Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Badgerland Biography:
Glimpses into My First Four Years with the St. Francis House Community

"Truthfully? I didn't think you'd last this long."

My ecumenical counterpart laughed an awkwardly loud laugh, then poked at his fries. "Y'all are doing great, though," he said, suddenly looking up with earnest eyes. "Don't misread either the successes or failures for trends, and you'll be fine. One coffee, one conversation at a time. You're doing it. And - trust me, I've been at it for twenty-plus years - you're doing it well."

At the time of this conversation - not quite three years ago - I had been chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for just over a year. My first year with the ministry was the ministry's second year without a permanent home; the building and chapel had been temporarily closed and permanently relocated to accommodate a new, adjacent student apartment building. I came on the scene in the middle of the "exile season," to gather the remaining students and make a stab at new community before transitioning back to our permanent location.

Thus my colleague's initial skepticism when he learned of my appointment: closing a building for two years, at a university that will replace more than half of its sizable population in that time, can effectively erase a place and/or people from the collective memory of the larger community. Other colleagues had been equally honest and supportive, telling me it would take years to reestablish a trusted presence, still insisting trust would come. Once trust was established - but not before - we could expect consistency. Five to seven years after moving into the building, one friend suggested. That my colleagues could be supportive while talking candidly about how difficult the road would be was an undeserved gift I still treasure.

While realistic about the challenges, I was also immensely grateful for the situation, even in that first year without a permanent home. For all its temporary inconvenience, the apartment project was the forward-thinking vision of my predecessor and my bishop, an imaginative and long-term way to sustain a vibrant campus presence through external revenues. The project required creativity and courage; it represented a fierce and remarkable commitment to young adults and, because UW-Madison is the flagship university of the Wisconsin, the state. I was honored to be entrusted with the next leg of the race.

"Besides," I told our students a lot in our vagabond year, "You and I don't have a building to tempt us to forget that the church is the people. How cool is that?" I did my best to look past the disbelief in their eyes and sound as convincing as possible. I did believe it. They would teach me how to live it.


The community that year became a beautiful parable of the church's being the people. Of course, we weren't that parable in the beginning; it took time. On my first Sunday, August 26, 2012, having been warned by my office coordinator to expect low numbers, I was pleasantly surprised to discover there were twelve of us! But then, as the service began and the nerves wore off, I started to look a little closer. A couple of folks were clearly not students. Upon still closer examination, a lot of the folks were clearly not students. Three students. Eight others who explained, at the Peace, they were there so I would not be discouraged. Many of them I would see again. Others, I never saw again. I still treasure the kindness they gave me on that first Sunday.


St. Francis House met at Grace Church that first year, about a mile and a half from campus. Can you imagine - college students - walking a mile and a half to church - in winter - in Wisconsin! The students that year did that and more, taught me so much, and day in and day out were amazing to work with. We worshiped each week, shared dinners, baked pizzas and Christmas cookies, and relied on the hospitality of area churches for meals over which to discover beginnings of community.

The beginning of community came toward the end of the first semester. I had asked the group - between eight and ten of us now - to pose for a picture in front of a Christmas tree in the Guild Hall. "Now, a silly one!" I encouraged them. No one moved. "You guys." I sighed my exasperation. "I have a half a dozen pictures from this semester that all look exactly like this one. Posed and poised. It's the same picture with different backgrounds - like a green room." I pleaded, "Give me something new!"

No one moved.

Suddenly, in a moment of holy inspiration, Chris, the law student, reared back and shoved Katie, one of the dearest people I know and a french language scholar, kneeling next to him - hard, with both hands - and Katie never saw it coming. The whole first row toppled over. Like dominos. Sprawled everywhere. Chaos. Laughter everywhere. Laughing and laughing. Between heaves, I snapped a blurry photo. At last. Something cracked, and the first sign of a visible community pushed its way up through the soil.


