A vision for Orthodox university ministry — at Indiana University, and beyond

I’m somewhere between 3-6 weeks from leaving Bloomington. Our lease is up 1 August; we have a move-in date at Holy Cross of 21 August. We’re seeing if we can close the gap at all, but we won’t know if that will work until next week. We’re getting ready to sell one of our cars. We’re packing. I took a load of clothes to Goodwill two days ago. We just wrapped up our last moving sale. We’re selling books.

I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve learned from living in Bloomington the last 11 years. The vast majority of my marriage has been here. The entirety of my experience as a father has been here. I have been in school for all but eight months of that time. I converted to Orthodox Christianity here. We’ve not only outlasted just about everybody who started here with us, we’ve outlasted just about everybody who ever knew them. The nine years we’ve lived in our little rental house has been the longest I have ever lived in the same place, and it has been a home even when, at times, Bloomington itself has defiantly refused to be.

I have written a lot in this blog about the experience of this town (like this, for example) from my vantage point as a university student, an Orthodox Christian, a worker bee, the spouse of a graduate student, and a church musician. I have found myself deeply concerned about and involved with mission from those perspectives; I have been, in many ways, an envoy on behalf of Orthodox Christianity to this strange university town that is Bloomington, but I have also had to represent the university to Orthodoxy at least as often.

As a result of these activities, I believe very strongly that there is much to be done in and for Bloomington that is not being done. Before I go into that, though, you need to read this. Also, there’s something we have to establish first.

There is not an Orthodox church in Bloomington.

There is an Orthodox church with a Bloomington address, yes, but particularly from the standpoint of an Indiana University undergrad without a car, that really is not the same thing. Regardless of what post office serves it, it is two and a half miles into unincorporated county; none of Bloomington’s municipal services reach it (including the bus), it is part of Perry Township, and it is closer to Smithville’s town center (1.6 miles) than Bloomington’s (6.2). (“But Smithville isn’t a town! It’s nothing!” I’m hearing some people say. Right. That actually underscores my point.) For all practical purposes, it is the closest Orthodox church to Bloomington, perhaps, but it is not a Bloomington church. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself; it’s a great thing for the people who go there. As I’ve written before, its own population is made up largely of people from areas peripheral to Bloomington; a fair number of people drive up from points south to attend there, and it serves that population very well. But, again, it is not a Bloomington church in the sense of being accessible to people who live and work in and around the university campus and the downtown area. This is manifest in the fact that IU’s OCF chapter isn’t even part of the Campus Religious Leaders Association here.

Along those lines — a friend of mine posted this on his Facebook timeline today:

it’s not a competition, but today I remembered that Bloomington is the best place to live in the world. Everything you could ever want in a city…on a much smaller scale.
Walk from church to coffee shop: 15 seconds. From coffee shop to music store: 2 minutes. From music store to comic book store: 30 seconds. From comic book store to amazing restaurant: 45 seconds. From restaurant to bike shop: 2 minutes

Now, there are multiple churches in Bloomington for which this is true, and what is further implied is proximity to the university; if you are Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian, Methodist, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Disciples of Christ, Mormon, Christian Scientist, American Baptist, Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, Korean Methodist, Jewish, or Muslim, there is at least one congregation within a 5 minute bike ride or so from campus if not a 5 minute walk. Then, yes, from there a short hop, skip, and a jump to a coffee shop etc. And, if you’re Lutheran or Anglican, there’s even a campus house for you.

Let’s at once broaden and narrow the scope. Let’s broaden to the whole of the Big 10, and narrow to Orthodox churches specifically. Here’s a quick ‘n dirty chart for Orthodox churches in the Big 10 (click to enlarge). For each school, I list the number of parishes within 10 miles of campus (according to Google Maps and OrthodoxyInAmerica.org), the parish that’s closest to campus and its distance from campus (again, according to Google Maps), whether or not that’s walkable (that is, 2 miles or less from campus), walking time if so, transit time from campus to church via public transportation if applicable (again, according to transit data provided on Google Maps), drive time, the size of the metro area by population, and other relevant data.

We have to be careful here — these numbers don’t adequately take into account the size of the campus’ footprint and how that might impact distance from church, for example, and not everybody lives on campus. Still, I think there’s a decent initial picture that emerges here, even if it is a little rough.Orthodox Churches in the Big 10

So, with those numbers, on average, throughout the Big 10, there are about 5 Orthodox churches within 10 miles of the campus, and the closest church is an average of 3.14 miles away. Again, we have to be careful with what we’re looking at; these averages are driven up by Northwestern, for example. Northwestern has 19 Orthodox churches within 10 miles by virtue of being in Chicago, but their closest church is also, across the Big 10, the second farthest, at 5.3 miles away (and a pain in the neck to get to from campus, I’m told).

