Wagme Ravindran was eating lunch in the Damen Dining Hall at Loyola University, Chicago, Ill., when he saw Alec Kenny doing card tricks at another table for a number of the students.
Ravindran, a health-care administration major, watched curiously as Kenny, a staff member of the Christian Reformed Church campus ministry at Loyola, flipped cards, making them appear and disappear into the stack.
Not long afterward, Ravindran was playing basketball at the gym and came across Kenny again. They talked, and eventually they became friends. After a time, Ravindran began coming to Ecclesia, the campus ministry’s Sunday worship service. He also began sitting with Kenny at the table in the dining hall on Thursdays when the campus ministry met for lunch.
“I’m not super-religious or even a Christian,” said Ravindran, who grew up as a Hindu. “For someone not very religious at all, being part of this community is like an escape valve. . . . Most places push their religion on you, but they don’t do that here.”
Welcoming all students, regardless of their faith or lack of it, is an important aspect of the campus ministry, the only Christian Reformed Church campus ministry located at a Catholic university in the United States. This CRC ministry is also supported by Resonate Global Mission.
A focus of the work at Loyola is to offer the gospel message in often subtle and yet scripturally solid ways to students who tend not to be interested in or to embrace formal religion, even though they are at a Catholic school, said Kenny.
Regardless of who the student is or their religious background, said Kenny, “all people need to know they are loved. Many students who come here have had a negative experience in church. They need to know they are accepted no matter what.”
In the ministry, Kenny sees his role as connecting with and befriending students by playing sports with them or perhaps showing them magic or card tricks, or sitting with someone and playing a video game. When he can, he draws Christian messages and values from the stories showing on the screen.
“I try to plug in and hang out with them,” said Kenny. “I think it is important to listen to them and ask questions. I don’t know what to do or ask unless I listen,” Then, he said, perhaps he can help a student discover Christ and deal with structures or ideologies that no longer work for them.
Kenny was sitting at a table in the dining hall on a recent Thursday, along with Tyler Ward, director of the campus ministry, and Mike Moore, who founded it more than a decade ago. And as we talked together during the lunch hour, about 20 students sat with them at any one time, coming and going depending on their course schedule.
Before lunch, at a nearby coffee shop, Ward and Moore had spoken about themselves and the history and purpose of the campus ministry.
During his studies at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Ill., in the late 2000s, Moore was inspired by teachers who spoke of North America being a rich mission field. As mainstream churches began to see a decline in membership, there was a need for fresh ideas and practices to be used in ministry.
Meanwhile, people from many countries were moving into North American communities, essentially bringing the world and its many cultures and viewpoints into neighborhoods and places everywhere, including college campuses.
When he graduated, Moore wanted to serve in some way in this expanding mission field — and decided to do so as a campus chaplain.
“I didn’t want to be a traditional pastor. My wiring was not to have a study and go to council meetings at that time,” he said. “I liked working with young people . . . living in the tension of the questions they ask and letting them know they still belong to God in that space.”
Moore, a member of the CRC, sent out resumes to a number of colleges — and Loyola was the first to respond. He was intrigued by the idea of establishing a campus ministry in that setting.
But he wasn’t drawn there to call Catholicism into question. Instead, he said, he wanted to offer students, especially non-Catholics, the chance to examine and ultimately expand their faith.
In fact, he said, Loyola seemed to be a fitting place to launch a Protestant ministry.
“I was attracted to working at Loyola, which offers a Jesuit education that challenges the faith of students. Core classes in theology and philosophy help them to look at the faith they were brought up in,” said Moore.
“At Loyola it is not weird to talk about God or to have a crucifix in the classroom.”
When he arrived, a Wednesday-evening Bible study was going on, but it was losing attendees after the study leaders, who were Protestant, had graduated. Moore started to attend but didn’t barge in and try to take over.
“I took time to listen and discern and look at the possibilities of working together. I wanted to gain trust,” he said.
Over time, as he built relationships with students, Moore was able to become a leader of the weekly gathering, and he called it Agape. In the process, he saw that there were ways to offer campus ministry where “things were fluid and there were all kinds of ways to engage people.”
Once the Wednesday-night worship gathering and Bible study took hold and started drawing a committed core of students — an average of 60 to 70 a week— Moore helped to begin Sunday worship as an alternative church called Ecclesia. It was for people who had been going off campus to attend services. “Things really started to grow from there,” said Moore.
