaway here?  In a world where we’re constantly reminded of sin, brokenness, and inadequacy, people are eager to hear God say “you are good!” 
What practices does your campus ministry or congregation use to help students build community and “be the church” Monday-Saturday?  Leave a comment and join the conversation!

Zack Nyein

Zack Nyein is the lay chaplain for Project Canterburyan emerging congregation of college students and young adults in Chattanooga, TN.