From soup to puppies, Lutheran campus ministries are being creative when it comes to finals week stress relief. At the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, it’s “Finals Week Hospitality”; at Indiana University in Bloomington, it’s “Rent-a-Puppy.” Each program is driven by hospitality and a similar mission—to be a refuge of comfort and connection.

“There is a lot of food insecurity among students,” said Lori Ruge-Jones, pastor of University Lutheran Church and Lutheran Student Association in Eau Claire. “Part of our goal is to provide a meal so that when students are thinking about finals, that’s one less thing they have to think about.”

University shares space with Newman Parish, the Catholic campus ministry. Both ministries provide regular free meals to students, and they came together to plan Finals Week Hospitality in December 2013.

“We purchase meat and cheese and condiments,” Ruge-Jones said. “There’s a volunteer who bakes 60 loaves of bread for the sandwiches during the week, and soup is donated by the congregations.”

A volunteer greets students between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., and “Officer Todd’s Black Bean Soup,”  “Jacob’s Indian Peanut Soup” and more contribute to a “warm energy” at the gathering, she said.

Ruge-Jones describes the event as a “beehive” because it’s constantly buzzing. “There are hundreds of people in here at any time,” she said. “We get to know and have friendships with people from both congregations because we’re working together.”

At Indiana University, the Rent-a-Puppy event started in 2011 after Jeff Schacht, a deacon who leads the Lutheran campus ministry, noticed some students felt isolated. “Cultural forces are pushing everyone to feel more isolated,” he said. “Students at a large university—my context here at Indiana University—are not immune to those forces.”

When a graduate student mentioned an event where students could pay a small fee to spend time with a puppy, Schacht said “the room lit up” with possibility.

The Bloomington Animal Shelter agreed to participate and each spring brings 12 to 20 puppies to Dunn Meadow, a grassy area on campus, during finals week. Students pay $5 for 20 minutes of cuddling, with a “Puppy Kissing Booth” on hand for a dollar or two. The funds raised are shared between the campus ministry and shelter.

Schacht said he sees “people laying on the ground with the puppy on their chest, just feeling the heartbeat, and most everybody’s content just sitting and cuddling.”

Both Finals Week Hospitality and Rent-a-Puppy are growing events and draw thousands of students.

It’s a chance to “bring all that anxiety down, at least for the moment,” Schacht said.

Ruge-Jones said, “It feels safe and it feels like a good place to go.”

Rachel K. Hindery
Rachel K. Hindery is a freelance reporter and a member of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Ill.

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