Tyler Ward, also a student at Northern Seminary, had learned of a couple who were planting a nondenominational church in the Chicago area. As part of his studies, he moved to the area in 2013 to serve as an intern at the church and to work with Moore at Loyola. Inspired by campus ministry work, he eventually became a part of the staff at Loyola.
“I have enjoyed it here,” he said. “I’ve found that with the students, if you aren’t their parent, they will listen to you.”
This has proved to be especially important, he added, as students often discover that the faith tradition they grew up with doesn’t provide them all the skills they need for dealing with what they encounter in college — and he tries to help them see a way forward into a more mature faith.
Moore left the campus ministry about two years ago to plant a church. When that didn’t work out as he had hoped, he took a temporary position as a pastor at Lawndale CRC in Chicago. But he comes back to visit at Loyola when he is able, given the many friendships he has made there.
Reflecting on his time in campus ministry, Moore said, “Students have seen significant cultural shifts on issues such as race and sexuality.”
Mental health and other issues, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and suicide prevention, have also become increasingly important for the campus ministry to address. “At the end of the day, students are dealing with a lot — and campus ministry needs to be a part of reaching out to them,” he said.
Also part of the campus ministry is Provia, an organization that encourages students to join outreach projects on campus and in the neighborhood. Various events including beach barbecues and movie and game nights.
And a central gathering point for students and ministry leaders is the Thursday lunch.
Taking a break from eating, Hannah Hinerman, a sophomore studying dance and psychology, said she appreciates being part of what the ministry offers. “I heard about this at a faith fair before I started college, and I found I met friends who are pursuing a life with Jesus. People welcomed me with open arms, and it felt right away like a family,” said Hiberman.
Hinerman grew up in the Lutheran church, which taught her many things about Christian living. But as she grew up, it sometimes seemed that people didn’t always practice what they preached, which is not the case at the Loyola campus ministry, she said.
“There is hospitality, forgiveness without judgment, and the use of spiritual gifts. I dive into this on a regular basis. It has taught me a lot about what a Christian community is like,” she said, adding that she is among a group of people who provide encouragement when she has to deal with hard things. “Whatever happens, there is a swarm of people who are around me and teaching me to love.”
Alex Schorr grew up in a Christian home and came to Loyola in 2012. She met Mike Moore at the Faith Fest and started to attend Agape. Right away, said Schorr, she was attracted by the honesty of students who offered testimonies of their lives and asked for prayer at the beginning of Agape every week.
“There is something special about the way people share about the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. . . . I was so nervous when I started, but then I found my footing.”
Important to her was the chance to go with other members of the campus ministry on outreach projects, such as visiting residents of a nearby nursing home.
Schorr especially recalls a time when she was spiritually dry and met one-on-one with Moore: “He helped me to hear the voice of God in life. He gave me the space to ask questions.”
Listening to the still, small voice of God speaking to her, Schorr began to hear a calling to work in ministry, she said, and she enrolled at Northern Seminary after graduating from Loyola in 2016. Today, she works part-time for the aid agency World Vision in Chicago and also serves on the staff of the campus ministry.
“A decent number of students I work with have a faith, but many others don’t know what to believe,” she said. “As a CRC ministry on a Catholic campus, we are in a unique position to minister to students.”
One Wednesday evening a year ago, Zyan Navarra, a database analytics major, was doing homework in the room where Agape meets.
Alec Kenny came up to him and told him that the room would soon be filled with students coming in for a worship service and Bible study, and that he was welcome to join in.
Navarra, a nominal Catholic, didn’t join in right away, but he eventually checked it out, wondering how people would react to him, he said. “I found people were willing to accept me no matter how weird you can be.”
Navarra often likes to crack jokes with a religious flavor, which he did that day at the lunch table. “I don’t want to end up in the belly of a fish like Jonah or be turned into a pillar of salt. I’m not going to argue with talking angels,” he said.
A few people around him smiled and shook their heads.
Peter Nassif, a junior in international studies, met members of the campus ministry during a university-sponsored trip to Israel in 2018. A member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, he said that discovering more about Christianity through the campus ministry has helped him learn about the Orthodox church.
Whatever a student’s background, the campus ministry tries to help students build a worldview allowing them to see how God is alive in the world, actively working in all things on campus and beyond, said Ward, who is currently finishing his studies at Northern Seminary.
“We want to give students ways of being in the world even when things are shifting,” he said. “I hear them when they are freaking out about things. I listen and try to provide guidance and some possibilities of what they can do. But I do this gently. I don’t give them a list of what they have to do.”