In two weeks, my service as the Lutheran and Episcopal campus minister at the University of Kentucky will be coming to an end. In the midst of this transition, I have been reflecting on the enduring character of the chapel and its importance to the university community. Eleven years ago, when I was a student at the chapel, our campus ministry became the first and only Christian organization on campus to endorse the creation of an LGBTQ center. At the time, the proposal to open such a center was highly controversial. Yet even today, with all of the changes in society, St. A’s remains the only Christian organization on campus at events like the “LGBTQ Welcome Back Fair.”
In recent years, St. A’s had made it practice to show up with cookies and good theology whenever hate preachers arrive at the University of Kentucky. One of the more interesting things to happen last semester was a visit by Jeb Smock during the week of October 31st.
With the impending 500th anniversary of the Reformation on our minds, we brainstormed pastorally and theologically appropriate responses to his visit. We invited every other Christian campus ministry to partner with us in a response (sadly, they declined). Then we turned to theological heritage that we have as Episcopalians and Lutheran. It seemed to us that the “turn or burn” theology of Jed and his associates is a modern equivalent of the preaching of John Tetzel.
A quick call to our graphic designer later, we had a new banner (Lutherans: Confronting Abusive Street Preachers Since 1517). And it worked! Students responded, photos of our banner went viral, and Brother Jed & Co. took an extended break from yelling at students to argue their case to us. It would be going too far to say that genuine dialogue occurred, but we did achieve one breakthrough: this visit was free of the more inflammatory preaching that had characterized previous visits.
While the banner was new, the chaplain of St. A’s taking a public stance in favor of tolerance and inclusion was not. For example, in 1979 Fr. Hubbell was one of the few religious leaders on campus to speak out against a much earlier visit by Brother Jed (who has spent the last 40 years screaming at students). This is another example of the unique and enduring witness of the chapel to the university community.
As I leave St. Augustine’s for a second time, I am even more appreciative for the faithful ministry of my predecessors. The chapel has been blessed by the leadership of courageous men and women who are passionate about student ministry. As I pray for my successor, I know that our campus ministry will continue to be a place of bold witness to the Gospel and faithful ecumenical partnership. This enduring witness is as important as ever at our state’s flagship university.