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!