Rachel Lehmann arrived at Western Carolina University as a freshman in 2009 with a strong faith. “I was really religious, and I always made it a point to go to church. Not just because my family made me do it, but because I wanted to,” Lehmann said. “Going to a campus ministry helped me grow to new levels of my faith. It helped me grow into my own understanding of my faith. I questioned things, wondered about things, learned about things, challenged different ideas, and now I feel that my faith has never been stronger.”
With its increased academic expectations and the additional responsibilities that come with newfound freedom, college can be a daunting experience for students. Student organizations, many of which are specific to an area of academic study or outside interest, are a means for students to connect with each other and meet their social and emotional needs while at WCU. Faith-based campus ministries especially can bring together students from all walks of life for a common purpose, say students who participate. Beyond offering students the opportunity for emotional and spiritual support and fostering internal growth and relationships with others, these organizations contribute to the strong fabric and cultural diversity of the greater WCU community, the students say.
The concept of family is a common thread among students participating in campus ministries, and that thread runs across faiths. Indeed, regardless of spiritual background, each person interviewed for this story said that a faith-based organization provided a second family. The emotional support that students often find in other students through a faith-based student organization can be rewarding, and invaluable when times are tough.
“One of the things I missed when I came to college was Sunday lunch with my family, but I quickly gained a new Sunday lunch family,” said Meredith Oakley, a senior majoring in communication at WCU and a member of the Reformed University Fellowship, or RUF. “After church, many of the students gather at our minister’s house and eat lunch while watching football and taking a break from the week’s stress. It’s like a big extended family for all of us.”
There’s a reason that people of shared faith often refer to each other as brothers and sisters. Students, much like siblings, often are able to offer each other support because not only are they typically nearby, but they all are experiencing similar day-to-day stresses, obstacles and challenges. “I’ve made some of my best friends from talking to people at a campus ministry and then realizing we have the same difficulties and struggles,” said Oakley. Lauren Johnson ’11 agrees. “For me, the campus ministries I was involved with had nothing to do with the church I went to on Sunday. It was about where I connected,” said Johnson, who lives outside Atlanta.
If students find that other students in a faith-based organization are like brothers and sisters, then campus ministers can fill a parental role. “I met Jay [Hinton, minister of the WCU Wesley Foundation], and he became like a second father to me,” said Lehmann, now a junior majoring in nutrition and dietetics and social work. After ending a relationship, Alyssa Ammon, a junior in the WCU hospitality and tourism program, wasn’t sure where to turn. “My first thought was to go to the church. The pastor and the advisers really helped me through those times. It’s comforting to know they are there,” said Ammon, president of the WCU Lutheran Campus Ministry.
Many people involved say faith-based organizations fostered a sense of loyalty to and engagement with not only the organization but with the entire Catamount community and beyond. “Being a part of a faith-based organization gave me a lot of opportunities to help others, and not just in Cullowhee – we also got to travel and help,” said Manning Wimberly ’09, also a member of the Wesley Foundation, a United Methodist campus ministry. That is as it should be, said Jeffrey Vickery, an instructor in the WCU Department of Philosophy and Religion and a pastor at Cullowhee Baptist Church, which in November celebrated 190 years of operation. “One of the enduring values of religious faith is that the needs of others, the response to the overlooked, the ethical engagement with the world, are defined by a religious center that is not self-defined,” Vickery said. “What religious organizations offer that secular ones do not is a faith-foundation built on something that is beyond themselves.”
While WCU has eight registered faith-based organizations, the university’s more than 9,000 students actually can choose from approximately 15 ministries. (An exact number of campus ministries at WCU is not available. Such organizations are required to file paperwork with the university for official recognition, but some ministries meet off campus or have not registered.) In comparison, Appalachian State University has 27 faith-based student organizations to serve its 17,344 students and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has 20 to serve its 17,500 students.
Many of WCU’s ministries offer similar experiences. Most provide a student-oriented worship service with music and a message based on religious tradition as well as activities designed to connect students with each other and the community. In fact, because of the abundance of campus ministries at WCU, competition between organizations sometimes occurs. To attract students, faith-based student organizations make themselves as accessible, welcoming and open as possible. The larger organizations (those with the highest average numbers in attendance) all meet on different days.
It’s common for students to attend two or three different ministries before finding one that suits their needs. “I was looking around. I wanted to see what kind of people were there, what kind of music they played,” said Matt Madden, a senior from Athens, Ga., studying chemistry at WCU and an RUF member. “I was looking at a lot of outside stuff, but when I went to RUF, I knew that it was something different, and I wanted to keep coming back.” For Wimberly, the experience of sampling different campus ministries was almost as important as the experience of actually finding the right one. “Worshipping with people from other denominations helped to define my faith and realize what I was looking for,” he said.
