professionaldevelopment-02

Religious Life: Student Leadership on Campus and Beyond

by Jeremiah Gibbs
University Mission

When faculty and administration talk about such lofty aims as have been set forth by our university mission statement, it is not difficult to hear an implicit assumption that may mislead us. Discussion of strategic planning and curriculum management rightfully center direction and assessment for such critical areas upon the stated mission of the university. We design classes and programs that attempt to approach one clause or another. We do the same with co-curricular programming, investment in athletics, and redesign of spaces. Using our stated mission to direct decision-making is essential to cohesive and focused institutional health and growth.

I think these discussions can sometimes mislead us when we assume that these contexts are the only ones in which our institutional mission is being accomplished. Student learning often happens in places and ways that institutional leaders could never orchestrate intentionally, even if the faculty and professionals responsible for those areas are well aware that the environments help cultivate this learning.  Along with the Department of Philosophy & Religion, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Programs office is normally expected to be the primary champion of the clause of the university’s mission statement pertaining to UIndy’s commitments as a United Methodist-related university: “. . .enable students to gain a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Christian faith and an appreciation and respect for other religions.” By no means is our office the only location for this important bit of learning, even if we are to be the primary champion for it.

Though the ministry of the chaplains includes overseeing a robust Christian ministry that includes chapel services that regularly welcome more than 100 students on Thursday evenings as well as various prayer, service, and learning opportunities through the week, the design of the campus ministry program itself recognizes that others will be taking significant leadership roles. For many years the chaplains have welcomed outside churches and organizations to gain approval to be in ministry with our students. This requires an approach to ministry that is consistent with the university’s Code of Religious Ethics.

Similarly, for more than a decade the university has offered Christian service experiences through the Spring Term offerings of Becca Cartledge, Jodie Ferise, and many others. Though these experiences partner with Christian mission agencies, they frequently serve students from a variety of religious traditions and are also governed by Religious Formation Course Guidelines that ensure that these programs are consistent with the university’s mission. These initiatives are made possible by the initiative of university community members who are living out their personal religious commitments and doing so in ways that advance the university’s commitment to help students better understand Christian religion and respect the religions of others.

Maybe the most surprising source of enactment of the university’s mission comes from our students themselves. Because their religious congregations teach them to embody their religious commitments while they are yet teens and preteens, some of our students come to the university well prepared to commit to its mission in these ways while they are here. Two examples from the last few years make this point well.

The Ecumenical and Interfaith Programs office has had a dual emphasis of creating ecumenical Christian programming for the majority of our students who are Christian, while also creating interfaith programming that utilizes the campus’s religious diversity to promote understanding and respect for persons of all religions. One of the best instances of this latter programming has been exemplified in a group of student leaders that make up the Interfaith Scholars program of the EIP office, as well as the Interfaith Steward, a student staff member largely responsible for organizing interfaith programming.

Interfaith programming is almost always a numerically small instance of religious life programming. This should come as no surprise. Religious persons (Christian, Muslim, and others) are taught by their religious communities to attend to the religious commitments of prayer, worship, service, etc. Both Christian and Muslim students on our campus rightfully prioritize times of prayer and worship in their own tradition over any kind of interreligious engagements. The difficult conversations that are demanded by interfaith programs do not share the same status as a fundamental religious engagement in these religious traditions. They are nevertheless essential engagements for persons living in a pluralistic American culture. Therefore, we are committed to creating the highest quality and highest engagement programming possible, even while students only rarely recognize the need for such programming on their own.

While it is still often difficult work, the current group of student leaders have had much more success in gathering fellow students for program experiences than the chaplains could have imagined. This semester alone these students organized programs that were attended by more than 350 students, while also taking a leading role in organizing the march in support of DACA and other immigrant students. Such results would have been unimaginable without an excellent group of students who have taken initiative above and beyond the expectations of the chaplains or the requirements of their participation as Interfaith Scholars. It is not insignificant that one of the most successful programs these students organized was the 9/11 Interfaith Prayer Vigil at the 15th anniversary in 2016. This event was designed and enacted in the period of time between when Chaplain Lang Brownlee ended his time as chaplain and before the arrival of Chaplain Arionne Williams, who now leads interfaith programming.

