Helping Students Discover, Discuss and Connect with Their Faith
Sexuality and “Hotline Bling” by the rapper Drake isn’t your typical Bible study topic. But the Diocese of Washington’s campus ministry program at Howard University doesn’t seek to be typical; it seeks to be relevant and thought-provoking to young adults hungry to connect their faith to daily life.
“My Bible group meets on Tuesday nights and is called The Real,” said Andrea Noel, a lay person and part-time, interim chaplain in the Episcopal campus ministries program at Howard this year. “The Real deals with discussions of life, faith and the Bible, and it includes dinner. Lyrics and Lines is the title for this year. We take popular rap, hip-hop music and tie it to a verse in the Bible. The students tell me what they want to talk about. They give me that info, and I ask how can we make that relevant to their faith and spiritual lives.”
Noel is part of the Diocese of Washington’s effort to gain a greater toehold at Howard University, where the diocese has maintained a chaplaincy since 1946.
A Team Approach to Campus Ministry
The Bible study group is small this year, with 15 to 20 being the largest gathering, but this is a year of rebuilding, Noel said, following last year’s departure of the Rev. Robyn Franklin-Vaughn, who served as the Anglican/Episcopal chaplain and Lutheran campus pastor.
Jason Evans, the diocese’s young adults missioner, is working with Noel to strengthen the campus ministry program and make it more visible and viable at Howard.
“As representatives of the Anglican tradition, we have something unique to offer at Howard,” Evans said. “We create just and equitable spaces where all are welcome, where questions, debate and doubt are safe. We create sacred spaces where the holy is recognized and celebrated in a manner that cultivates wonder without spectacle. There’s a hunger for these things on every campus we serve.”
Evans and Noel are supported by an advisory board and three students who receive a small stipend to serve as peer ministers: Jordan Jean, Clarice Metzger, and Ebony Richardson.
“Clarice is my social media and communications specialist, Ebony is my Howard ambassador, and Jordan is a cradle Episcopalian and is my ambassador for and to the diocese,” Noel said. “We do have a small budget that we use to cover dinner after each Bible study, my salary, and materials. Part of my job involves mentoring each peer minister. We meet for lunch or dinner and talk about issues in their personal lives. I feel they work hard for the campus ministry, and this is a specific way that the ministry can pour back into them personally.”
There’s no lack of religious activities at Howard. But some students are seeking the familiarity of the Anglican faith, and that is a gap that needs to be filled, said Janice Berry-Edwards, a Howard alumnae and an associate professor in its School of Social Work. Berry-Edwards, who became an advisory board member in August, said no one should underestimate the importance of helping students find a faith community during their college years.
“Students leave their home churches when they go off to college, and there seems to be a lack in connecting with them,” said Berry-Edwards, a member of St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square. “To me, campus ministries provide them a natural bridge and a way to stay connected with their faith base. I notice that students need an anchoring, and remaining connected to their faith is critical.
“There are more Anglicans than we know right now,” she continued. “ A lot of the islanders are Anglicans, and so are a lot of the South Africans.”
Noel said she is reaching out to Anglicans and students of all denominations.
“I think campus ministries is a way of meeting young people and getting them to reconnect with the church, especially at a time in their life when they’re asking ‘What do I believe? Why do I believe?’” she said. “If the church is involved during that period, I think we can help grow a generation who can exercise their faith in everyday life.
“The other thing is that young people are hungry and thirsty for an everyday type of faith,” Noel said. “They are asking very hard questions when it comes to their lives and faith, and someone needs to be there to help them live with resounding faith through those questions. And that’s extremely important.”
A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Noel works fulltime as an engineer with the federal government and since January 2015 has worked part-time as the interim chaplain at Howard, a community she knows well. She holds two Howard degrees—an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and a Master of Divinity. She also holds a Master of Arts in Spiritual and Pastoral Care from Loyola University, Maryland. Noel has been active in Howard’s Episcopal Anglican campus ministry since she attended divinity school, helping facilitate and lead silent retreat days and leading groups in contemplative meditation.