My first year with St. Francis House, it wasn't just the students who walked a lot. Without a home base, I kept office hours in coffee shops and met students for dinner at the Rathskeller on Thursdays. On Tuesdays, we'd meet for Bible Study at Union South. I'd park at Grace Church on the square, where I kept an office, and gradually trekked my way to, then across, campus. I'd stop at markets along the way and stuff snacks for the group into my backpack.

Most Tuesdays, I'd arrive at Union South by 6pm, in time to look up our room assignment and text it to the others. I'd grab a quick bite to eat, then go to one of a dozen empty conference rooms and wait. Sometimes for two people. One time for seven. Most times for some number between them. Occasionally for one. Only once or twice for no one. We'd talk, study, and pray Compline in unusual places, like the third story deck outside of the Sett. We began to learn honesty and care for each other. Usually, we'd wrap up about 9 pm, 9:30 pm if the conversation had been especially compelling and things ran long. Then, no matter how late or how cold it was when we ended (1° F one night), I'd walk back to my car, parked at Grace. And no matter how fast or how slow I walked, it always seemed to take exactly twenty-seven-and-a-half minutes. One night, I found my car frozen shut. The door handle snapped off in my hands.


It has been two and half years since that lunch conversation with my friend. Four years altogether. Three years in the historic St. Francis Chapel and building. Three years ago today, we were just so happy to be in the space. The construction fence had been down for maybe a week, and it would be several more weeks before we'd make any noticeable dent in the layers of construction dust. We were still in the process of sorting through two and a half storage units of mostly broken furniture and fifty years worth of limited-use altar supplies, including bleached wood pews made for another space. School would start in a week and a part of me, looking back, wonders why I didn't look to put off opening the space until January. But we didn't and, as the student community moved in and continued to grow, the community enfolded the building in its rhythms of worship, study, play, love, and hospitality. When I look back at photos from that time, every small change calls to mind a thousand conversations, so many hours, so much prayer, and so much generosity from alumni, students, and so many others. I thank God for all of them, for the holy friendships this space has held, and for the new things still to come. 


In our four years together, between fifty-five and sixty young adults have spent significant time as members of the SFH community. Five residential house fellows. Countless others have passed through for shorter seasons. We've gone on retreats. Quiet days. Hiking treks. Poetry slams. They organized a benefit concert one time; another time they arranged an ecumenical square dance raising food for a local food pantry. Six trips, including twice joining the brothers of Taizé - in Pine Ridge, South Dakota and Austin, Texas - on the pilgrimage of trust. We're planning a new trip, this one to St. Louis and Ferguson, again with Taizé, with young adult friends from across our diocese and the state - a Wisconsin presence St. Francis House is leading.

We have lived a lot of life through partnerships. Partly because we were so small starting out, and mostly because the mission of God's people, says St. Paul, is reconciliation. Life is richer when God's friends come together.

There was the summer we partnered with St. Andrew's and invited students to read the Bible - the whole Bible! - in three months. The project accidentally went national, and over seventy-give people took up the challenge. Fewer than half of us finished the whole thing, which struck me as about right. Not too bad! The participants, though, were bummed at themselves. I told a colleague about the collective disappointment, and he was indignant. "Jonathan, how many got through Leviticus?" he asked me one day, with some fire in his voice. "How many?"

"All of us, Gary. It's at the beginning."
"Right. Do you know how many Episcopalians have read Leviticus? (dramatic pause) Two percent! They are now among the less than two percent of Episcopalians who have read Leviticus. Celebrate Leviticus!"

Celebrate Leviticus! quickly became code in our community for "celebrate the good thing in front of you even in the face of uncertainty." In life, if you wait to know the ending before you celebrate successes along the way, you miss out on a lot of opportunities for gratitude. Together, we try not to miss those opportunities.

