Published in the United Church Observer magazine | September 2004 | Circulation: 81,000
“It’s weird to be a Christian,” says University of Victoria student Glenys Verhulst. It’s just another day of classes, and students push hurriedly through the crowded hallway past Verhulst’s small United Church table.
A few students, however, have come to a halt amidst the blitz. They pull themselves towards the table like canoeists paddling into the calm eddy of a river. It could be the cakes and cookies. Lots of Christian groups hold fund-raisers on campus. This bake sale, however, is peculiar. Nowhere in sight are there any of the usual pamphlets praying for students’ salvation.
This is a fund-raiser for the United Church’s “Beads of Hope” campaign; it focuses on the root causes of the global AIDS crisis, not simply charity.
You would expect cookies and brownies at any Christian bake sale. But next to these is a basket full of — and here’s the surprise for most — condoms and other safer-sex accessories, courtesy of the local gay and lesbian pride office. Yes, they’re handing them out free, and it’s drawing some student interest and annoyance in some other campus Christians.
You might have noticed that this AIDS bake sale has an iconoclastic feel. Some might say it’s distinctly United Church. If you talk to these young adults, you discover that when the United Church supports its campus communities, students carry on its faith tradition as leaders and radicals.
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“I was never challenged by my church,” says Samantha Mills-Wiseman, a student at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “Sure, I have a wonderful, supportive church family. But in my experience, ministers were always older people, and they were usually men. They didn’t have much in common with me.”
Mills-Wiseman grew up in a small United Church in Shoal Harbour, Nfld. When she started university, she reluctantly called the chaplain, nervous that this would be yet another disappointment. The chaplain — young, female, “normal, more human” — changed the way she thought of Christianity. “She made me realize being Christian meant more than going to church on Sundays. It means taking action.”
That chaplain was Rev. Pamela Jones-Fitzgerald. She has represented the United and Anglican churches at Memorial for more than three years.
“People are spread to their limits in their work and school and home life,” Jones-Fitzgerald explains. “People need to know that they’re needed as a companion, friend and fellow social justice-seeking person. There is a different pulse and passion unique to young people.”
While many campus Christian groups preach salvation, many United Church chaplaincies attract students also interested in working for social change — what used to be known in Canada as the social gospel. But for a student population largely disillusioned with organized religion, even such “alternative” theology is no easy sell. “It comes up a lot in discussion in classes,” says Verhulst, a fourth-year student and member of the University of Victoria United Church group, known as the Kairos Club.
“People think they know everything about Christianity, that it is responsible for every problem in Western civilization. You know,” she adds, laughing, “they do have a point!”
Through school, Verhulst has learned about some of the darker aspects of the Christian church — the racism and cultural superiority of residential schools, for instance, not to mention lingering homophobia, sexism, and domination of nature.
“Sometimes I wonder how to respond. I know there are other types of Christianity, but I don’t want to feel like I’m always defending it. I want them to know that I understand their criticism, but I still call myself Christian.”
Verhulst was raised in a United Church family; her great-grandfather was a minister in Edmonton. But, like many young people raised United, her attachment to the church was fragile at best by the time she arrived at university.
If it weren’t for campus ministry at Victoria, Verhulst doesn’t think she’d still be connected at all. When she met the United Church chaplain there, she got “hooked” to a “ready-made circle of friends.”
One of the group’s biggest challenges was relating to other Christian student groups, who were intent on creating an “all-Christian” network that excluded the United Church, on the grounds that it was not “Christian enough” — not surprising, since most United Church students don’t agree that Jesus is the only true path to God, and tend to celebrate rather than condemn homosexuality.
While the United Church students were frustrated, Verhulst discovered she was unable to explain her church’s beliefs to her peers.
To many young adults, churches are dogmatic, unchanging and judgmental — if not irrelevant— institutions. Understandably, then, announcing oneself as Christian can be daunting.
“People don’t know what it means for me to be Christian,” says Verhulst.
So what does it mean? This question is being asked more and more, especially in light of dwindling youth attendance in the pews. Usually, however, the solution is to mimic the methods of evangelical churches — more rock music, funkier programming, flashy packaging. Is this where the United Church can excel? For some students, it is the church’s ability to challenge itself that is appealing. Its support for same-sex marriage, the environment and fair trade have brought back young adults who had almost given up hope.
“Maybe we’re too shy,” Verhulst suggests, pondering the future of her church. “Evangelical churches are growing because they’re ready to say what they believe.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be so freaked out by what we believe.”