In October the Catholic and Lutheran churches came together in Sweden in an unprecedented celebration of an event that has historically commemorated their separation—the Reformation. This gave girth to the idea that what unites is stronger than what divides.
But many Lutheran ministries on secular college campuses have been doing this for some time now, making efforts to be inclusive of not only other Christian denominations, but also of religions such as Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
Steve Cheyney is the campus pastor of Niner United at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte where he leads a ministry that is part Lutheran, United Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian, and also welcomes students who are exploring different faith practices. To Cheyney, leading an ecumenical ministry is all about celebrating the commonalities and strengths among Christian denominations.
“There’s a lot we can learn from one another,” he said. “When we work together and we’re unified, we take those borders down.”
Cheyney, who considers himself multidenominational, leads one worship service per week where the traditions of each denomination are blended. “We have confession, a Gospel reading and communion. We blend together responses from all of the churches,” he said. “On feast days and high holy days we might have separate services, but those are geared toward individual denominations.”
Kara Newman, a junior and praise leader at Niner United, likes being part of an ecumenical ministry. “In the Bible it says, ‘All nations, tribes and tongues will bow before your throne,’ so I think if you’re not being exposed to what other people think and believe, that’s very closed-minded,” she said.
Newman was initially attracted to the ministry because she was new on campus and looking for friends. What kept her was the group’s welcoming spirit. “We’re all just trying to help others,” she said.
Finding ‘common ground’
The campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse is also ecumenical, but the way students worship is different. Common Ground Campus Ministry brings together Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Baptist, United Methodist and Lutheran students.
Ben Morris, pastor of Common Ground, said the program holds “one big worship every Sunday” in the campus ministry’s coffee shop during evening hours. “It has roots in Lutheran traditions, but it’s in a coffeehouse and it’s very laid back and eclectic,” he said. “Students find a sense of home and a sense of something different.”
The campus ministry also hosts many different Bible study groups that meet throughout the week, and the students who attend them might not be among those who come to worship.
“Every denomination brings strengths and weaknesses, but we’re all called to serve God by serving,” Morris said. “We want to inspire and equip our students to be more like Jesus. The world needs them.”
While Morris’ ecumenical program is focused on helping students from different denominations learn from and understand each other, he does plenty of learning from his students too. “The church has a lot to learn from this generation. I’m 34 and I’m learning a lot,” he said. “I have a lot of hope because I work with this generation.”
Morris recently took 13 students on a cultural immersion trip to Thailand where they spent time in the northern part of the country with the Karen ethnic group.
“Each student took away something very different, but they all had their lives changed in a very significant way,” he said. “For some the world got a lot bigger and a lot smaller at the same time.”
United for peace
Rachel Young Binter is a pastor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Lutheran campus ministry, the Corner House. Baptized Roman Catholic and raised Lutheran, she has a fascination with different faith practices that has led her to a pastoral mission that brings all faiths together to help students garner a deeper understanding of one another.
“If you look at what makes the news, it’s the burning up and misunderstanding of each other’s faith traditions,” she said. “This ministry allows us to combine forces to pray for peace. All of us are motivated to make the world a better place.”
The Corner House regularly convenes with Islamic students—they even dyed Easter eggs together last year.
They’ve also welcomed Buddhists, shamans and agnostics into their fold, all with the purpose of cultivating a deeper understanding of other faiths as well as their own.
Describing a conversation she had with a Muslim woman, Young Binter said, “I feel like I can go deeper into my own faith by listening to her describe what happens in her heart when she touches her forehead to the ground during her prayers. For me, there is such a beauty in it. And I see that in my students as well. When they see others practicing different faiths, they are better able to articulate theirs.”
In terms of worship, Young Binter said their service is “very Lutheran,” but that doesn’t keep other denominations and faiths away.
“We have a reformed Jewish student who worships with us. During service they will sing some hymns—those that pertain to God rather than Jesus and Jesus’ salvation—and during communion they say prayers from their Jewish prayer book.
That student, Dayna Samuels, recognizes as a nonbinary transgender person and prefers to use they/them pronouns. Before coming to the Corner House, Samuels described their relationship with Christians as problematic, but that changed with the Corner House.
“People come to the Corner House because they’re searching for faith and holiness,” Samuels said. “I was really looking for a community that was passionate about spirituality and God, and also passionate about social justice from a faith standpoint. I stumbled upon this faith community and it’s really fulfilled that need for me.”
Young Binter said Corner House has become a known and trusted place. “Everyone is welcome and their faith and traditions will be respected with no hidden agenda,” she said. “Agnostic students even feel comfortable in our group because we are very sensitive. We’re a safe space to come for a variety of reasons.
“Our focus is cultural literacy and bringing peace to the world. It’s imperative for us to understand and accept each other.”