There was that zany Acolyte Festival - over one-hundred people - most of them youth, from all around the Diocese of Milwaukee, most of them wondering what they came to, but - by the end - glad they came. Of course, what I had hoped they had come to was an invitation to imagine the good life of faith continuing on a university campus. Some months later, I was at the consecration of the new Bishop of Fond du Lac, and some teenagers started screaming in my direction from across a large reception space. "Jonathan! Father Jonathan!" I froze. I had no idea who they were or if I was supposed to know them. "Jonathan, the Acolyte Festival!" Immediately, something like scales fell from my eyes and I recognized them. We embraced and shared some memories from that day. As I turned to walk away, I remember marveling to myself, "It worked." We had wanted to make connections. My initial inability to recognize my new friends maybe named my doubt that we could. We had.

There was the time I asked a handful of students, on a whim, if they felt like a lifetime lived in the Episcopal tradition would equip them to pray for their sisters or brothers in person, out loud. "Jonathan," they said, "What about what we do makes you think we're being prepared for that?" The honesty of their answer caught me off guard. After a moment's silence, I asked them if the ability to pray for one another out loud was a gift they'd like to give and receive. "Yes," they said. So began a conversation with an ecumenical colleague and beautiful partnership between our students: the evangelicals shared their spontaneous prayer practices with us; we shared the prayer book tradition, lectio divina, and Compline with them. Later, we scrubbed bathrooms together at a housing unit for folks transitioning out of prison and homeless. And sang songs of praise while throwing stuffed animals at each other in someone's living room the next night. Parable of God's kingdom.

One October, we averaged between twenty-five and thirty people for three straight weeks, and a couple of students excitedly observed to me how it changed the dynamics. "We can't sit at one table. How cool is that?!" It was exciting, but a moment, not a trend. Midterms came, and the community's weekly gatherings thinned. Later, graduation came and sent half of them off for other places. And then summer came and went and we met, invited, and welcomed new students. A new day.

Last semester, our community played a small but important role in the gathering of 250 young people from 17 campus ministries. After six months of quiet relationship building in much smaller groups, we gathered with university and community leaders to discuss issues surrounding race and faith on campus. The next day, St. Francis House hosted an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service that was standing room only. Some sixty students crammed in that beautiful chapel with no more places to sit or squeeze chairs, gathered to join their own words of repentance to the words of the Prayer Book and, together, name our need of God and other another.


The local and national response to - and interaction with - our modest parable of community at St. Francis House has been humbling and deeply encouraging. We were trying to live the hard parts of the gospel in ways that others would find compelling and beautiful. We sought to build friendships around holy imagination and develop trade around a missional currency. In particular, these outside conversations and recognitions became encouragement that we were, indeed, contributing to the inspiration of a holy imagination:

In 2013, the Seminary of the Southwest reached out to us and did a tweet story on our community's intentional practices around showing interest in our neighbors: "The Missional Discipline of Being Interested."

Also in 2013, I was invited down to Camp Allen to serve as the "Abbott" for the annual All-Texas campus ministry fall gathering. The Abbott role was an invention of student leadership, who longed for prayer to order their annual time together in more intentional ways. I thought the idea was brilliant, but I wondered about my invitation. At the weekend, however, I discovered that these Texans had really given me an opportunity to share out of what St. Francis House was teaching me, who I was for them, and who we were already becoming in community.

In 2014, Virginia Theological Seminary invited me to write a short article for Episcopal Teacher on our community's experience of the formation of young adults

Just prior, in 2014, I was awarded the Episcopal Church's Distinguished Leadership award for work with young adults and in campus ministry. I was stunned and, truthfully, thought someone had made a mistake. But the Rev. Mike Angell, the Episcopal Church's missioner for young adult and campus ministries at the time, spelled it out in ways that forced me to take the award seriously, saying that the award was intended for campus ministers 
leading the field, showing exemplary work... [and that] the Rev. Jonathan Melton has made incredible strides in re-establishing a strong ministry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His impressive use of social media is coupled with a knack for community building that is helping college students connect with the Episcopal Church.
In 2015, one of our students led two inspiring sessions at the Province V spring retreat. In fact, her presence inspired the theme for the following year, faith and music. That retreat was the good work of a lot of people and solidified the spring retreat's continued resurgence. In 2016, then, several other of our students led a powerful workshop on race and faith. Context: when I first arrived at SFH, nobody was going to the Province V retreat; now, remarkable students God had since called together were helping to lead it.

