By Kathleen Robertson King
More than twenty years ago, I had just completed a year of service in Peterborough, England through the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in a program now called Young Adult Volunteers.
I learned so much about myself and the world in that year away from home, and grew so much in my faith, as I leaned on God more fully than I’d ever needed to before. At the conclusion of the year of service, I’d made plans to backpack around Europe with my college pal Louise. We carried every worldly good on our backs, sleeping in hostels, and sometimes convents, marveled at works of art, admired buildings older than our imaginations, and met people from all over the globe. Having made it past the Swiss guards at the Vatican, the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica took our breath away. We stared at Michaelangelo’s Pieta for what seemed like hours, and then, my friend went forward to receive the Eucharist.
As I am not Catholic, I stood back and watched, thinking how profound it must be to receive that holiest of meals in one’s mother church. As I stood watching closely in silence, I felt a gentle presence beside me. As I looked to my side, I discovered a woman, small in stature, wearing blue clothing typical of a nun. She looked at me, smiled, and asked, “Are you religious?” That question led us to a conversation about faith and vocation, in which she asked if I’d like to join the Spanish order she represented. I politely declined, citing a call to ordained ministry and the love of a young man back home as my reasons for not accepting. She did not pressure me, but listened, shook her head, and offered her most sincere blessings to me.
That conversation stayed with me for a long time. I wondered what she’d seen in me that had suggested religious devotion. If what she saw was a young woman drawn to God like moth to flame, a young woman certain that she would serve God through her work in some way, a young woman wondering at the mystery of faith, she was right. I was young and idealistic, and so filled to the brim with love for God and a deep yearning for meaning that I believe it may have shown right across my face.
As I covered quite fully in UCM’s 2015 annual report, organized religious affiliation is down considerably from years past, particularly among the age group with whom we work. Young people are less likely to seek out church participation, and are suspicious of doctrine. These are statistics that we see in motion on our college campuses in real ways.
And yet, that look I imagine myself to have had in the Vatican, a look of wonder, awe, and a desire for meaning for my young life, that’s a look I see plainly as I walk across campus, sit in planning meetings, and serve beside students in one of our many service sites. They are fresh faced and open to receive the holiest of meals, though they may not call it bread and cup. They are hungry for meaning and a desire to live out their faith, though some may be surprised or confused by the use of the word faith in reference to themselves.
UCM makes space for the sacred in the ordinary setting of campus and the larger community through a simple process of inviting students to be part of programs that help define meaning for their lives right now.
The sacred might be glimpsed in the midst of preparing dinner for 100 kids at the Boys and Girls Club, painting a home’s walls a warm and welcoming color in a Habitat for Humanity house, helping a squirrely kid complete math or reading homework at Peace House, or trying to make sense of the complexities and heartbreaks of poverty during a poverty simulation. It might even be that the students will not understand enough to name what they touch as sacred. But, they will know it brings meaning to their lives. They will know it enlarges their imagination for what is possible. They will know that their actions and ideas about healthy systems have more power than they originally thought. And, they will know that donors and supporting churches cared enough about them in the midst of their variety of metamorphoses to support a confusing and beautiful journey. Thanks be to God for that.