The art of building community
Welcoming freshman to campus with love
By Abby King-Kaiser
Our campus on move in day is a little surreal. Mobs of students, and alums dance outside each of the dorms, cheering as cars pull up. Parents look confused as new students are checked in and the hoards swarm their car to ever so cheerfully schlep every last box, suitcase, and ridiculously heavy tv or mini-fridge up as many as six flights of stairs. This party is known as Move Crew, the on campus students’ first introduction to what makes Xavier unique.
Less than 48 hours later, when the 1100 new students are starting to look a little glassy-eyed from all the information, all the activities, all the small talk and all the information, they are introduced to something else that makes our orientation process unique—the chance to make a piece of art with 1099 of their new best friends.
We transformed the concourse of a D-1 basketball arena into an art studio where, during any of the three “sessions,” almost 400 students at 18 tables, with 36 group leaders, 20 student volunteers, and a handful of orientation core members produced a total of almost 1200 3 in x 3 in square collages.
By the second session, we were starting to sort these “tiles” into a color palette, placing them on gridded panels standing 6 feet tall, and 12 feet long.
We are still not done gluing them down, but a landscape is already emerging.
Why bother with arts and crafts during orientation to your four years at a university?
I must have given a version of this little talk a couple dozen times in those couple of hours.
We talk about community a lot at the school. During orientation, it is a refrain we come back to, and live out, in different ways. This art project is intended to bring to life the idea that each and every student contributes to the beauty of our community. All of our contributions alone aren’t much, yet if any piece is missing, we are incomplete. The community is who makes it up, and how we work together. When we work together with intentional, we will create something beautiful none of use could have achieved on our own.
I am a pastor, so why engage in a very time consuming orientation activity where God is never mentioned?
I am an artist, so why collaborate with this many people, when arguably, on my own, I could produce something as large, and potentially more aesthetically pleasing?
When I was in high school, one of our work tour t-shirts quoted St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
Now, maybe St. Francis didn’t really say this (the internet can’t decide) and as a preacher, I certainly value words plenty. But this sentiment shaped my faith as an emerging adult as again and again I saw Jesus demonstrating the love of God not just by what he said, but by who he ate with and who he talked to.
Nothing gets me as on fire as making art in community—big community. The process gives flesh to my faith. It communicates the beauty of creation and invites each person to contribute, artist or not. It does not rely on anyone alone, but relies on the amazing nature of love, connection and community to produce something beautiful. Each person sees their contribution and valued, loved, and significant. We are all invited to be co-creators of the kingdom. This kinds of works fills me with a sense of awe, that I know is inspired by God. Words cannot communicate all of this in the same way that working together does.
In the last year, our worshipping community on campus, Common Ground, has worked at doing more of the work of the body of Christ, intentionally, together. For example, rather than have only me building intentional relationships or providing pastoral care, student were trained with each other, practiced with each other, and then turned outward to support other students.
Exhausted after the art project kept me on campus until 1:30 Sunday morning, I stood as the students gathered for our first worship that evening. I couldn’t imagine that I could muster the energy I needed to preach and lead. I was spent.
They screamed as they saw each other. They gave each other epic hugs. The returning students welcomed and made the first-years comfortable. A senior led music, solo (!), for the first time. During prayer, we got in small groups, and the upper class students were providing shoulders to cry on, inspiring prayers, and friendship. One student bounced up to me afterwards and said—“You would be so proud! I made four coffee dates!”
We have worked intentionally on this, but can’t take the credit, God has been at work, not just in our worship space, but all over the campus community, to build in them such a deep commitment to each other. If only attempted through words, it rings hollow. But when the foundation is thorough, reinforced in how we do what we do, reinforced all over campus, then the roots grow deep, the community flourishes, and everyone thrives, reflecting God’s beauty.
Our art project is a part of that foundation.
Abby King-Kaiser is the assistant director for Ecumenical and Multifaith Ministry at the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University. She returned to her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, for this call after a long sojourn in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a coffee snob, occasional painter, and obsessive, though amateur, Instagrammer (@revabbykk).