Also, Penn State, University of Iowa, and University of Urbana-Champaign are doing really well in terms of proximity; I know from personal experience how walkable St. Raphael of Brooklyn Orthodox Church is from University of Iowa, I’ve visited St. Nicholas at UIUC, friends of mine live in State College, PA, and those parishes really are standouts in terms of making themselves accessible (plus UIUC’s OCF has a house and an alumni association). Throughout the rest of the Big 10, in the main it’s not too bad, with churches being basically a 5-10 minute drive away. Public transportation doesn’t tell a great story there, with 5 schools not having Sunday bus service, and it taking 30-40 minutes to go 2-4 miles in those places that do have it on Sunday. We could be doing better in specific cases; we could also be doing a lot worse in terms of averages.

Here in Bloomington, the church that’s here is the one that’s the farthest away from campus in the whole Big 10; if you look at the campus religious guide linked to above, you’ll see that, except for an independent Baptist church one town over, it’s the farthest listed congregation away from campus of all of them. A 15 second walk to a coffee shop afterward? Heck, even a 15 minute walk? Nope, the nearest coffee shop according to Yelp is 2.6 miles away. My friend’s praises of Bloomington’s walkable accessibility simply don’t apply here; for an Orthodox undergrad without a car, getting to church on Sunday here is an exercise in tracking down a ride and going out to the middle of nowhere. To refer back to the linked Antiochian.org article above, in which ACROD’s Bp. Gregory expresses the hope that “our young college students will not only stay connected but deepen their faith during their years in post-secondary education and graduate to be faithful stewards of parishes across the country”, I have seen this lack of proximity and accessibility function as a major barrier from keeping young college students connected. I have also seen it work, to be sure, but the distance remains something that has to be overcome a lot of the time.

Indiana University is home to around 42,000 students, 3,000 faculty members, and I have no idea how many other staff members. There is a humongous international population here. It is home to major centers of scholarship for early Christianity, Modern Greek, the Middle East, Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe (and that’s all about to become a much bigger deal with the School of Global and International Studies). It is a very attractive place to be for people who are either cradle Orthodox or otherwise interested parties. There are a lot of thoughtful people here in general who would likely be open to what Orthodox Christianity is if it were but visible in the middle of the community. The parish with a Bloomington address but that isn’t actually in Bloomington is not in a position to engage such a population; they are more of a mission to rural southern Indiana, and, again, they are doing very well with that as their mission field.

The situation that is here in Bloomington is one that is ripe for a jurisdiction to take advantage of, and to build a flagship parish that would be a model of pan-Orthodox (in the best sense, where distinct traditions are acknowledged and embraced) university ministry. A parish close to campus, that can be accessible to students and faculty (and anybody else), that can be a resource for the departments and faculty whose work involves Orthodox Christianity, that can be a resource to the greater community about Orthodoxy. A congregation that can be connected to the IU community, and that can be home-away-from-home for students, be they Greek, Russian, Arab, Anglo, Georgian, or whatever. A place where serious, sincere conversations about Orthodox Christianity, be they with students who need an ear or with adults who have hard questions, can happen on Orthodoxy’s own turf and terms. Perhaps a parish that can support a house. A parish where students who want to learn more about Orthodox music can do so. A place where the greater Bloomington community is just a walk of a minute or two away, where the parish can throw open its doors to the greater community and the university, and where the parish can function in a manner that is connected with the community and the university.

Is this all a tall order? Yes. This would require, first and foremost, a great deal of prayer and guidance; it would require a bishop (if not multiple bishops) with vision and savvy; it would require a multitalented priest; it would require some cooperative and interested faculty (perhaps the easiest part, frankly); and it would require a lot of money and clever marshaling of resources, plain and simple. This is a big idea. At the same time, I have seen how this place works for the last eleven years; I’ve been an undergrad, staff, and a grad student here; I was actively involved in OCF for three years, hosting it at our house for one of them; I’ve organized a lot of events on campus; I was part of an attempt to cultivate an IU Orthodox alumni association; I have listened to what a lot of people have to say about why some things work here and some don’t in terms of church, university, and community. From what I’ve seen and heard, I firmly believe that it can be done with good planning, good leadership, and building of goodwill. More importantly than it being possible — it is needed.