Raised a Roman Catholic, she joined the Episcopal Church and formally started discerning a call to ordained ministry in 2010. She withdrew from that process in 2012 but is still trying to determine her specific call to ministry, which she believes is bi-vocational—including both her work as a federal employee and her work with young adults—ecumenical and multi-religious.
Here’s an introduction to the three peer ministers working with Noel to build the Episcopal presence at Howard. All three served as lay Eucharistic ministers at the Nov. 1 installation of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
“I’m just a big Michael Curry fan,” said Richardson, a senior double majoring in African studies and mathematics who wants to teach math in an urban school. “Everybody tells me how busy he is, but he still takes the time to be with young people. When I was able to go to his installation, that was history right there in the making.”
Richardson, a native of Long Beach, California, discovered the Episcopal Church when she came to Howard. She’ll be confirmed at the National Cathedral on Saturday.
“I wasn’t brought up in a religious household,” she said. “My grandma was Baptist, but my mom broke away from it. I was raised with a whole bunch of ‘you’re not supposed to do that’ and ‘you’re not supposed to do this,’ but I was never told what I was supposed to do. I loved that at Bible study I was able to relate text from the Bible to real life problems and situations, which helped me to better understand my faith.”
Richardson became involved with campus ministries when she was searching for a Bible group her freshman year. She has been a peer minister for two-and-a-half years.
“We advertise as Episcopalians, but for our Bible study we relate to real life topics and everyone is welcome.”
A native of Lake Worth, Florida, Jean’s Anglican and Caribbean roots run deep.
“In my family it was taboo not to be an Episcopalian,” said Jordan, who said that at age 14, he became the youngest sub-deacon in his home parish. His grandfather’s family was Anglican in Jamaica and his grandmother’s family was Anglican in the Bahamas.
Jean, who plans to get a Masters of Divinity and a law degree after graduating from Howard, said that as a conservative Anglican, he was not used to seeing female priests. That has changed, he said, since he arrived in a diocese with a female bishop and lots of female priests.
“Now it’s no big deal. What makes a woman any less authorized than a man?”
A sophomore, Jean is intent on growing Howard’s campus ministry.
“Starting from scratch is interesting,” he said. “You’re working out all the kinks, but we are coming along. You know, whenever two or three are gathered in His midst, there He is. We have all types that come to our Bible study. Last week we had seven, the week before we had about 20.”
Jean is going to preach at his home parish on Nov. 21. “I’m talking about how we have to let everyone relate to the church,” he said of the message of his upcoming sermon, which isn’t unlike the message he advocates at Howard. “We’re supposed to go into the community, not only let a chosen few come in.”
Since becoming a peer minister in April, Metzger has handled marketing and communication for Episcopal campus ministries at Howard. A sophomore from Marlton, New Jersey, she learned of the peer minister position through Jean. Like him, she was raised as an Episcopalian.
“The part I like most about being a peer minister is, not only are we making these connections with other students, but I’m making a greater connection with God, myself,”she said. “It allows me to strengthen my own relationship with Christ.”
Metzger feels the Episcopal campus ministry program is having a growing impact. “We are making a difference on campus and becoming more known,” she said. “We have an event called Stressbusters, a relaxation event we do before exams, and students like that.
“If we didn’t have The Real, I really do think it would be missed,” she added. “Even my friends enjoy going to it and talking about various things relevant in our lives, such as what the Bible says about sex and social justice.”
Metzger is studying journalism and would like to become a fashion magazine editor.
Supporting the ministry
“Whenever I go to churches to speak, people are interested in how they can get involved and what they can do to support campus ministries,” Noel said. She suggests inviting students involved with campus ministries to visit diocesan congregations, and visiting campus to meet with students.
“This is an opportunity for us, as a diocese,” said Evans. “Our campus ministries offer our congregations a glimpse at what it’s like to be the church in the 21st century outside the security of the nave. My hope is that we’ll listen and learn from ministries at places like Howard University so that we all might benefit from what we are learning on campus.”
For more information about campus ministries, visit http://www.edow.org/growing-christian-community/young-adult-ministry/campuses/ . Or contact Jason Evans at [email protected].