For those who want it, most campus ministries allow the opportunity to develop leadership skills. “Being a part of a faith-based student organization at WCU gave me leadership experience at a young age,” said Wimberly, who lives outside Hickory with wife Kerri Bernhardt Wimberly ’09 MSEd ’11. “During my time, we changed campus ministers and, for a period, the Wesley Foundation was almost entirely run by students. This gave us not only the opportunity for leadership, but also a chance for us, as students, to shape a worship service.”
Johnson used the leadership skills she gained in campus ministries as a foundation for her career. As a campus director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, she works with about 20 different FCA organizations in the northern Fulton County area of Georgia. “While I was at WCU, I was involved in several different ministries, and each one offered different things,” Johnson said. “Young Life taught me how to talk to people; RUF gave me the opportunity to learn about small-group dynamics.” She also learned to lead effective meetings; to organize, present and moderate content-based discussions; and other “invaluable general leadership skills.”
Although conventional wisdom holds that young people stop attending church during their college years, a 2007 study by University of Texas researchers indicates that college students are less likely to “lose their religion” than those who never enrolled in college. At the same time, partly because of increased mobility and the ability to share information, an across the board “blurring of the lines” has occurred among religions in the U.S. and the world and is apparent in the region and at WCU. Vickery, who came here in 2002 with his wife, Tanya (also a pastor at Cullowhee Baptist Church), has observed some changes. “The majority of my students will still be Christian and Baptist, but an increasing number of them will express a nondenominational Christianity,” Vickery said.
When campus ministry works well, it offers students a safe place, an opportunity to connect with others, and an environment to grow in faith. “What I think campus ministries should do best is to be a bridge for young adults between the university and the community of faith we call ‘the church,’” Vickery said. “I’ve always seen campus ministry as, yes, deepening discipleship. Deepening understanding, certainly. But mostly helping another generation of folks to see that they have a place in the church.”
Worshiping at WCU can be a challenge for non-Christian students. For instance, while the campus does have a Jewish Student Organization, it functions more as a means of educating the outside community about Judaism than as a community that worships together. A student involved with the Pagan Student Association at WCU said that the university community is “for the most part open-minded about minority religious traditions” and that the organization itself tries to “promote religious tolerance among everyone.” Still, the student has experienced religious intolerance and discrimination on campus and asked not to be identified by name for this story.
Because there is no Islamic campus ministry at WCU, the more than 30 Saudi Arabian students attending WCU have organized a prayer group among themselves. As in Judeo-Christian religious tradition, Islam has a number of sects with unique rituals, but common to all is group prayer. “Sometimes that is hard. We cannot always find a space,” said Hadi Alhuhamidh, a Saudi student studying emergency medical care. For a while, the students were praying together in a room at the A.K. Hinds University Center, but that ended when the student organizing those meetings left WCU. After that, some of the Muslim students held a prayer meeting in the second-floor lobby of a WCU residence hall, but several of them felt an unspoken tension with some of the other residents, and they have not held meetings there since. Anas Alaqeel, a Saudi student studying business administration, said that for him, religion or religious practice is not important. “What is most important to me is that you believe in God, however you do that,” Alaqeel said.
The great majority of the Saudi Arabian students at WCU are enrolled in the Intensive English Program, or IEP, a course of English language instruction to prepare non-English speakers for academic study in the United States, and of IEP students, most (33 of 35) are Saudi Arabian. (Although some, such as Alhuhamidh, have completed the program and now are engaged in an academic course of study at WCU.)
The university has taken steps to accommodate for minority religious traditions, said Connie Hanna, director of the IEP. “In the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters, we scheduled our IEP classes around the five daily [Islamic] prayer times,” Hanna said. “I also give students an excused absence for their two main [Islamic] holy days.” The WCU academic calendar accommodates for Judeo-Christian holy days, with breaks scheduled for Christmas, Hanukkah and Easter.
Other units of the university also recognize spirituality as integral to a student’s life. In fact, residential living’s wellness model includes fostering students’ spiritual well-being. Keith Corzine ’82, director of residential living at WCU, recognizes the value that a faith-based student organization holds for Catamounts and said that his team is supportive of student participation in any campus organization.
Briton Bennett is a senior majoring in professional writing. He has interned in the WCU Office of Public Relations since fall 2011.