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Campus ministry in Iowa sets aside its original agenda, discovers Christ’s call is leading in a different direction

September 13, 2010

The Rev. Maureen Doherty acknowledges that it wasn’t supposed to be like this.


The Episcopal campus chaplain at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls thought that the $15,000 Jubilee Ministry grant that the campus Jubilee Community of Prayer, Learning and Service got last year would go toward setting up a residential house for students with a yearning to do social justice.


She didn’t expect it would instead go to buy food and art supplies for in a hard-luck section of nearby Waterloo. But then, setting aside one’s own agenda in favor of Christ’s clear call to head in a different direction is a good spiritual practice to be teaching young activists.


“It’s just taken a different turn,” said Doherty. “And it’s opening our world.”


While Doherty was coming to grips with the financial challenges of setting up a residential community for students on or near campus last winter, she was approached by another group, New Cities Ministry. They wondered if her Episcopal students would consider partnering with them to serve monthly meals and build community in Waterloo.


“Waterloo is the most racially diverse community in Iowa,” Doherty said. “It’s also the most violent. Ninety percent of the kids who come to UNI are rural kids. Their integration into diversity and urban living is about as big as the tip of a pin. In the first month after we started doing this, our kids had been exposed to more racial diversity than they’d ever seen in their lives.”


Tom Early, 21, grew up in Harlan, Iowa, a town of 5,000.  It’s not like he’d never seen poor people before. “I had done Boy Scout stuff,” Early said. “I had seen it as service, but never as ministry. But going there with that in mind, meeting people and talking with them, well, when the Bible says Jesus is with the poor and the meek, it’s so true. Waterloo is in need of community-building more than food, honestly. But the food is a good reason for people to come together.”


Each month, Doherty’s students serve a hot meal to about 150 people. While the people are gathered, other partnering agencies come in and do educational programs, parenting classes, cooking classes or other enrichment programs. The students also do some arts and crafts with the children.


“What we’re really doing is inviting our students into the most severe poverty in Waterloo, which is less than 5 miles from their campus, and letting them see the face of it,” Doherty said. “And we’re gathering the community.”


Students have been excited at this ministry, and plans are afoot to make the meals weekly rather than monthly. Doherty believes the experiences of regularly being among the poor of Waterloo are just as important to the pastoral and spiritual formation of her students as living together in a house would be.


As for Early, he’s considering changing his career path. “I was an education major,” he said. “But I’m leaning more toward the priesthood at this point. This makes me believe in the mission of our church and makes me want to be a lifelong member, a lifelong worker for the church. We’ve always put more of an emphasis on social justice than on selling fire insurance or scaring people into the pews. When people see us serving and living the gospel, they’ll want to come and be a part of it. I like that.”



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