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A UKirk campus minister responds to campus protests

‘Students are learning about their role in community organizing and amplifying their voices,’ says pastor at UT Austin

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

University Presbyterian Church’s UKirk ministry hands out food near the landmark tower on the University of Texas at Austin’s campus. (Contributed photo)

Since April, protests in support of Palestine and pro-Israel counter-demonstrations have occupied college campuses across the nation as a new generation of students finds ways to speak and act in accordance with their conscience. According to The New York Times, more than 2,900 people have been arrested or detained on campuses across the country.

Presbyterian students have been among them. On April 7, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow posted to Facebook news that his youngest child had been among the 20 students arrested at Pomona College in Claremont, California, on April 5 for a peaceful protest in support of Palestine. She was banned from campus as a result. “Yes, we were worried during the action, but make no mistake, we are in full support of her choice to risk her body in order to keep pressure on institutions that continue to support the acts of the state of Israel in Gaza and the West Bank,” wrote Reyes-Chow. “We have had long talks about how to leverage the privileges of wealth, status and familial support, so do not cast this act as one of youth.”

Many UKirk collegiate ministers have answered the call to provide spiritual and other support to the individuals involved in and affected by the protests, which have stretched over several weeks and interrupted graduation plans. In the most recent newsletter of UKirk Collegiate Ministries, UKirk’s executive director, the Rev. Gini Norris-Lane, shared words of encouragement with UKirk leaders: “We have all heard about the protests that have and are taking place on college campuses around the country, many on the campuses you serve. I am proud of the many ways you have borne witness in person and online, stood vigil in prayer, and embodied a faith that seeks not only to proclaim peace but also to work for peace here and around the world.”

According to Norris-Lane, there are a little over 200 UKirk-affiliated ministries across the country. These ministries vary in form, from student fellowships, nonprofit cafes and gathering spaces to congregational-based ministries. Many of these ministries, such as those serving students at Princeton University, the University of Michigan, the University of Tennessee, the University of Texas at Austin and Ohio State University, have responded by offering students, faculty and others spiritual support during the protests and the responses of the administration and police.

In a recent tally of campus arrests, UT Austin ranked in the top five, with 136 arrests. In a public letter following the first arrests in late April, UT Austin’s president, Jay Hartzell, noted that 26 of the 55 individuals “had no UT affiliation.” Students were calling on the university to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s war with Gaza. $52.5 million of the university’s endowments is invested in arms manufacturers.

UT Austin’s UKirk Ministry is based within the congregation of University Presbyterian Church. In a sermon responding to the university’s involvement of the police toward peaceful protests, UPC’s senior pastor, the Rev. Matt Gaventa, preached on 1 John 4:7–21 and lifted up love as the foundation of education: “But on Wednesday [April 24], the University of Texas failed this basic mandate. It neglected to teach with love.”

In a recent Q&A with the Presbyterian News Service, the Rev. Carter Grant, associate pastor at UPC, shared what it’s like on the campus of UT Austin and how an intergenerational ministry like UPC is responding to the multiple ways their community is impacted by protests on campus.

PNS: How have the campus protests affected your campus?

 Grant: These protests have rocked our campus and our surrounding community. Students generally feel frustrated by the absurd amount of police presence sent to the peaceful protests, and betrayed by the administration that was instructed by Governor Abbott to receive state troopers.

University Presbyterian Church Austin celebrates UKirk Student Sunday during a recent worship service (Contributed photo)

UT is a popular alma mater for many in Austin overall and at UPC, so this is personal for many. Imagine seeing the campus where you met your spouse or lifelong best friend or where your mind started to open to the beautiful mess of the world — and that campus being trampled by police on horseback, state troopers in full riot gear systematically circling and encroaching upon students peacefully protesting in a university free-speech zone, carrying hogtied and/or teargassed teenagers out to public transit buses being repurposed as prisoner transit buses full of other arrested protesters. Because so, so many were arrested, and they planned accordingly to have enough space to transfer them all. It’s a lot for this community to see.

