At last summer’s National Campus Ministry Association conference attendees focused on a quote from Mother Theresa which reads, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” It is a compelling quote for a moment in time where our global connectivity can makes the scope of need feel paralyzing for those who want to make a better world.
My own work as a Mennonite campus minister at a large state school can include moments of paralysis when I take in the scope of need on the Penn State campus. During my short time here I have recognized a pressing need to create spaces for students to feel a sense of belonging. I’ve also become aware of the increasing political polarization, heightened intolerance toward students from underrepresented communities, and an increased awareness that our campus and community are struggling to respond to the mental health needs, substance abuse problems, economic inequality, and ongoing sexual violence experienced in our community. Needless to say, solutions to these problems feel unattainable, especially for a single campus minister or campus ministry.
My own reflection on this Mother Theresa quote has reminded me that when the challenges have felt overwhelming, slowing down to listen to the needs of my community and where God is leading me ends up starting the process of creating those first ripples.
My arrival at Penn State in the fall of 2014 coincided with the rise in awareness about racial injustice, and a visible #BlackLivesMatter movement here on our campus. I approached this moment with some pause. After all, what could I offer to hurting students as a person of heightened privilege – a middle class, white, straight, Christian male? I approached a young student at one of the early rallies and asked if my presence was appropriate. With a smile he told me it was more than appropriate, it was essential. And the task he had for me was a simple one – just stand next to the students offering your presence as a way to support. I had assumed that I may not be needed, and expected that if I was needed my task would be overwhelming. What I found that the first ripple toward a better future was a small step, like casting a small stone. This movement, and the many small stones cast by our community, has lead to powerful changes in how our community understands racial injustice. It has led to the creation of campus-wide efforts to break down intolerance, launched student and community organizations focusing on racism in our community, and started down a path toward cultural change. None of these transformative moments would have been possible with these small first steps.
Within my first months on campus I also met several LGBTQ Christian students who lamented that while their Christian identity was welcomed by their peers in the spiritual center, their sexual or gender identity was often not. Similarly, in the LGBTQ center, their sexual or gender identity was affirmed while their faith commitment was often not. They needed people to come alongside them as they created Receiving with Thanksgiving, Penn State’s first LGBTQ Christian Network. It didn’t take much effort – just a willingness to stand up for those who were feeling marginalized, and in doing so, join the Spirit’s movement in my community.
This first ripple in my campus ministry with these Christian LGBTQ students led to many others. My participation in this Spirit movement – what I like to call that first “ripple” – with the creation of Receiving with Thanksgiving meant that I was invited to preside over a communion service in their early worship services. This led to an invitation – a second ripple – to officiate at a funeral when one student passed away (with the family acknowledging that I provided a pastoral presence for their child who did not have an affirming church home). Awareness of my willingness to participate in the funeral of an LGBTQ student led to an invitation – a third ripple – to officiate at a same-gendered wedding for two young women who were struggling to find a clergy person in central Pennsylvania willing to enter into their lives in that way. I helped empower these same Receiving with Thanksgiving students to offer a transgender clothing exchange – forth ripple – as a way to meet the needs of a vulnerable community as they enter their personal transitions. A fifth ripple appeared last year when a student invited me to preside over their transgender renaming ceremony using biblical illustrations and metaphors for that moment in this student’s life. This past spring our Penn State LGBTQ center permanently established a transgender clothing exchange (sixth ripple) and this fall will offer a limited number of clergy hours in their physical space for spiritual direction and mentoring (seventh ripple).
I do not know where the next ripples of the Spirit’s movement in my work will come from, but I am convinced that choosing to walk alongside the people who are in need of a spiritual presence in their lives is a way to take that first step. I arrived on campus with many lofty dreams of how I might make an impact, but few of these practical moments and possibilities were in the range of my imagination and hope. It was only after taking those first small steps that the the ripples began to form, and I was able to join the work of God’s Spirit in my context.