The beginning of September doesn’t have any particular liturgical significance, but there are few sectors of society in which it doesn’t mark a cyclical change of some sort. In colleges and universities, this year feels like a return in another, more complicated, way: institutions are working hard to create a sense of “post-COVID normality,” while still maintaining some level of responsible pandemic precautions. Overall, it appears that there will be more opportunities for informal connection this year, and for a chaplain, this is significant. In my experience, very few undergrads make formal appointments to speak with me in this role – perhaps it would seem “religious” in an artificial, inauthentic, way – but long, intense conversations often begin with “Oh. Hi. Do you have a few minutes?” A colleague at another institution once described academic chaplaincy as “loitering with intent,” and as a new year gets underway, I find myself wondering about the quality of that intent, and how best to communicate it. As a student, I was deeply curious about religion and very attracted to Christianity, but I wouldn’t have dreamed of darkening a chaplain’s door. I think I felt a great need to research and explore questions of faith at my own pace and suspected that a chaplain might try to enroll me in social activities and group programming designed to “draw me into the fold.”
It wouldn’t surprise me if a great many of the students I meet share these suspicions. Of course, there are those for whom the church of their youth was a happy and supportive experience, who want to be involved in services and develop a continuity of faith practice in their new environment. Others were dragged to church by their families and have no desire to revisit that experience (or anything that reminds them of it). Many grew up in traditions other than Christianity, and a significant number come from a background in which religion played no part at all, except in media representations ranging from the ridiculous to the downright horrifying. Some students are in search of community, trying to disentangle the myriad opportunities that campus life appears to offer. Still others have set their sights on making a difference in the world through research or art or service or advocacy, and don’t really see a connection between their dreams and faith. A chaplain is there to serve them all.
A lot has been written about the mental health challenges that face students who have spent much of the past two years under pandemic restrictions – isolation, disengagement, anxiety – and all of these are significant. Perhaps more importantly, however, almost anyone entering college or university now has grown up with an endemic anxiety about climate change and the possibility that humans will consume themselves out of existence within a foreseeable future; this underlying dread is efficiently amplified by the dystopian scenarios of popular culture. Wars continue around the world, and the threat of nuclear and environmental catastrophe is never far away. The sense of equity and justice that families and schools seek to nurture in young people is challenged every day by the evidence of poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and naked corporate greed. To be of service to students, chaplains have to be acutely aware of these dynamics, address the realities that face us and still find a way to talk about hope.
Talking about hope is a complicated business. Simplistic cheerfulness doesn’t cut it, nor does a flat rejection of the world and its brokenness in favour of a blissful eternity for the fortunate few. In the past, I’ve boiled down my response to the “Why are you (still) a Christian?” question to this: Christians believe in a God who is not only an all-powerful Creator, but who knows what it is to suffer for love. From this starting point, we can acknowledge the world’s brokenness and the danger in which humanity has put itself, and still talk about God’s loving solidarity with us and all Creation. We can think about the kingdom of God as “already and not yet,” as a future of justice and peace and sufficiency, but also as a radical force in the present, an underground rhizome system of love that can surround and subvert structures of power and cupidity. If we trust in God’s loving solidarity and seek to live as part of the kingdom of resistance, we can still make a difference.
This hope has to be the bedrock of my “loitering with intent,” and I think it’s crucial, not just for chaplains who work with young people but for the Church as an organism, to engage actively and visibly with the issues that challenge us all, to be known by the justice we stand for, the caring we embody and the transformation we seek.