by Brian Walsh
“This was the first time that I have prayed in public in six years.”
September is always a bit of a challenge for me. Maybe I’m not that unique and other campus ministers have an ambivalent mixture of excitement and dread as the academic year begins. But my transition in September is intensified by the contrast between life on an organic farm two hours outside of the city and the deeply urban reality of ministry at the University of Toronto. Don’t get me wrong. I love campus ministry and I love downtown Toronto. But it sure is different from feeding animals, harvesting crops and the daily adventure of farming.
So when well-meaning folks ask me, “Are you excited about getting back to campus?”, I know what the right answer is. But I can’t always quite give it. Yes, I’m excited. Sort of. But you know, living half the week in my office on campus and half the week at home with my family on the farm isn’t the best of lifestyles.
That’s all a way to set up what happened this morning. Something that doesn’t take away the ambivalence, nor does it erase the intensity of the contrast, but something that gave me a hope and a joy that is pretty hard to express adequately.
I had sent out an email late Sunday night inviting folks to join me for prayer at the beginning of this semester on Tuesday morning. I hadn’t even checked this out with the other members of our staff team, and I didn’t place an expecation on my colleagues to attend. And this morning I didn’t really know if I’d be praying alone or with a room full of people. Five showed up. We talked for a while, and then spent some time in prayer. Good time. Good prayer. Community enriching prayer.
And then, while we were sort of packing up and getting ready to move on with the rest of the day, one of the students present said to me, “This was the first time that I have prayed in public in six years.” And she thanked me for making this possible for her.
Elizabeth has been a part of our ministry community for three of those six years. And come to think of it, I’d never noticed that she hadn’t prayed any sentence prayers in our midst.
Then she said that she was excited about reading Romans with our Wine Before Breakfast community this year because we had been reading Romans that first year that she joined our community. And then she told me that my last sermon of that year (in April of 2007) had been profoundly healing for her. That sermon had given her permission to be a member of a believing and worshipping community, even with all of her doubts and all of her hurt and disappointment with the church.
But that wasn’t everything. The last thing that she told me was that she was finding ways to give voice to her Christian faith in the context of a course that she is teaching in the social sciences. Elizabeth went in to the social sciences fully cognizant of the insistence on religious neutrality in that kind of scholarship.
She knows the methodological and pedagogical rules and by and large obeys them. But she now wants to quietly and gracefully allow her own Christian faith to shine through her teaching and research.
Can you imagine how excited I am about my short conversation with Elizabeth? Because she found a place in a worshipping community, gathering around a table of bread and wine, participating in the liturgy and a community of hospitality, she can now pray. Because she met Christ in our midst, in the preaching of the Word, in the sacraments, in table fellowship, in an openness of conversation that refuses to censor, she can now pray. And because she can pray, she can begin to imagine what a grace-filled Christian scholarship might look like.
I still miss my family and my life at Russet House Farm. Elizabeth doesn’t take away that longing. But Elizabeth does remind me of why we do campus ministry and why worship is at the heart of it all.