Covid on (and Off) Campus
How do we tell the story of a pandemic that divided us into separate rooms in scattered cities, defined by different stories, but linked by the hum of monitors and Zoom? One of the best ways is also the most illuminating: we tell all our stories by listening to each other, attending to one story at a time.
Let me tell you about Luis.
Luis comes from Puerto Rico via Florida. He grew up sometimes religious, not Episcopal, but he never quite fit the molds of religious life that he found. God provided solace and passion, but God’s people were often quite judgmental. It wasn’t a good fit.
Partway through college, thinking more about being queer and about the spiritual thirst he still had, Luis decided to take an online quiz about what religion suited him. That quiz told him he’d make a good Episcopalian. No, really! Someone found us through an online quiz. (I’m not making this up, although I am changing his name.)
Luis’ story is illustrative of campus ministry. People find us and we find people, for all kinds of reasons, on campus. Some people know the code—the shield, the colors, the collar—but many are just hungry. We’ve managed to cultivate a society with more connections and fewer friendships; with more perspective but less justice; with a tremendous need for God but little skill for naming that part of our being. Much campus ministry fills in that gap—encouraging our humanity, centering Jesus, welcoming everyone.
Luis came to talk to me about whether the Episcopal Church sounded like a good match just before winter break in 2019. We had a good conversation, and he seemed interested in the prayer book (BCP), so I gave him one. A year later, I’d learn that a family member died over break, and that he’d been called on to help shape part of the memorial service. The BCP helped enormously—God has a strange way of working through that book. After break, Luis only made it to one service before we were all sent away to quarantine.
Quarantine was, if anything, an even busier time for campus ministry. Our communities longed for stability, for connection, for relationships. In Uptown, we ran services on Zoom all summer, and our Sunday attendance stayed the same as any busy semester. We played games together online. We recorded hymns separately, and then mixed them so we could sing together, hearing one another’s voices. We celebrated Christmas on Zoom, which is a first for the Uptown campus ministry. Alumni/ae and family members joined in on festival days. We prayed compline midweek as a way to be together, to turn our focus toward God.
Luis tried out some of our electronic ministry, while also trying to cobble together a rewarding senior year experience in NYC and attending all online classes. It wasn’t ideal for anyone, but the Spirit goes where the Spirit wills. Luis was quick to sign up for confirmation class, which we held entirely on Zoom.
When spring rolled around, and when we first began to remove masks outside, we held a confirmation service outdoors. Our confirmands, including Luis, brought friends, Christian and otherwise. It was a joyous, beautiful occasion.
Now, Luis has to figure out the future—the typical post-college experience, but in a moment when the future feels more tenuous than usual. He is thinking about working for international justice organizations, and about grad school—not uncommon goals for Christ-inflected lives, in my experience.
In the Uptown campus ministry, we are beginning to plan for our own future, too, because for the first time in 15 months, it looks stable enough to think ahead. We are thinking about evangelism, because we always think about it, and we are thinking about the joy of Sunday worships, dinners, and maybe even pilgrimage.
Covid, in campus life, can be seen in the prism of Luis’s story. Each person has had a different trajectory, but some things have been pretty true for us all. We’ve been busy, maybe even busier than usual. There have been some real losses—people, foremost, in sickness of body or mind, but also in the gifts of life—graduations minimized or lost, a strange job market, fewer opportunities for friendship. But it’s also been a time dotted by genuine joys, and the Spirit has remained active beyond what we could ask or imagine.