What does it look like to be Jesus to a young Chinese student who barely speaks English? Trying to explain myself in the cafeteria one afternoon, I sat across from a young woman who had recently arrived for an intensive ESL program. “Uh… do you know what a chaplain is?” I asked, pointing to myself. Her face was blank. “Priest?” I offered, “church?” Nothing. “God??” Finally, her face lit up with recognition. “Ah yes, God!” she smiled. Yep, that’s me, I thought to myself. God. What on earth am I doing here?!
In the three months since I’ve started as chaplain at St. John’s College, I’ve come to realize that God is up to something new in this place. We no longer have eager theology students lining up for daily prayer, but in their place God has brought students from all over the world hungry for more than a degree. These students are very often lonely, under a great deal of pressure to succeed, and hungry for community, for mentoring, and for God.
One way that I try to connect these newcomers with what they long for is by providing resources in the college to help them connect with God at their own pace. It has been my experience that young people aren’t necessarily uninterested in prayer, but that they often don’t know where to begin. On the other hand, most of my international students are too shy to talk openly about faith and spirituality. Many of them come from countries where such conversations are discouraged or even forbidden.
I should not have been surprised, then, when I went by the chapel one afternoon to inspect my board of prayer poetry and found a post that read, “homesick, hurting, need friend.” The following morning, I returned to find another prayer written beneath the first: “God is always with you.” What’ is this?! I thought to myself. Students reaching out to one another with the love of Christ! My role here was only to create the space.
Since then, I have increasingly seen my role at the college as a creator of space in which small encounters like these can happen. I’m more and more convinced that God doesn’t call us to do anything spectacular, to bring lots of people to church, or to have large successful ministries; what God calls us to is availability.
I could spend a lot of time worrying about the changing demographics at the college and fretting about the low numbers showing up for prayer, but I might not notice when God shows up. If I spent my time wishing God would do what God has always done, I might not be available for the new things God wants to do among us. Where do you see God doing new things in your part of the world?