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PC(USA) podcast examines the joys and challenges of ecumenical campus ministry

The Rev. Becca Seely and Ekama Eni of The Vine NYC were guests last month on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Becca Seely

LOUISVILLE — Last month, the Rev. Becca Seely and Ekama Eni of The Vine NYC — a group of gatherings of college and graduate students studying across New York City and hailing from a variety of faith backgrounds — were the guests of the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong during an episode of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.” Listen to their 46-minute conversation here.

The hosts asked Seely, a Lutheran pastor and the director of The Vine NYC, and Eni, a cradle Presbyterian and the co-pastor of LaMP, The Vine’s uptown ministry in Manhattan, how to encourage young people to be active spiritually and how to solidify support for campus ministries.

College is a “busy time” for students, Eni noted. “The community of students we’re engaged with are extremely high performing and really intense.”

“I think so many folks, especially grandparent-age folks in the church, are concerned and understandably heartbroken not to see young adults or students in the pews of our churches,” Seely said. Students studying at New York University, Columbia University and other New York institutions “are hypercompetitive and achievement oriented. Many have been taught, ‘you’d better be gunning all the time, doing your extra curriculars and studying, because that’s success, that’s what gives life value.’”

“At the same time, parents and grandparents are disappointed that students aren’t valuing something that’s completely ‘unproductive,’ like church — which I think is a beautiful thing, an unbelievable gift of grace to have a space that’s not about achieving anything but about receiving and being grateful.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re never going to come back,” Seely said. “I don’t think we should despair too much of young adults in the church. Some come back, and it’s OK that they’re not there right now.”

For many young adults, the entry point into a community of faith is different than it is for their parents and grandparents. For most mainline denominations, that entry point is an hour of worship on a Sunday morning, as well as Sunday school and fellowship time that also often occurs on Sundays. For college students, the entry point might be “a mentoring program that takes place after school,” Eni said.

Asked by Doong to talk about the ecumenical aspects of campus ministry, Eni called herself “a Presbyterian who works at a Methodist church in an ecumenical campus ministry and also at an Episcopal seminary some days. Ecumenism for me, personally and practically, is the way the church is supposed to be going.”

Ekama Eni

“We need diversity,” Eni said. “Our differences, particularly in polity — how we order ourselves — is important. It can shape our theology as we learn from one another … I get to be in my role with LaMP because of partnered funding from different churches and their commitment to campus ministry. It’s proof that ecumenism works. You just have to do it.”

Combining denominational investment in campus ministry “ended up leading to this really beautiful ministry where we have a critical mass and we have students who come from totally different Christian traditions … and students who have never been involved with Christianity at all and are wondering what it’s all about,” Seely said. “We have de-centered denominationalism and focused more on the idea of diversity in Christian community … The vast majority of students do not care about denominational labels.”

“This has to be wild seed-casting ministry, because it’s not transactional,” Seely said. “You can invest a huge amount of money in campus ministry and it’s not going to lead to revival, because the world has changed. It may lead to world-transforming and church-transforming discipleship. It may lead to amazing new communities of faith. But it’s not going to refill the pews with teenagers or young adults. It’s not going to make the mainline churches big again in the way they were. I think God’s moving in amazing ways, but it’s not institutional.”

“Young people are already fully formed theological beings,” Eni said. “They think about God and have experienced God in ways that are already profound. It’s unfortunate for the church when it doesn’t realize that about the people it says it wants to shepherd and nurture.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Catoe put it this way: “An ecumenical way of going about things is life-changing, in my opinion.”

Doong, a LaMP alum, recalled, “We met at a time that worked with people’s schedules.” He wondered: “What can young people teach the church about different ways to be church?”

Noting that Eni is known — and appreciated — for cooking gumbo to feed hungry students, Seely said, “Gathering around a meal is a different kind of community than sitting in a pew. It’s a different thing to sit facing people, to break bread with them and talk with them. We study scripture and talk about God and faith, and we pray and have communion. But we also invite students to bring their full selves into the space, so we always have time for sharing what’s going on in our lives, for lifting up things that are challenging and need prayer, for laughing and having fun together.”

“There’s a way to bring all this together and a way to be in a community that’s countercultural in that it’s not productive and also centers God over self,” Seely said.

“In terms of changing minds and resetting expectations, that’s difficult,” Eni said. “We’re attempting to meet our students where they are.”

“It’s an invitation to imagining and dreaming, and that’s scary, maybe, but it’s also deeply exciting,” Eni said. “We don’t know how many people are going to show up on a Monday night, but it often turns exciting.”

New episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Listen to previous episodes here.


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