The following was a presentation delivered to the 166th Convention of the Diocese of Milwaukee, October 19, 2014.
Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton, chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal Student Center for the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Go Badgers!
Confession: before my family and I moved to Madison, we had never seen a badger. My daughter asked me, “Daddy, are badgers real?” Fair question. How can you know they exist, if you’ve never seen them? We took on faith they were out there. And, lo and behold, they are! At least in the zoos. Now I live in Madison, land of the Badgers, convinced of their existence, and I find myself here with you today to talk about another creature, one you may not have seen, least of all in the wild. How can you know they exist, if you’ve never seen them? I’ll need you to take it on faith. I’m here to talk to you about young adult Christians.
I say I think you may not have seen them - at least not lately - because you sometimes mistake me for one of them. While flattered, I am a thirty-two year-old dad. You may have seen some of us. But I’m talking just now about those mythical unicorns ages 18-28.
I want to talk to you about these particular young adults because, whether you know it or not, you are a wonderful part of a project that is serving the flourishing of young adults in this diocese, and especially at UW.
Some of you know the story already. This is backstory, and it all predates me; it’s the vision and work of your bishop, previous chaplains, and the St. Francis House Board, over years: the short story is that the diocese partnered with a developer to build a privately run student apartment on the SFH property. In order to make room for the 8-story apartment, the 1960s addition to the SFH facilities was torn down, and the original, 4-story, 1920s structure was moved to the front edge of University Avenue, the very center of campus. After a couple of years of planning and construction, the SFH community finally moved *back* into the *new* SFH this past August. The neighboring apartment generates revenue for the mission and ministry of SFH.
Now, this revenue decision was not *just* shrewd and smart; it was the first sign of something uniquely different at SFH. It is different because it is a missionary funding strategy. That is, SFH does not expect her students to fund the operation because SFH is clear about the mission of the Church: to be a blessing for those beyond our walls; for those who may not be Christians, for those who are not yet givers of record. As an outpost at the heart of a secular campus in an increasingly post-Christian word, SFH relies on the prayers and giving of Christians outside of our local context in order to be present to those who don’t yet know how much God loves them. So our day to day work is both the development of Christian leaders for the Church and friendship with strangers, and our story is the story of ten-thousand tiny steps.
Last year, in particular, students and chaplain took a lot of literal steps. During the construction, students walked a mile-and-a-half up State Street to worship the living God at Grace Church, which was a gracious and generous host to our community. On my first Sunday with the students, some of the students expressed disappointment at the thought of a full year without a building to call home. I told them I was excited about the year ahead of us as nomads because we would not have a building to tempt us away from the truth that the Church is the People. So in addition to missionary funding, we experienced the missionary reality of relying on the hospitality of strangers, both at Grace and on campus, in coffee shops, and in class rooms. We were learning what it is to be church in the world.
Now, in our new digs, we continue to learn what it is to be church in the world. As we learn, I hope the work at SFH can be in conversation with the work of your local church context in ways that bless us both. Like many of you, we belong to a small community of faith, but one that is growing and relishing the gift of holy friendships with which to wrestle the God whose call makes challenging and wonderful claims on our lives.
So what does this look like? Holy friendships and God-wrestling? At SFH, it looks like breaking bread and sharing the cup on Sunday nights and eating dinner together after. It looks like prayer walks and open doors and laughter. Like a half-dozen friends knitting around a table, eating fresh baked cookies and talking out loud about how it is possible to feel lonely when you are not, strictly speaking, alone, and what word the Gospel might speak to that reality. It looks like pumpkin carving and lots of one-on-ones over coffee. Sometimes it looks like tears. It looks like relief and joy, too. Sometimes it looks like two chairs on the chapel steps with a sign on which is written, “How can I pray for you?” and a thousand some-odd students walking past, and some stopping. It looks like pilgrimage with the very poor, six-hundred campers on an evacuated cow field in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It looks like a philosopher, bio-chem major, mechanical engineer, and French lit. teacher listening with one another to the words God has whispered to the others over Scripture. It looks like roasting marshmallows. Like challenge. Like holiness. Like life of the kind Jesus promised.
In rhythms of friendship, prayer, and honest questions over Scripture with milk and tea and cookies, in laughter and self-offering, we are discovering the gift God has given us in his Son, in one another, and in the good work of being a blessing for others. Generously. With no strings attached.
Finally, on this last point of living generously, you should know that your generosity has become a pattern and example for our own. And that that’s a very good thing. Over 100 of you came to share the SFH Celebration of Ministry and rededication of the building with us. That weekend, you gave more than $1,400 to the mission and ministry of SFH. You continue to feed our students far better than any of us could imagine on Sunday evenings. And many of you, not as close to Madison, nevertheless make a point to regularly remind me of your daily prayers for our community, my family, and me.
The flip side of the absence of young adults in many of our churches is that communities like ours can oftentimes feel isolated from the rest of the church. But you continue to reach out to us in prayer, giving, and friendship. I want to encourage you to keep reaching out. Keep praying. We’re looking for you, too. If your monthly rhythm doesn’t include coffee with a young person under 25, consider adding it. And if you haven’t seen the new building yet, give me a call or drop in. Above all else, thank you for sharing the Gospel call of our Lord: even friendship with those who were strangers; the call of our Lord that sends us over and over again, outside our walls.