The vibe is tense and heavy on campus. It’s hard to talk or think about anything else. UKirk Austin held previously scheduled events for UT’s “Dead Days” of studying and finals week, and it was all but impossible for us not to share our personal experiences of the protests. This is the first protest event that many students had ever attended or witnessed; it is a tragedy that what they saw was undue and excessive violence against people who sit next to them in lecture halls. But they’re also learning so much about empire, power structures and love of neighbor these days that they might never learn in a classroom!

PNS: Have students in your ministry been directly involved in the protests?

Grant: A select few of our UKirk Austin students have been involved with the protests and the subsequent organizing and community-building events that have come about in this movement on campus. This time will be a formative memory for our students. It already seems like the events have illuminated the prophetic voices and infectious compassion in these students — I think we can find a lot of hope in this! It’s ironic that these police actions might just result in inspiring more subversive tactics. Some students were inspired by the events and got involved after the first Wednesday of escalated police involvement; on the other hand, a few felt overwhelmed and desperately tried avoiding the entire tower/lawn/mall areas. It is pretty incredible that most of our UKirk Austin students are learning about their role in community organizing and amplifying their voices, as well as practicing self-care amidst the chaos.

PNS: How have campus administrators responded?

Grant: A good portion of UPC’s congregants are faculty or administrators at UT Austin, and they are heartbroken. They feel powerless; they’re stuck in a really tough place. Whenever I’ve been on campus in the past few weeks, which is more often than usual in order to witness the events or meet with struggling students, I tell the UT admin and faculty who go to UPC that I’m around and ask them what they need. Sometimes they just need a hug! Some want to process with me the terrible stories that they hear from the students they love; especially those students of theirs who were arrested. I’m really glad that so many faculty and administrators are acting as pastoral care resources for their students and walking alongside them in this crisis. The Spirit is on the loose working through so many people on this campus!

PNS: What has been the impact on your campus ministry? 

Grant: UKirk Austin already had a prominent pastoral care focus before this crisis, so it was helpful that the infrastructure to help walk alongside the students, faculty and staff was already in place. I have only been in this call for eight months, and I was concerned that the trust wasn’t built up enough for me to be an effective pastoral care resource for this time, but I was surprised by the students’ willingness to let me in. That has been a blessing in itself! Though I feel like this is more of a reflection on the students’ great need for support when witnessing something so publicly violent and jarring like this for the first time, and the power that a collective crisis has on forging bonds faster than normal. The collective experience that we’re all witnessing creates a common ground and an amplified urgency to connect with our communities. I’m glad that UKirk Austin can be a community like that; a springboard and safe haven for people to get the Sabbath and restoration that is hard to find most any time in life!

PNS: How have you or your ministry offered spiritual care (or other support) during this time?

Grant: Our ministry (like any good 21st-century campus ministry!) is food- and fellowship-forward; we leaned into that for sure. I brought snacks and meals to students in the encampments in addition to the food-centric study break events we had planned. Some students did the work of bringing food to other students in need and UKirk Austin footed the bill. Being able to help in those little ways adds up! One time while (the Rev.) Matt (Gaventa) and I ate dinner with students after a long day of escalated police presence at protests on Monday, April 29, a UKirk Austin student looked at us and said, “When you see your pastors at protests more often than Sunday mornings, you know you’re at the right church.” That made my heart sing.

I pray that the long-lasting impact will be on my relationships with the students. We are so blessed that a few of our students are interested in politics or community organizing and are involved in the events on campus. I’ve been taking their lead as to what UKirk Austin and UPC’s involvement should look like during these chaotic days. Doing little things with the many abundant resources of the church, like printing items (students have to pay so much to print on campus!) or bringing in cute dogs to pet the stress away, I have to believe that that will make an impact on our community building as a campus ministry.

UKirk is a ministry partner with the PC(USA) through the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Christian Formation and one of five ministry partners in the Christian Formation Collective

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