What Role Should Social Justice Play in Campus Ministry?

11 May

The job description for United Campus Christian Ministry at Stanford stopped me in my tracks because it included the phrase, “integrating spirituality and social justice.” I had to read it several times to make sure I read it correctly and then in my interviews with the board, they confirmed that UCCM was indeed committed to exploring the intersection between spirituality and social justice. Obviously this wasn’t all they were doing but it is noteworthy that this particular ministry had a long history of social justice activity dating back to the 60s.

When I arrived on campus in the fall of 2007, in the midst of the war on terror, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and allegations of torture and violations of human rights, none of the ministries on campus were raising these issues for discussion publicly or privately – not the traditional conservatives like Intervarsity or Young Life or even the more progressive ministries like the Catholics or Episcopalians or Presbyterians. We were all MIA when it comes to engaging students in a discussion of how our faith calls us to be “in” the world but not “of” the world.

UCCM is an ecumenical ministry of the Presbyterian, Methodist, UCC and American Baptist churches and we are yoked with our Episcopal and Lutheran colleagues in common fellowship events. Over the months, we talked about a variety of issues that included, among other things, LGBT inclusiveness and Jesus’ ministry of justice and nonviolence. Then in the spring of 2008, I worked with a couple of other student groups on campus to bring the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit to campus. This is a solemn and respectful display of the boots of soldiers that have been killed in Iraq. Many families of the soldiers attach pictures and/or letters to the boots of their fallen family members. The exhibit also included banners and handouts on the cost of the war and examples of where else we might be able to use those funds such as schools, hospitals, student scholarships, etc. We also created a labyrinth of civilian shoes to illustrate the cost of war for Iraqi civilians.

Then we asked the UCCM students if they would be willing to co-sponsor the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit as another supporting student group. Not only did the students vote it down, their vote was unanimous! To say that I was stunned was an understatement. This group of students was arguably the most progressive group of all the Christian religious groups on campus and yet they couldn’t bring themselves to co-sponsor an event that challenged our assumptions about the cost of war.

In the course of conversations with students in the months following that vote, I would occasionally ask, “At your home church, what kinds of things did they do in the lead up to the Iraq war? Did they preach about it? Did they bring in a speaker or lead a Bible study?” Virtually every one of them said that their churches had not done anything to promote a discussion of these issues.

It would seem that we are all on board with service because most service isn’t controversial, doesn’t challenge our assumptions or call on us to take risks on behalf of those who are suffering. It’s not just the issue of war that is problematic; I’ve received similar responses to raising issues of poverty, torture, even LGBT advocacy. And it’s not that they aren’t LGBT inclusive but that they don’t want to be “out” about being LGBT inclusive. Some of this is clearly developmental because they are more interested with fitting in than standing out. And yet, what is our responsibility as campus ministers to raise issues of social justice? And how do we do it in a way that invites participation without criticizing differing points of view? How do you integrate social justice into your campus ministry?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Pace e bene,

Rev. Geoff Browning

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Geoff Browning is a Presbyterian campus minister for United Campus Christian Ministry at Stanford University. He is also the Peacemaking Advocate for the Presbytery of San Jose and a community mediator.

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