The students created an event that was attended by 150 persons and involved the participation of dozens of faculty and students, including religious leaders who are Protestant and Catholic Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and agnostic. When Muslim participants were fearful of possible backlash, the student leaders carefully worked to put them at ease while also involving University Police to provide for their safety. The Interfaith Scholars and Interfaith Steward were primary agents in creating one of the strongest enactments of “respect for other religions” for that academic year.

The second example is an equally impressive expression of a student leading other students into deeper understanding of their Christian faith. On a few occasions over the years, UIndy students have taken initiative to plan service trips around the country, some as expression of their religious faith and others independent of those commitments. Jenny Fogo ’85 ‘87 planned the very first trip to Appalachia Service Project when she was an undergraduate back in 1984. The chaplains have continued that service trip each year since she initiated it. In 2014 and 2015 a group of students led alternative Spring Break service opportunities as a Registered Student Organization called UIndy Serves, leading trips to Louisiana, Nebraska, Alabama, and Florida.  

In 2016, Ellen Hodson ’18 was just a junior when she led (what I believe to be) the first ever student led international trip at our university. As a result of being highly involved with her church’s mission work, Ellen had travelled internationally 15 times to eight different countries by the time she was a UIndy freshman. So when Ellen shared with me that she hoped to lead a group of students from Delight Ministries, a Christian Registered Student Organization that primarily serves women on our campus, on a mission trip to Mexico during Spring Break of 2017, I knew that Ellen was one of very few undergraduate students who was capable of such leadership.

Before she could begin the difficult task of organizing a group for international travel, she first had to gain approval for the trip from the university. Given that no similar trip had happened before, she faced a complex array of liability and legal issues to sort through what would involve top administrators from five different university offices. In each instance she engaged the concerns of administration with care and professionalism. At several points when the administrative questions became particularly complex I told Ellen that she could simplify the process by leading the trip with a group of her friends without doing so as a mission of their Registered Student Organization. In each instance she persevered because she knew that she was capable of working through these administrative issues in ways that would provide a trail for future student groups to follow should they decide to lead similar trips. She was permitted to promote the trip on campus as a program of Delight Ministries. And her efforts illuminated the need for a university process that is now being developed by which future trips can gain approval.

She gathered 18 students for a mission experience in Mazatlán, Mexico, with Back2Back ministries, providing care for the children of the several orphanages there through service projects and time spent with the children. She also invited the faculty advisor for Delight Ministries, Karen Elsea (School of Nursing), to join the group. Karen had her first international service experience with the 2017 group and will return as a faculty leader with the 2018 Delight Ministries mission to Mexico in May.

Sustained efforts of faculty and staff who plan religious service classes, teach Religion courses, develop religious life programming, and advise religious student organizations will always be necessary to develop the robust and multifaceted religious life present on our campus. This is essential to accomplish our university’s mission to promote understanding of the Christian religion and appreciation and respect for all religions. But we also cannot ignore the ways that students themselves are contributing to this mission due to the rich formation they have received in their religious communities. Seeing them faithfully live those commitments is one the greatest aspects of the work of the chaplains.

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Thanks to Chaplain Jeremiah Gibbs for this month’s reflection about UIndy’s mission. As UIndy students become alumni, we are able to see the procession of leadership – Ellen Hodson ’18 takes her place alongside Jenny Fogo ’85, ’87 – as yet another chapter of “Education for Service” takes shape. The focus of next month’s Mission Matters piece will be imaginative and creative leadership exercised by UIndy alumni.

If you have feedback or suggestions, please send it along to missionmatters@uindy.edu.  As always, thank you for taking the time to reflect with me.  Remember:  UIndy’s mission matters!