While studying for pastoral ministry at the University of Toronto School of Theology, Aileen Verdun began to realize there was a lot missing (and misguided) in what she had learned growing up in a nondenominational evangelical church.
“My church formed and taught me about God’s love, yet gave me a list of what I was supposed to believe and do,” said Verdun, now an emerging leader of the Christian Reformed Church campus ministry at the University of Toronto.
“The things I believed about the world, my neighbors, and justice didn’t fit, so I wondered if I was really a Christian,” she said.
Verdun shared these reflections while meeting in the Campus Ministry office with director Dr. Brian Walsh and the rest of the ministry’s staff team, talking about their roles and what brought each of them to this pioneering and progressive campus ministry.
Collectively, they talked about how this ministry offered them a path to deeper faith in the midst of a world troubled by terrorism, poverty, racism, and violence. They spoke of being equipped, in this university setting, to ask hard questions and find answers that have helped them to move forward, taking up the mantle of leadership to assist others on what they see as a difficult journey in an era when religion and commitment to Christianity has been relegated to the sidelines.
Verdun recalled that many of her theology courses left her questioning and nearly turning her back on the faith she had known for many years.
“I had a lot of fear,” she said. But Verdun, who came to Wycliffe College at the university in 2016, was persistent and didn’t want to give up. “I kept looking for people who were intellectually honest, loving, hospitable, and focused on justice and Christ.”
She wasn’t finding those things until she took a course taught by Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat, who is married to Brian Walsh. Keesmaat is an adjunct professor of biblical studies at Wycliffe College and the coauthor (with Walsh) of a pair of books on biblical interpretation through a justice lens: Colossians Remixed and Romans Disarmed. She is also the editor of The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations, authored by Walsh and others.
“Sylvia was doing theology that hooked me,” said Verdun. “She really brought the Bible to life for me.”
Keesmaat also invited Verdun to Wine Before Breakfast, a weekly worship service put on by the CRC campus fellowship. Held every Tuesday morning during the school year, the liturgical eucharist service combines elements of Reformed preaching and prayer with aspects of Anglican worship.
“I went to Wine Before Breakfast and right away found a community where I could reconstruct my faith,” said Verdun. “Here I could have deep, respectful, and thoughtful conversations. It became home for me.”
Verdun found an even deeper sense of home and community when she joined the campus ministry’s Graduate Christian Fellowship, which meets on Thursday evenings for a meal and a time of discussion and conversation. There she had the opportunity to tell her faith story to the group.
She spoke about how she grew up in a church and how, in theology classes, her doubts grew until she felt lost and about to give up. Simply sharing this story, not just the details but also the emotions connected to it, opened her to new possibilities, she said. Speaking with others, she began to see a wider, more ecumenical view of Christianity that she could embrace.
“It can be scary stuff to go into your story and to really share it with others, but it has been important to do and really worthwhile,” said Verdun.
Geoff Wichert, who co-leads the Graduate Christian Fellowship, first met Brian Walsh during the last year of his undergraduate studies, when Walsh was leading a workshop on The Transforming Vision: Shaping a New Christian Worldview, another book he had coauthored.
Wichert said he was deeply impacted by Walsh and his vision of expanding the Christian worldview to include areas of society that had seen little emphasis by much of mainstream Christianity.
“He gave me a vocabulary for a Reformed vision of how faith relates to the whole world, including what I was studying. Until then, I didn’t have the biblical language to articulate what I already believed and had been trying to practice in that part of my life,” said Wichert.
Then, just over 20 years ago, Wichert connected with Walsh again at the University of Toronto and soon joined the campus ministry staff.
Over time, he has helped shape the Graduate Christian Fellowship to be a community where graduate students and other young adults can explore the Bible and examine their faith to see how these will continue to be part of what they’re doing and who they are becoming.
This community also offers an opportunity to better understand the many cultural and intellectual complexities confronting the world today, said Wichert.
“The fellowship is a place to ask, explore, and wrestle with hard questions about faith and the Bible, where the wrestling is taken seriously, and the answers, such as they are, are neither glib nor simple,” he said.
In the fellowship, leaders don’t try to sway people into believing something but instead seek to honor the Holy Spirit, who is already at work. They connect deeply with individuals, and then invite them to tell the story of how the Spirit has been active in their lives.
Members of the fellowship pray for one another, socialize together, and support each other to form a strong faith that will be integral to who they are and what they do after earning their graduate degrees and leaving the university. Besides providing community for graduate students, the campus ministry also has a monthly gathering for faculty members.
“This is an unflinching ministry. If it gets uncomfortable, we are on the right track,” said Marcia Boniferro, one of the campus chaplains. “We help graduate students dive in all the way. When you face the hard questions, you find that your faith can survive.”
Alyson Neufeld, who recently completed her Ph.D. in chemistry, said she sometimes found that the deep theological discussions of the group went over her head. But she kept coming because it was a community that supported her and taught her how to care for herself during graduate school. Like Verdun, she found that sharing her story was a turning point for her.
Michael Buttrey, a doctoral student in Christian ethics, said he appreciates how Geoff Wichert and other leaders remain sensitive to the needs of students, often probing with questions but doing so gently.
“What opened up my faith the most was hearing the stories and telling my own story. It advances the community feeling,” he said.
In the graduate fellowship, the participants often speak about a God who sits with people in their pain and accompanies them in their joy. This is not a God you petition for things you want, a God who delivers requests on demand, said Carol Scovil, another chaplain who helps oversee the fellowship.
“We don’t believe you flip a switch and God will make everything better,” said Scovil, who joined the Graduate Christian Fellowship in 2005 while doing a postdoctoral fellowship in biomedical engineering.
Scovil divides her time between the weekly fellowship, rehabilitation research, and working in a clinic that helps people paralyzed from spinal cord injuries to access and find assistance from computer and smartphone technologies.
Living and working in the two worlds gives her a unique perspective and has helped her to reflect on God’s role in helping people.
“You can’t skip over the painful things,” said Scovil. “But we know that [no one] understands pain and suffering and injustice better than a loving God who will be with us so that we can sit and lament together -- which is a holy and beautiful thing.”
In a description of the campus ministry, including the Graduate Christian Fellowship, Brian Walsh sums up the purpose of this community’s work together: “You pray for folks. You pray that this campus ministry might be a place where, maybe for the first time, that student, that faculty member, that staff member can feel love, can meet love.”