Every Wednesday evening, students share a meal and worship together at Agape House, the Lutheran-Episcopal campus ministry at San Diego State University. The meal is a long-standing tradition of fellowship, but lately it’s serving a more primal purpose.
About three years ago, Darin Johnson, campus pastor, started hearing from students at the weekly meal that they hadn’t eaten in a while and more of them started inquiring about the leftovers. In additional conversations, Johnson learned that many of the students were also homeless—though they wouldn’t use that word—and were couch surfing or sleeping in cars, storage units or even outside in canyons.
“As I got to know some of these students better, I learned that this wasn’t an isolated situation,” Johnson said. “The reality was a growing crisis of student food and housing insecurity.”
Student poverty is a rarely told story and, if anything, is often the butt of a joke that usually includes a reference to ramen noodles. The general thought is that if students can afford tuition and textbooks, surely they have enough money for food, housing and life’s daily essentials. But with ever-rising tuition costs and national student loan debt at an all-time high (more than $1 trillion), student poverty isn’t a joke—it’s an American crisis, as cited by Forbes.
There are more than 200 Lutheran Campus Ministry sites nationwide, and Don Romsa, ELCA program director for campus ministry, said about half have programs to address student poverty.
“I think the number of programs providing this assistance is growing as the problem becomes more serious,” he said. “One of the advantages that Lutheran Campus Ministry programs have is that they don’t have to go through all the ‘red tape’ that someone inside the university has to go through in establishing this kind of program.”
After learning about the prevalence of student poverty at its university, Agape House facilitated a campus meeting attended by some 300 students who had either experienced financial challenges or knew friends who were. “The stories and struggles shared led us to organize for immediate relief and systemic change of the conditions that perpetuate these situations, such as rapidly escalating tuition, fees, food and especially housing costs,” Johnson said.
A student leadership group was formed with members trained to do one-on-one intentional conversations with fellow students who are in economic crises.
In addition to advocacy work, Agape House has a community garden. The produce is used for Agape House’s weekly dinners and helps students learn about community and food access.
“There is a dominant narrative that causes us to believe that students are supposed to be ‘poor,’ but we don’t imagine this poverty should include homelessness and extreme hunger and undernourishment,” said Patricia Ruiz, a former student leader with Agape House who now serves as campus ministry assistant. “Our bottom line places value on building relationships, transformative conversations, social justice and sharing the love of Christ.”
Ruiz was accepted by the university’s Masters of Social Work program and plans to attend, but said financial resources are causing an obstacle. “So the cycle continues,” she added.
Agape House isn’t the only campus ministry dealing with student economic challenges. Halfway across the country, The Lutheran Center, the campus ministry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, opened a food and hygiene pantry after hearing from Student Affairs that some students couldn’t afford toiletries—or food. OpeN Shelf opened August 2013 and has since served several hundred students.
“We’ve had a long-standing tradition of serving a weekly free meal at The Lutheran Center, so this was a natural extension of our ministry,” said Adam White, campus pastor. “Student economic issues aren’t new, but looking at rising tuition fees and housing costs on campus, we are moving into a crisis in student poverty. I don’t think people take student poverty seriously because college is supposed to be an island of privilege.”
The student-run pantry originally focused on toiletries but has expanded to food. “We want to have 20 to 30 items we stock continually, and we’re creating a cookbook to show students how to leverage those items and have well-balanced meals,” White said.
Megan Rudolph, a senior from Lincoln who served as OpeN Shelf’s first coordinator, said the pantry’s placement on campus has no bearing on who is served.
“We believe in loving and serving our neighbors,” she said. “Even though we are a religious community, we strive to cater to all or no religious backgrounds. So far, being in The Lutheran Center hasn’t appeared to hamper students coming to get the products they need.”
Donations for OpeN Shelf come from several sources. “By talking with organizations and local congregations, we have the opportunity to narrate real issues of student poverty and raise awareness of how this actually looks,” White said.
Cost of hunger
Tyson House, the Lutheran-Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, opened Smokey’s Pantry at the beginning of this year to provide food and basic necessities to address the growing needs of students.
“Student poverty is hidden until you start to address it, and then you learn there’s a lot,” said John Tirro, campus minister. “There are single mothers, students from low-income families, students cut off from family support after coming out as transgender or athletes needing to build muscle who sell plasma for groceries.”
Tirro said Tyson House’s communities, both within the university and locally, have been supportive of the campus ministry’s efforts to provide for students who are struggling financially.
“It’s an honorable and courageous thing to work toward your education and take care of yourself as you do so,” Tirro said. “If you’re at the university, you are automatically contributing to society by getting an education and developing your ability to serve. Our community sees that and is pouring out resources to give support in return.”
Tammy Dahlvang, campus pastor of Crossroads Campus Ministry, the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota–Mankato, said investing in their future can come at an unfair price for students. “The severity of graduating with that much debt and knowing you might not get a job engenders a sense of poverty I don’t think used to exist,” she said.
Crossroads operates Campus Cupboard, a food pantry that’s an expansion of its weekly meal program called “Lunch 4 $1.”
“Campus ministries are uniquely positioned to help fight hunger and we historically have,” Dahlvang said. “There is a lot of hunger and homelessness on college campuses. Any congregation member who reads this can find a campus ministry to help support.”
Many congregations have done just that. All of the campus ministries mentioned in this article, and others, have partnerships with local congregations that either help provide affordable housing, donate items to pantries or take turns cooking the weekly student meals.
Campus pastors say the student poverty issue has caused some students to choose between their education and their well-being, and many have dropped out because their debt hit a level they couldn’t manage. While the causes of student poverty are complex and amorphous, Johnson says places like Agape House and other campus ministries can serve as resources for students.
“All of this work is about saving lives,” Johnson said. “This is how the church can get involved and show how church can save and heal. A lot of these people haven’t experienced church in this way before, and when they do they give it a second look.”