One year ago I wrote in these pages about how the InterVarsity ministry at Bowdoin College, with a forty year history of ministering the Christian Gospel, was formally refused access to meet with students on campus facilities. Christian students in the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship were denied access to the funds and facilities for student activities and other benefits enjoyed generally by students participating in voluntary activities on the campus. That story and the New York Times article explaining some of the details can be found here.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is the campus ministry through which my wife and I became Christians years ago. It is also where we have been privileged to serve together for the past ten years as part of a Christian ministry which is committed in principle to serving “on campus” the college and the students that attend there. That is a view that we share. On-campus ministry became a complicated task, however, when these doors of access closed.
One year later, the ministry continues with these important changes to report.
The venue has changed. This Christian ministry, through the help of committed friends, acquired a building on the edge of campus and became a member of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers. The meetings that once took place in the college chapel, the college dining halls, and in buildings reserved for Christians to practice religious faith now take place in a converted living room at the Joseph and Alice McKeen Christian Study Center, named after the first President of Bowdoin College and his first lady.
The challenge to incarnational and invitational ministry has changed. The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Bowdoin College previously operated primarily from a base on campus and only secondarily retreated to points beyond. Those priorities have been reversed by force of circumstance, and the ministry now operates primarily from its newly acquired space on the edge of campus. In new ways, the students are challenged by the terms of their faith in Jesus Christ to inhabit their campus with the truth that they learn, study and improve upon in time spent at a Study Center. And with that incarnational challenge they are to extend the invitation that the apostle Philip extended to Nathanael with the words, “Come and see” (John 1:46).
The opportunities to communicate the good teachings of Jesus have also changed. An early church leader once said, “Things are not to be loved for the sake of places but places for the sake of good things.” With no access to the campus digest, campus billboards, the college chapel and other normal means of communication, the students have published their first journal of Christian thought under the title Agathos (meaning “the good”) as a partner member of the Augustine Collective. The result of exclusion from the Bowdoin campus has changed an on-campus ministry primarily focusing on scripture study and evangelism to a collegial partnership between three like-minded campus ministries (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Consortium of Christian Study Centers, Augustine Collective) operating on the edge of campus.
It is a paradox that barriers of exclusion often create stronger communities of inclusion. Nonetheless, we judiciously reject the inference that the students so excluded must be either on or off campus. The Bowdoin student paper editorial under the caption “Keep the Faith” offered this false choice to Christian students:
The Christian Fellowship at Bowdoin must decide whether it intends to be a religious organization involved with spiritual life at the College—and comply with Bowdoin’s policies—or an independent group operating off campus.
We are aware more acutely than before that the ideas of Christian discipleship abound on the edge of cultural acceptability, and perhaps too dangerously there to find a home anywhere else.
It is true that some Christian students determined that walking a few extra feet across the road from the college campus to a Christian Study Center to be a greater distance than they can safely travel. A few years ago we met with a student considering the Christian Gospel in a room with a large window overlooking the dining hall. He offered this contribution during our time of corporate prayer: “When we study the Bible and pray here, we are separated from the rest of the campus by a thin pane of glass; but for all intents and purposes, we might as well be a million miles away.”
That much has not changed.
Robert B. Gregory serves alongside his wife Sim-Kuen Chan Gregory as a campus staff worker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Bowdoin College.