Also in 2015, I was invited to write the September 2016 mediations for Forward Day by Day. Initially, this work struck me as a side project, but it became increasingly clear that what I was writing was not separable from the life of the St. Francis House community. A student told me he was thumbing through an early copy. "I could tell when I had gotten to your devotions," he said, "because Taizé started popping up everywhere!" "Ah well," I thought. Part of the gift of community is that you get to a point where you can't hide yourself. 

In 2016, I was invited to reprise my prayer-leading Abbott role, this time for the national gathering of young adult and campus ministry leaders. I was humbled and honored, and I asked if one of our students could serve on the team, which turned out to be 1) a good call, and 2) joy beyond words. One of the things God has very clearly shown me in all of this is that the faith community is the gift. Or, as a nervous campus ministry newbie one time told the students he'd just met, "the Church is the people."


If our ministry has a celebrity, it's our sidewalk, chalkboard sign. I'll explain.

When I first arrived at UW, I met lots of people - students, campus ministry colleagues, faculty, janitors - none of whom knew anything about St. Francis House.

"We're next door to the Lutherans."


"By the new apartment complex, X01."


"The Episco - never mind. Our building just got moved."

Unexpectedly, eyes light up. "OH! Why didn't you say so?? I know who you are. Not just that, I know where I was when the moving started! I watched it from the stairs of..."

It was all very humbling, and difficult to reconcile with my "Church is the people" mantra. But a year after we'd moved into the building, the conversations went differently.

"We're by the Lutherans."


"Episco - oh, never mind."

Between Luther Memorial and X01, across from Lathrop -"

"WAIT! You're the sign people! The sidewalk sign! I LOVE that sign. More than that, I love the warmth that comes through it. I'm always on my way to someplace else but, I kid you not, I look forward to passing your building each morning, and I smile when I do."

The sign is both an invitation and point of daily interaction, with thousands of conversation partners. Sometimes it's informational - "such and such is happening at such and such" - other times confrontational, "It's freezing outside. We have a fireplace and hot tea. You don't have a better place to be." Its simplest message was probably its first: "No strings."

["No strings" is a story in itself. Late one night at a fair of student organizations, a student who was helping me operate our booth complained to me that no one was taking our candy. "Why not?" I asked. "What do you see in their eyes as they don't take your candy?" The student's observation was spot-on: "I see, 'How much is this candy going to cost me?'" So we put a sign, "No strings" in the basket. Later, another student asked if such an intention could shape a whole community. I smiled and knew I loved my job.]

Anyway, the sign. It's invitational. Interactive Always changing. Our reminder that we're always for others.

On average, between thirty and forty young adults take the sign up on its offer each week, not counting program night, and make themselves at home in the Lounge. They study, relax, drink tea. Some help with projects around the House. Sometimes they are quiet. Sometimes they say things like this. Some come by themselves, others with friends, for recitals or language study groups, for AA. There's a group that uses the kitchen to repurpose unused food from area restaurants for the food insecure. We continue to open ourselves to conversation and prayer with neighbors and strangers through our sign, and the daily discipline of showing up to be present to God's being present to us and our neighbors.

A colleague passed me on the sidewalk the other day and said, "We finally got a sign like yours!" I smiled. About a half-dozen friends across the country have told me something like this, and it never gets old. All joy. "But," she said, "the problem with the sign -" Uh oh, I thought. "Is that you've always gotta do it. Every day. Erase. Write. Put it out there, bring it in," she said. "Every day."

I nodded. "And then convince the community it's worth doing on your off days, the days you are not there," I said.


The sign isn't a gimmick. The sign is a way of living toward others.


"You can't be yourself by yourself," is a truth about community we say a lot around here. It's true, because we don't always see the truth about ourselves. It's also true because nobody does anything worth doing alone.

