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Seeking spiritual connection on campus

For college students seeking a spiritual connection, Savannah’s cup runneth over with faith–based organizations and worship services geared towards students’ unique needs and lifestyles. Evening worship so you can sleep in on Sundays. Fellowship meals. Small Bible studies at lunchtime on campus. Gatherings on major Jewish holidays. Rides to worship services. More fellowship meals. Contemporary Christian music. Pastoral counseling. Parties. Volunteer opportunities. And, did we mention fellowship meals?

With three small, unique universities at three different points in the city, most faith groups find the bulk of their college groups come from a single campus rather than attracting students from all three schools.

Life Changers Ministry at Overcoming by Faith Ministries (OFM) draws “ninety percent from Savannah State,” says Matthew Walker, lead staff for Life Changers. The ministry dates to 1978 when the church was located near Savannah State and its leader reached out to nearby students.

These days, with the church on Middleground Road, Life Changers provides a bus schedule for pick up at all three colleges that brings students to the church for their 11 a.m. worship service, which is “geared more toward college age. After that service we provide meals just for the students and then transportation back.”  About 60 students attend each week.  Lifechangers 180 is a weekly Bible study on the Savannah State campus.

“That provides another avenue for us to get to know the kids. We give them not only biblical but practical advice on how to handle situations that may arise in everyday life,” such as career choices, relationship issues, and concerns about alcohol and drug use.

After years of offering a college ministry, eight years ago Savannah Christian Church launched a downtown campus called Late Church, to “target the 18–35 crowd ... and the downtown crowd” says David Allgire, pastor of Late Church.
“When you connect with students with just the ministry, they often adopt that ministry as their church.  Often they’re not compelled to get involved, instead they just show up and attend. With the church we are able to help them connect to a lot of the other things the church does” such as small groups, individual mentors, and volunteer opportunities.

When Laura Hyatt started SCAD in fall of 2005 she “tried out a lot of different churches over the first couple of years. In 2007 a friend was telling me about Late Church, I’d heard about it over the years, then I tried it. I loved the vibe—there were people my age, a great band, a great message—direct and to the point.” She began volunteering in 2009 “but I went every Sunday for the first couple of years.”

When it started, Late Church met at 7 p.m. in the Savannah Theater.  “It’s a great alternative for students who didn’t want to wake up on Sunday mornings,” says Hyatt. In eight years they’ve added a second service at the more typical church time of 11:00 a.m. and moved to the Lucas Theatre. Late Church draws a combined 500 to 800 attendees for both services, rising and falling in concert with SCAD’s quarterly schedule.

The congregation has diversified as students like Hyatt have graduated and moved into their late 20s and 30s. Allgire estimates about 30 percent are students. In recent years, a children’s ministry has been added to accommodate young families.

CREED is a campus ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, whose membership is fairly evenly divided between AASU and SCAD, with “a fewer number of students at Savannah State,” says Robert Goodson, the staff director for CREED. About 30 students meet each Friday night.

“There are three or four aspects of our group that we’re trying to balance—praying together, opportunity for friendships, learning about what we believe as Catholics ... and also service.”

Like the other groups, CREED uses their Facebook group and emails to get the word out to existing  members and university–sponsored organizational fairs at SCAD and AASU. For new students, all say that attendance at SCAD and AASU-sponsored organization fairs are helpful but that their best recruitment comes from students inviting other students.

Episcopal Campus Ministry at AASU and SCAD Hillel are among several official student organizations at the colleges that provide fellowship or discussion on campus. They work to connect students with established Savannah congregations, many of whom provide personal or financial support to the groups.

Reverend Remington Slone is the Chaplain to the Episcopal Campus Ministry (aka “The EpiscoPirates”) at Armstrong.

“I spend at least one meeting per week with the students. We always share a meal together. We do a set of prayers that Episcopalians call the Noonday Office. We read some of the Bible each time we’re together. I bring food each time.”

Slone provides one–on–one counseling on an as–needed basis, and the group often gathers for fellowship off campus, “a movie night or to make cupcakes together.”

Twice a month, the group attends worship services at one of the local Episcopal churches. This year they’ve frequented St. Paul’s Episcopal which has “an evening mass that’s geared pretty well for young adults.”

“From Armstrong’s perspective it is a recognized student organization. I am an outside visitor. They have a faculty advisor, and a student president, vice–president and treasurer. From the [Episcopal] Diocesan perspective those people are there to grease the cogs to allow me to be on campus.”

At SCAD, Jewish students are offered a faith–based connection through Hillel. “Their tag line is ‘an organization for Jewish life on campus,’” says Heather Szatmary, faculty advisor for SCAD Hillel. The SCAD chapter started 11 years ago this quarter. “Students founded it, and then they found me. It is student driven. They choose what they are doing every year. Some years we do more social activities, some years it is slightly more religious.

“We do something four to five times each quarter...on all the major Jewish holidays. Our best attended event is our Passover seder. We had 60 people attend this year.”

Gabe Kaunitz, a film and television major from Charlotte, got involved with Hillel SCAD last fall as a junior. “I was looking to get more involved in the Jewish community. I was feeling I had lost touch with that part of myself when I left home. When Rosh Hashanah rolled around I decided to go to the Hillel dinner.

“It’s a good thing I did, too, because I met my fiancée there. I came in and she was standing there awkwardly. That was her first program as well, she had just come to the school as a graduate student.”

“Especially on the High Holidays there’s kind of a need to be around other Jewish people, especially your own age,” says Kaunitz. “It’s comforting to be with Jewish people at a time when you’re atoning for your sins and nobody else seems to care. ”

Despite having specific religious intentions, all the groups interviewed welcome involvement from students of any faith background—or none at all.  “Only two or three of [our group] could be considered Episcopalian at any point in their life,” says Slone. “We had one professed agnostic.”

“A student this year is going to be joining the Catholic church, she’s been coming to CREED for like a year or so,” says CREED’s Goodson.

“What tends to work for us is relational community building that doesn’t seem to take into account one’s denominational backgrounds,” says Slone. He notes that at AASU, the chaplains of several religious organizations meet each month to “pray for one another and find ways to support each others’ ministries on campus.” They avoid scheduling conflicting events since “a number of the students float from place to place.”

Regardless of denomination, the mission common to all the groups is offering students connections with spiritually-focused, like–minded people as they try out a new community, new relationships, greater independence and career concerns.

“Spiritual growth and personal growth happens best in community,” says Late Church’s Allgire. “The best option is to get connected to other people on the same spiritual journey as they are. You have to have people around you that lift you up and don’t just tear you down. That’s one of the things that determines a person’s future, the people you surround yourself with. We have to give them opportunities to do that.”