On the commuter campus where I’ve been called to plant and lead a campus ministry, students make the drive or bus ride to school usually solo. For most of these students, their felt loneliness is not abated in the least once they step on campus. In an age of widespread loneliness, there are few places more lonely than the commuter college campus.
At first glance, the most telling evidence of the loneliness is body language. Whether walking around campus or sitting in the café, most students take simple precautions to insulate themselves from one another. Their earphones are in place and their eyes are usually fixed downward, to the ground or a screen. Sure there are still pockets of connection that form among students, but much of the conversation reveals a social dysfunction at work. Students try to one- up each other as they (over)share personal information, often their sexual histories and that of their peers. They are on the front line of what Charles Taylor called our expressive individualism. No one whispers. No secrets are kept in confidence.
It’s not simply what is happening on the commuter campus, but rather what is not happening, that exacerbates the epidemic of loneliness. There are no athletic teams and no fine arts department here. There are very few student clubs or organizations. And while the student life office does its best to plan a variety of engaging events, these only attract a handful of the nearly five thousand students who study here. The lack of meaningful liturgies has come to mean there are too few shared narratives or routines that might help bind students’ lives together. Each student is left to make their own meandering way toward completing their academic program and moving on to the next thing, whatever that may be.
This is the context of campus ministry today. Part of my calling is to invite students out of hiding and welcome them into a new community that is being shaped by a new story. A small group of students’ eyes are slowly lifting from their screens, and they are beginning to see one another and themselves in the light of the gospel for the first time. And Jesus is restoring my humanity too, as I walk alongside these students, sharing their joys and their sorrows.
Read more stories of hope and heartbreak in the Summer 2018 symposium on social isolation here.