Yesterday, St. Francis House began the good work of moving back onto her grounds, which have been a major construction site for the better part of two years. It’s a pretty exciting time. A season of return and also of change. A moment that both continues a ninety-year relationship between the University of Wisconsin and the Diocese of Milwaukee and rightly names a new beginning.
|Annie and my parents on the St. Francis House grounds.|
Reflecting on this past year without a home of our own on campus, I can appreciate how we learned to be resourceful in ways we will no longer have to be. I was up to 20 miles or more a week, walking the campus and the distance between our temporary offices at Grace Church, the student unions, and various coffee shops (my many offices). Some days it was a beautiful and healthy discipline. Other days, it was nearly 10 o'clock at night and I was twenty-five minutes from the car, with the temperature, in single digits, dropping. I found much patience in the discipline of walking - the practical theology of footstep following footstep, no goal so grand that it doesn't need and begin with a footstep. And I find myself (at least on this particularly brutally hot day) immensely thankful even for the long, freezing walks in the glow of the moon with the light reflecting off the ice around me.
Our students were incredible during this time, many walking a mile and half for the opportunity to worship together. You say, “Sure. They’re young!” And so they are. But think about it for a second... This Sunday morning, consider parking your car a mile and a half from your faith community. Now imagine it's January. Our students were amazing. On weeknights, they prayed in unions, on terraces and patios, their faces becoming familiar to the university staff who began to learn their rhythms and expect them. Our students with cars quickly reached out to the students who did not have cars. We had lots of conversations - some good, some hard, always honest - about the challenging call of the Church to be God’s visible people. I cherished the year without a building because, as the students heard me say often, “You don’t have a building yet to confuse you. You are the Church.”
Now the walks will not be as long. The public presence will not be a given, will need to be re-chosen, no doubt, with great intention. Still, there is much excitement. I cannot wait to see how the Church will use this opportunity to bless the larger university community. The building of St. Francis House has the potential to become a vibrant public presence. We are wedged in the middle of a wonderfully bustling campus.
I do suspect, and hope, the lessons of the past year will lead us beyond the building walls with frequency - I still intend to office out of coffee houses. Every bit as importantly, however, I pray the past year has given us a new imagination for how a building, belonging to a church, might not signal retreat, or hiding behind the walls of faith, but rather would be a vehicle of faith's expression and a tool for the generous living out of the Gospel. I pray that our space risks a missional commitment, would become a mission outpost, existing for the care and support of this university and, most especially, for her students.
All of which raises a question I am learning to ask a lot these days - I ask it as often as I can think to - and even to those who do not see the relevance of the question for their immediate contexts, different from my own: “What does it mean to be ‘for students?’” Not abstractly. Here. In this place. In your place. At this moment. Just now. What does it mean to be for students?
I love this question. This question is why I am so deeply excited for the present moment before us at St. Francis House.