There’s another component that’s vital here, and that’s creating an opportunity for Bloomington’s cradle community to fulfill the Great Commission in their own lives. For various complicated reasons, some of which I understand and others I don’t, many of them choose to not attend the parish that has set up shop in unincorporated county; some of them have lamented to me that, were there a church closer to campus, they would be more involved. Well, this would be exactly that chance — but besides being close to campus, it would be a chance to reach out to young people who wouldn’t really be able to pay them back, or even really be able to support the parish. Nonetheless, this would be good soil for those young people and students. It would be an opportunity for Bloomington’s cradle community to gather together, pool their resources, build something, hire someone, and pray hard. Even beyond that — here’s an opportunity to make this a movement, a change in the way jurisdictions think about how they plant churches in college towns, with cradles and converts alike encouraging their families in other college towns to make sure that there is a church within walking distance for Orthodox young people, and supporting exactly that in their own areas. Bloomington definitely isn’t the only college or university that needs this vision; it isn’t even the only Big 10 school that needs it. Still, it might need to be the place where it gets started.

How might such an undertaking be planned? Well, as long we’re dreaming here — if there were already sufficient seed funding to get something established, as well as a blessing from a bishop to form a parish with an assigned priest, two things would be important immediately, from where I sit. The first thing to do would be to form a non-profit organization that would serve as the umbrella organization for the education and culture side of things, with the board consisting of people in the community, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, who have an interest in furthering those aims, with at least one student representative. Then, what would be great in terms of establishing initial visibility as well as the pan-Orthodox nature of the effort, would get it set up at a location — even if it is temporary at first — that is visible and easily accessible from campus, then inviting all of the bishops for the area — Metropolitan Nicholas of Detroit (GOA), Bp. ANTHONY of Toledo (AOCANA), Bp. Peter of Chicago (ROCOR), and whomever else would be appropriate — along with somebody like Donna Elias, National Programs Manager for OCF, and then the priest for the chapel as well as all other area clergy to come to open it, with a procession from the Monroe County Courthouse in the square to the chapel’s location. It would be vital to see that it is well-publicized, and to treat it like a public event of community interest.

That’s where I think it could start. You’d have to do it in phases, certainly, and those would be negotiable — but something that would need to be treated as absolutely non-negotiable and vital to the exercise is proximity and accessibility to the university. It would be a tragedy to start out in a temporary location that’s a 30 second walk from Kirkwood Avenue only to wind up on the far west end of town halfway to Bloomfield. That would require, again, being smart and careful in terms of planning.

Now, I know full well that nobody is going to read this and say, “Well, heck, what are waiting for? Let’s do it!” I have no illusions about that. My point is simply that there is so much that can be done here, so much that needs to be done in terms of revealing Christ to Bloomington in the Orthodox Church; it’s not going to get done by one person with a vision, not by a long shot, but somebody has to be willing to commit to forming a vision for this kind of university ministry, articulating it to the people who can participate, and then bringing it about with God’s help. It can be done here, it can be done right, and I think it can even be a model for how you do it right. The harvest is plentiful if the workers will be there.

Okay, back to packing.

 

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1 Response to “A vision for Orthodox university ministry — at Indiana University, and beyond”


  1. 1 James 13 July 2014 at 12:45 am

    Boy oh boy do I hear you. I’ve seen this play out in the local, pan-Orthodox GOA church of my SEC hometown. Our church is about three miles from campus but still suburban not rural (no bus), and most of the active leaders in the parish are employed by the university. The parish’s active *involvement* with the university has been limited by the lack of a full-time priest, but I’ve seen part-time commuter priests with a vision for campus ministry still do some mighty work: there certainly is *plenty* of response from the campus when people get involved.

    It’s a mixed bag at worst, and I’ve seen plenty of tremendous good (including, in some years, a pretty well-managed system for getting people rides to church that *doesn’t* depend on the car-less student doing all the motivating and organizing). The local GOA Metropolitan has repeatedly said how important campus ministry is. But I haven’t seen much that could be called more than ad hoc local effort. In fact, most of the involvement I’ve seen from outside would be better classified as meddling, not support.

    I remember most vividly meeting, by chance, a devout Georgian couple who had been at university for over a year without any clue that there was an Orthodox church in town. They were in tears with joy to learn of our parish, and for the next while I drove them every Sunday. It was unsettling to know that our parish (and OCF) was so invisible that faithful Orthodox people at the university who really wanted to go to an Orthodox church wouldn’t know we existed.


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