Our alumni have blessed and encouraged us beyond all describing. When we reopened St. Francis House (the building) I grew accustomed meeting alumni who came back to St. Francis House expecting the worst. Some had heard reports of our demise and came to both pay homage to a once-sacred space and see the wreckage for themselves. A typical encounter might go like this:
Huh. You're still here. I thought they tore it all down. The did tear a lot of it down. It's still here. I thought it was gone. You're here. Tell me about what's going on. I see. Here's my card. Call me if you need anything. You're doing good work. 
Time and again, an alum would show up, disoriented or angry, telling stories I cherished about their life in the House. Time and again, after a long walk through the building and memories shared, both the alum and I experienced the gift of relationship and hope restored.


The first time we attempted to gather alumni was a Christmas party at Memorial Union during that first vagabond year. We invited Art and Sue Lloyd to come and tell stories. Art, who passed away last summer, had been the chaplain at SFH for nearly a decade in the 1960s and 70s. Twenty-three alumni and students came. I gave attendees an ill-conceived game of human bingo at the door. It was a small turnout and a lot of work, but the night itself was magical. I will never forget the picture of our students sitting around a table, necks craning toward Art, as he regaled us with stories of God at work through some remarkable students at the turbulent time of the Vietnam War and the protests against it.

The Christmas party was a first step toward restoring friendships and, in a real sense, becoming whole again. We have hosted subsequent alumni events, and it has been a joy to see alumni come back again and again, sometimes bringing friends we didn't know before. This past year, over 110 alumni and friends came to two events celebrating the 100th anniversary of St. Francis House. You can hear some of their stories here:

Over one hundred and fifteen alumni, supporters, students, and friends came to our two 100th anniversary events. Each time we gather we learn more about each other and, because we belong to each other, ourselves.

Our alumni and supporters are generous friends. Through June of 2016 alone, St. Francis House's has received over 350% of our budgeted year-to-date donations and offerings. Projected over the course of the year - never a given, I realize - that's more than $20,000 above what we anticipated at the outset of the year. While unexpected, the giving has immediate use: each year, St. Francis House relies on a growing number of supporter dollars in addition to the significant revenue we receive from the visionary apartment project (which which the story began) to cover operating expenses and fund new initiatives. The number of supporter dollars we rely on grows because 
  • the annual difference between our operating budget and the apartment revenue we receive widens with normal cost of living changes, and
  • we slowly grow our expenses. We slowly grow our expenses because we plan to continue to further the good things God has done, so that the circle of friends God touches through the faith community of St. Francis House is as large as it can be. Because life is richer when God's friends come together. 
I don't take this generosity for granted. In fact, the generosity of our larger community makes me bolder when it comes to asking for more: I don't want to fail the vision for the new things God might do that the generosity of our supporters asks us to try. When someone comes by SFH and says, "That's an idea, a good one. I'll help get it started," I sometimes get nervous. I know we are all being asked to take a leap of faith; to move from idea to action. I know I owe it to the people who have shared their generosity to invite other supporters along to help. More than anything, I get nervous because the new possibility, with all the change it entails, just might happen. I know it, because I've seen it. Because, time and again, our supporters have done it, have encouraged our community into steps towards the dreams God has given us. Thanks be to God.


At the beginning of my fifth year at St. Francis House, I feel less alone than I ever have here. Importantly, in addition to our students and alumni, the St. Francis House Board, under the leadership of Bishop Miller, increasingly enables us to make strides we couldn't have taken alone. The 100th anniversary events are perhaps the best examples of this: without board leadership on the anniversary team, we likely aren't contacting every church in the state of Wisconsin or sending letters to friends instate and out. I know we aren't facilitating the team of a dozen community members who hit phone lines, contacted friends, and helped spread the word. More and more, our board members roll up their sleeves, give of themselves, and flat get things done. Community relationships, finances, building repairs, prayers. You name it, these folks step up.

The board's spirit of self-giving and teamwork is especially timely because I have more of a team with which to work than I've had in four years: Kate, our part-time office coordinator; Bill, our deacon whom we share with St. Paul's, Watertown; Mark, our treasurer; Ted, our Sunday musician; Amy, Terri, and Connor, our residential house fellows; Rebekah, my amazing wife, who - among countless other things - leads the women's small group; every one of the students. More and more, significant things - like changing toilet paper rolls - get done without me, directly, which I hope is less a statement of repressed egotism and more a testament to our growing entrepreneurial development. 

