This afternoon, I had a great conversation with one of my CCO colleagues. It started as an interview for an upcoming On Campus magazine feature but drifted into other areas as well: calling and vocation, how God works through us and in spite of us, the struggle to discern whether what we're doing is making a difference at all.
I was reminded of this article that I wrote four years ago about my years doing campus ministry in Erie. I promised to send her the article. I'll share it here as well. —alm
I received a letter a couple of weeks ago from new CCO staff member, Lindsey Smyth. The return address on the envelope was a familiar one to me: 627 Myrtle Street, Erie, Pennsylvania.
"The past four months have been absolutely incredible," Lindsey writes. "I have learned so much about trusting God and diving head first into ministry with Gannon University students." She goes on to describe her experience at Summer Training, her first weeks in Erie, what it's like to co-direct a discipleship house and to be an ambassador of First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant to Gannon students. She writes about the privilege it is to be recognized as an official campus minister by Gannon's Catholic campus ministry office. She talks about her gratitude for the supporters who make her work possible and about how much God is teaching her through the students with whom she lives and works.
I flip the letter over and examine the photos that she's included. There's a picture of the residents of the Kirk House, of Lindsey with her CCO colleagues at Gannon (Sam Van Eman and co-director RC Griffin), of Lindsey with the women in her Bible study. All but one picture was taken within the walls of the Kirk House. Aside from the faces and the furniture (go figure — at some point over the past decade, they've had to replace a couch or two), these snapshots could have come out of my own photo albums. The place looks comfortingly like it did in 1989 when I first moved in.
But it's not the same. Praise God, several generations of Gannon students (and Kirk House directors) have passed through those familiar doors since I moved out of my basement bedroom at 627 Myrtle Street a decade ago. Countless students have gathered there for dinners, for parties and for Bible studies. Some have lived there and others have just visited, but I venture to guess that all have been changed in some small way by encountering Jesus Christ and his body in that sacred space.
I've been in a unique position these last ten years. Even after leaving the Kirk House and Gannon to move into my work at CCO's Pittsburgh headquarters, I've had the privilege of getting to know, in various degrees, subsequent Kirk House directors and to call them my colleagues. Since those four years during which I worked with Eugene, Dave, Jeff and Ty, the baton has been passed to and from Marleta, Jason, Tara, Julie, Sam, Jessica, Clint, RC and now, Lindsey. And that doesn't include the many directors who preceded my years there. It's amazing to realize that the CCO has had a presence at Gannon University through the Kirk House ministry since 1973.
My tenure at the Kirk House was rocky, to say the least. I worked with four co-directors in those four years. When I showed up in Erie, two student residents of the previous year's community had been evicted, and the ripple effect of that controversial decision was felt throughout my first year. Gannon University's campus was unlike any I'd ever encountered up close. Instead of the contained, small-town feel of Geneva College — or my alma mater, Allegheny College — Gannon buildings were interspersed with, and sometimes indistinguishable from, others in downtown Erie. At that time, there were no welcoming student-center-like hang-out spots on campus where I could naturally meet students. It was startling, to say the least, the first time I visited the freshman women's residence hall…right across the street from the prison.
Then there was the whole Catholic/Protestant thing. I'd gone from being a student at a nominally Methodist-affiliated school to my intern year within the conservative Evangelical subculture at Geneva College. Now I was entering a whole new parallel universe. Many of the students I initially met at Gannon had attended Catholic schools all their lives and now had chosen to attend a Catholic university. And many of the Protestant students I met had been raised to distrust the Catholic Church and all that it stood for.
The relationship between Kirk House directors and Gannon's campus ministry office had a somewhat tenuous history as well, with levels of trust and connection pretty low over the years. As always, God's timing was amazing. Even in the midst of interpersonal strife within the Kirk House, the initial rapid turnover of male directors (which became challenging not to take personally!), and my overarching insecurity about what it meant to "reach out" on campus, a spirit of unity and ecumenism was nurtured between Gannon staff and Church of the Covenant employees. (It still thrills me to realize that Sam Van Eman now has a cooperative partnership directly with Gannon University!)
My friend and Gannon colleague, Renée, and I became fast friends. Together, we identified language barriers between our respective traditions and sought to overcome them. I audited a class, taught by an ecumenically-minded priest, called "Catholic Traditions." By my last year at the Kirk House, I often found myself in the surprising position of defender — or, at least, interpreter — of the Catholic faith to suspicious Protestant students. (Although I never did figure out how to succinctly answer the most frequently asked question which Catholic students would pose to me: "So, what do Protestants believe about ___?") I'd feel a sort of linguistic whiplash when catching up with my CCO colleagues at staff seminars — such was the uniqueness of my particular ministry setting.
By the time I left Erie, I was a different person. Stretched and pushed and pulled in my understanding of the depth and breadth of God's Kingdom, I found myself open to learning from people different from myself — culturally and otherwise. So great became my appreciation of the liturgy of the Catholic mass, I fully expected to join an Episcopal congregation when I moved to Pittsburgh. (Much to my surprise, I instead found myself attracted to the small, inner-city, interracial, Presbyterian-but-feels-more-like-Baptist Friendship Community Church. That's a story for another time, but with the same theme of God pushing, pulling and stretching me to become a more faithful, well-rounded disciple.)
I'm not sure how many years have gone by since I last climbed the front steps of the Kirk House, or worshiped at First Church of the Covenant, or hung out in the Gannon campus ministry offices. Every time I visit friends in Erie, I try to find time to drive through Gannon's campus, down Seventh Street, past the church. I hang a right onto Myrtle Street, craning my neck to see if the Kirk House still looks the same. It does.
This article was originally published in November 2003. Copyright Coalition for Christian Outreach, 2003.