Campus ministry has different feel, but remains essential for isolated students

Students pray during Mass at the Gabriel Richard Newman Center in Dearborn, which serves students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Henry Ford Community College and other nearby campuses. Despite campus being closed to many in-person events, Catholic campus ministries have found a way to continue offering fellowship for students seeking Christian community. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Newman Centers, college ministries creatively navigate pandemic’s challenges to provide network of support, Christ-based fellowship

AUBURN HILLS — If campus is closed, how does one do campus ministry? 

It’s a question local Catholic college ministries have wrestled with for more than a year as the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its 14th month. 

Signup rallies, retreats and events have been replaced with Zoom Bible studies, smaller adoration opportunities and a real emphasis on Christian fellowship at Metro Detroit’s universities as Catholic groups seek commonality in Christ during a turbulent year.

“Campus ministry has been about showing (students) they are not alone,” Sarah Hill, vice president of Catholic Campus Ministry at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, told Detroit Catholic. “Other people are struggling with the same things they are struggling with. We all want to support one another and grow closer to Jesus together.”

The lingering pandemic has exacerbated the isolation many college students feel during their first time away from home, which is why campus ministry is more important now than ever, local campus leaders say. 

Fr. David Pellican, associate pastor of Divine Child Parish in Dearborn, preaches during a Mass with students at the Gabriel Richard Newman Center in Dearborn on April 16. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“The pandemic has given us some amazing opportunities to help people spiritually,” said Ryan Noll, team director of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) chapter at Wayne State University in Detroit. “A hidden blessing is that more people are finding their need for God and their need for prayer.”

With fewer traditional opportunities to gather, FOCUS has organized virtual Bible studies and prayer sessions, along with small outdoor gatherings. The group still hosts Mass at the on-campus Newman Center on Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 12:15 p.m., but restrictions and personal reservations have made attendance sporadic. 

“We have six Bible studies that have been meeting virtually, and more than two dozen students have been involved,” Noll said.

This summer, Wayne State’s Newman Center will be moving off campus to Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Detroit’s Midtown in an effort to expand the ministry’s outreach and have a bit more freedom to operate on distinctively Catholic grounds. 

“This past year, the FOCUS team has been living at the rectory of the parish, and now the Newman Center will coming in July,” Noll said. “At Wayne, there are lot of restrictions regarding who can be on campus, so we’re hoping to make this space a little more open, available for students from any campus, not just Wayne State’s.” 

Students hang out at Wayne State University’s Newman Center for games and fellowship. This summer, the Newman Center will relocate to Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Midtown with hopes of expanding its availability to Catholic students from other Detroit-area colleges and universities. (Courtesy of Wayne State University Newman Center)

Noll hopes students from other nearby campuses, such as Wayne Community College, the College of Creative Studies and Lawrence Technological University, will take advantage of the Newman Center for fellowship and spiritual formation. 

Beefing up digital outreach

While campus ministers eagerly anticipate a return to normal, these days, Instagram and Facebook often serve as the first encounter between campus ministers and Catholics on campus. 

“Social media has been the biggest thing this year,” Hill said. “People already involved with CCM are reaching out to those who are struggling or alone. There have been a lot of people who have joined us this year based on word of mouth.”

Hill added students from other nearby colleges and universities, such as Oakland Community College, have also reached out to Oakland CCM seeking fellowship and spiritual formation. The group has been able to organize outdoor trips off campus, including a sledding outing and visits to a local cider mill.

A big boost to CCM has been St. John Fisher Chapel University Parish, right across the street from Oakland’s campus, which has been a haven of sorts for Catholic students to safely gather.

The Catholic Campus Ministry at Oakland University has benefitted from the presence of St. John Fisher Chapel University Parish across the street, which offers opportunities for Mass, confession and off-campus gatherings. (Courtesy of Catholic Campus Ministry - Oakland University)

“Since there have been so many restrictions and not a lot going on at campus, we’ve been able to still gather at St. John Fisher while being safe and following the proper guidelines,” said Isabelle Lundin, social chair for Oakland University’s Catholic Campus Ministry. “Fr. Drew (Mabee, associate pastor at St. John Fisher and chaplain for Oakland CCM) is just a rock star. We love him, and he just really cares about us. It’s the best knowing your priest is in your corner; he knows our names and loves to just chat with us.”

Fr. Matthew Hood, now associate pastor of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, is set to become the new full-time chaplain for Wayne State and the University of Michigan-Dearborn in July. 

Fr. Hood, 30, said his own discernment was influenced by his one year at Central Michigan and its campus ministry. Having that connection to a pastor who shepherd him during a time of discernment was important, he said, and he knows the value of a chaplain’s role.

“If you look in the Code of Canon Law, the definition of a chaplain is, ‘someone appointed to help people who don’t have a pastor, such as exiles, nomads and sailors,’” Fr. Hood said. “Chaplains are spiritual fathers who minister to the needs of the students and faculty.”

Fr. Hood said the biggest part of his ministry is presence, being there for Catholic students on campus or students who might not otherwise come in contact with a Catholic priest but have questions about the faith.

Students enjoy fellowship inside the Gabriel Richard Newman Center, which hosts socially distanced gatherings and Masses off campus for Dearborn-area students each Friday. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Having a clergy presence at Oakland University has been instrumental in serving the spiritual needs of students, Hill said. 

“We’ve had a huge encouragement for adoration, huge emphasis on confession and making the sacraments prevalent in our lives in a way that wasn’t done before, and the students are looking for that, wanting that grace,” Hill said.

A place for fellowship

At the University of Detroit Mercy, classes have been offered using a hybrid model — with most students learning remotely and critical classes like medical labs and architecture classes in person. But Anita Klueg, director of university ministry at the McNichols campus, didn’t want to start the academic year with a Zoom meeting, particularly in a year when everyone is experiencing “Zoom fatigue.”

“At the beginning of the year, we made use of outdoor spaces on campus and tried to have gatherings in the picnic areas,” Klueg said. 

After a summer of racial tensions, Klueg said the ministry used the opportunity to reflect, pray and unpack weighty issues. Detroit Mercy’s social justice ministers reached out to fellow Jesuit schools such as Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., and the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, to collaborate on seminars, projects and host speakers series online. 

“A lot of our service projects tend to be, ‘I’m going to fix something,’ or, ‘I’m going to give something,’” Klueg said. “Instead, we spent a lot of time asking why these situations are the way they are. What are the systems that are broken? We are called as responsible Christians to be part of mending and healing those problems.”

The University of Detroit Mercy’s Catholic campus ministry collaborated with other Jesuit-run colleges last fall to host online seminars and speaker series to address racial inequality and other social justice topics. (Courtesy of University of Detroit Mercy University Ministry)

Detroit Mercy students have utilized the campus ministry office for some of their remote classes, Klueg said, seeing it as a chance to gather with fellow students and share a spiritual or emotional bond during a time of uncertainty. 

“People need companionship, and some of the conversations they have are really deep,” Klueg said. “We have 10 to 12 students who would come in at different hours of the week. It’s developed into a close-knit group.”

Despite the fewer service opportunities, Zoom Bible studies or smaller liturgical services, students still want a connection on campus, with each other and with Christ — especially during this school year, Hill said.

“Students are looking for people who can share their faith, their struggles with,” Hill said. “Campus ministry needs to be a place where young people, who may struggle with feeling like they don’t fit in, can belong. 

“They are trying to become better Christians, better people,” Hill continued. “They just need that connection, someone to show them they are not alone, that we can be united in our struggle.”