For example, I vividly remember a student, Anna, coming to me before the beginning of my third year at St. Francis House. She suggested that the community was ready for a student-led fall retreat. "It'll be student-led, Jonathan," she told me. "Not more work for you. You arrange the food and the place, but we'll do the rest. You don't have to do anything."

I stared back blankly at Anna. I didn't say that arranging food and lodging sounded, in fact, like a good deal of work. I thought to myself. Finally, I said
Yes, this sounds good. I'm on board. Really on board. It's just - you know that'll be hard for me. I mean, I've served on large staffs and I've been the rector of a congregation. I've delegated plenty. But these past two years - if something got done, I did it. Or directly asked someone to do it. And then followed up when they forgot. And, sometimes, cut the losses and did it myself. I want you to know that I want "student led," too. Tell me when I'm offering help you don't need. I'm trusting you to do that. And also to tell me when you need help. 
The retreat was fantastic. Anna did a great job. In the days before the retreat, we spent a lot of time talking together about the proceedings, but never out of my neuroses. (Okay, maybe one time.) And she and the others did it.


True Things About Our Community
(Things God has shown us so far)
  • No strings. Be yourself. Come as you are. Bring your whole self. I'll do the same. I'll be me, and you'll be you, and we'll seek God in each other and the space between us.
  • Holy friendship. God in Christ makes us friends of God and one another. Holy friendships are those of a particular quality, involving particular commitments, which we discover together and through the waters of baptism.
  • The commitment to tell the truth is rare and one that we promise each other. Following the Truth - Jesus - should make us more truthful.
  • Individually and together, we experience acceptance in the community of faith as we risk sharing ourselves and our gifts for others.
  • Christ is in our neighbor. There’s always Good to see and learn in the other.
  • Because form is content, faith requires practical expression in our lives, thus “What” and “How” go together.
  • We live in expectation of the presence of strangers and new friends.

2 questions we commit to regularly ask:

  • What light does Scripture shed on the question/issue/challenge/possibility in front of us?
  • Who can we ask for help?

I sometimes forget that it could be otherwise, but I never take for granted that I walk past a chapel every day I come to work and every time I take the stairs. Going up or coming down, I spy the red candle that promises Christ's presence. We light candles at the Offertory each week, each person lighting a candle and placing it in a small dish of sand, and I'll explain as they do it that the certainty when Christians gather is God's presence. The question mark is ours. The candle in the sand represents my intention to be as present to God as God in Christ is to us. I'll say this on Sundays, but I remember this truth and grow in this truth every time I take the stairs.

I begin each morning with prayer in the chapel. Most days, I'll light a charcoal briquet as the prayers begin and sprinkle some incense on it as I leave. The fragrance of the incense calls me back to God's presence as I smell it in the space between the prayers. The fragrance of prayer calls me back to the truth about life together, that Vanier and Bonhoeffer where right when they said that whatever I think is most important about the work of today, there is no more important task in the community of faith than forgiving and being forgiven. Communion with God and all of God's friends. To transform the space between the prayers is probably my truest hope for our students, my family, myself; that Christ who is making all things new would make us whole - individually, together, with God.


An Appendix of Prayer 
(prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

"Lo," Jesus said. "I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our 
being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by 

your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our 

life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are 

ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Eternal God, who led your ancient people into freedom by apillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night: Grant that we who walk in the light of your presence may rejoice in the liberty of the children of God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
Almighty, everlasting God, let our prayer in your sight be as incense, the lifting up of our hands as the evening sacrifice. Give us grace to behold you, present in your Word and Sacraments, and to recognize you in the lives of those around us. Stir up in us the flame of that love which burned in the heart of your Son as he bore his passion, and let it burn in us to eternal life and to the ages of ages. Amen. 

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