Meeting college students one step at a time
Meeting college students one step at a time

Dinner gathering at St. Francis House in Madison

“Start with the chapel steps.” That’s the advice my wife gave me when I told her about the invitation to write this article, a daunting request to describe St. Francis House, the Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin, and how God is meeting college students through the work of that ministry. “Start with the steps,” she said.

The chapel steps extend a short distance from the student center to University Avenue, the very heart of the campus. Thousands of students each day walk by our charming old building with poor signage.

The program itself is made up of a very small community of students, reemerging from two years off campus, owing to necessary construction work and a revisioning of the site. The chapel steps are places of public encounter, mostly with strangers, because “Episcopal” is in no one’s vernacular.

The steps are where we position a wooden sandwichboard sign each day with a neon marker greeting, announcing the House as a place for students. We make a point of explaining that the welcome comes with no strings attached.

Students have learned that there is always hot tea, good food, and someone glad they are there. My office is part of the main floor’s lounge, and I like to ask first time visitors about things in life that give them joy. I am surprised in the interest complete strangers sometimes express in an unknown priest who works at a make-shift table in a university lounge and makes them hot tea.

Sometimes I put out two chairs at the steps and sit next to my trusty wooden sign, which says, “How can I pray for you?” I was terrified the first day I sat there. But soon a handful of students came up and asked for prayer. A couple of others braved eye contact and a smile.

Surprisingly, a few folks without time or desire to pray stopped to thank me simply for being there. On these days I spend a couple of hours on the steps, saying a half dozen prayers with strangers. Not efficient, maybe, but easily a half-dozen more prayers than I would have prayed with strangers otherwise.

The Sunday before my first morning on the steps, I told the House community I was moving to the steps. “We’re called to give what we have for others,” I explained. “This is my hope for our community. I want to experience the things I hope for us. It occurs to me that prayer is something all of us can give.”

Seeing that some were impressed by my decision, I quickly added, “I only look comfortable. I’m not a live-for-others person by nature. But I want to become this kind of person, and I hope sitting on the steps will help. Please pray for me tomorrow morning.” This was a test of my desire to be vulnerable with others, learning the permission to seek God in uncomfortably honest places.

Some months later, on Ash Wednesday, when area clergy provided Ashes-to-Go in Madison, there was no doubt in my mind that St. Francis House needed to be on the steps. That was the easy part.

The harder part came in the community’s awareness that Ash Wednesday conversations on the steps should be shaped by the language we had learned from praying on the steps. Each time we said, “Friend, before sharing this sign of repentance with you, is there anything for which I need to ask your forgiveness?”

To relentlessly seek and serve Christ in the other is the heart of what it is to be Christian. The day-to-day question is how to live out that heart in visible and meaningful ways, where meaningful doesn’t always result in a change in others.

St. Francis House strives to publicly witness the remarkable truth that God is present to and interested in students. To students—and one another—we are learning to say, “Believe it or not, you are interesting to God. God, show us how.” And God does, one step at a time.

The Rev. Jonathan Melton (@JonathanMelton) is an Episcopal chaplain who serves the University of Wisconsin community at the St. Francis House in Madison. He was recently awarded the Distinguished Service Award at the Kindling Conference for Campus and Young Adult Ministry Leaders.

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