Finding ‘Common Ground’ on Jesuit campus

Worshiping community at Xavier University provides spiritual home for diverse group of non-Catholic students

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – When Rev. Abby King-Kaiser was hired at Xavier University as associate director of the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice, she was only the second Protestant on staff in the office.

When she walked into her office on her first day, 10 Protestant students were waiting for her. “They wanted to figure out what ministry and community would look like for them on a Jesuit campus,” said King-Kaiser, who began walking through a discernment process with the students. While clubs and smaller churches offered Bible studies for them, the students felt as if there wasn’t a spiritual place for them to feel renewed, energized and challenged to grow in their faith.

“That’s what worship does, right?” said King-Kaiser. “So we started an experiment at the end of my first academic year, where we worshiped together for the last six weeks. We’ve been worshiping together ever since.”

Those 10 students, who graduated this year, became the nucleus for Common Ground — a new worshiping community on the Xavier campus.

“Coming here, I felt like I had the opportunity to explore things, to think about what I really believed,” said Allison McAloon, who attended a Presbyterian church growing up. “As I finished my first semester I doubted God, but when I started going to Common Ground, I thought there was more wiggle room that challenged me to think about all the big questions.”

The students at Common Ground like to call themselves “church mostly.” Some are empowered by the thought that they are a church; other students are more comfortable with the “mostly” part, because church still feels intimidating or scary.

“Basically, we’re a church,” said King-Kaiser. “We do sacraments, we preach, we sing, we pray; we do churchy things together.”

In many ways, they are like any neighborhood church, except that Common Ground’s neighborhood happens to be on a Jesuit campus with more than 4,000 students.

“It’s been a place for me to have family,” said Gala Hughley, who attended a nondenominational church growing up. “A community of people to support and help me with my walk with Christ during my four years at Xavier — it’s super important to have that.”

For both King-Kaiser and students, Common Ground has become “home,” a place where they can be themselves and challenge each other theologically.

“Honestly, when I came in as a freshman, I was borderline on my faith life,” said Jeremiah Pennebaker, a pastor’s son who grew up in a traditional black Baptist church. “If it wasn’t for Abby, I probably wouldn’t be a Christian today.”

Pennebaker became part of that initial group of 10 students who helped start Common Ground.  That core group has more than tripled in size, with 40 to 50 students coming to worship now. They even had their first worship service in a dorm this year.

“We had baptism that night, and we didn’t have quite the right space to make it happen,” said King-Kaiser. “So we used a giant bucket — ice bucket challenge style — and dumped water on her out on the yard. It was gorgeous!”

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King-Kaiser will serve as worship leader and coordinator for “Living, Dying, Rising,” the 2017 national gathering for 1001 New Worshiping Communities.

“Living, Dying, Rising,” which takes its scriptural basis from John 20:19–23, will be held Aug. 7–10 at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort in St. Pete Beach, Florida.


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