As the Presbyterian Church closest to the UTK campus, we at 2nd Presbyterian Church often have the chance to welcome college students into the worship and fellowship life of our community of faith. (At least, we did before Covid!) There are usually two kinds of college students that we see – those who want to just visit occasionally, and those who are looking for a church home and want to get involved. The students who fall into the latter category become liturgists, attend Bible study, participate in our service projects, help with the children’s ministry, and even sing in the choir. They are also the same students that I see when I go to the UKirk house on campus (again – before Covid!). These students are not just worshiping and serving at 2nd Presbyterian Church, they are also worshiping and serving and attending Bible study at the UKirk house, along with many other students who are worshiping and serving at other Presbyterian congregations all over Knoxville. It just seems to be in the DNA at UKirk that being an active part of a faith community is part and parcel of following Jesus.
These students aren’t students who aren’t doing anything else, by the way. They are active in clubs and sororities and fraternities and the band and choirs and student government and political movements and, oh yes, studying and going to class. I have spent a lot of time at the UKirk house the last few years, teaching classes and Bible studies, leading and attending worship, doing pastoral care when we were between Campus Ministers, and just hanging out at UPerk. These students inspire me. They are actively engaging their faith, seeking to become better disciples, even as they question and challenge a lot of the beliefs they were taught as children and are now seeking to make their own. The Christian community they have found at UKirk is equipping and empowering them for this phase of their spiritual and educational journey, while providing a safe space for them to explore their identities as Christians, as human beings, and as citizens of the world. I am sure that I wasn’t as mature about faith and life at their age!
Over the last few years I have noticed two things about college students today: they want to be part of something bigger than themselves and they want to make a difference in the world. That’s it, really. Now think about it – what institution is best poised to meet that desire? I’ll give you a hint – it’s over 2,000 years old and was started by an itinerant rabbi from a small town in a small country in the Middle East. Of course, the answer is the Christian Church.
UKirk at UTK is doing the work of the Church on the campus of the University of Tennessee. They are connecting students to something bigger than themselves and teaching them how to make a difference in the world. They are giving students a place to celebrate and mourn and live and love and struggle and wrestle and to simply be who Christ is calling them to be. What they are doing matters, perhaps more than most of us realize.
And I’m saying this not just as a Presbyterian pastor and member of the Board of Directors, but as a parent. My son is a sophomore at UTK and has been involved at UKirk since day one of his freshman year. I did not tell him to, nor did I have to convince him to. He had seen first-hand the UKirk students that came to our church and knew that was a place where he would be welcomed. He has grown and learned and matured in ways that have surprised me and that make my heart burst with pride. UKirk is a place where he has found his place. For that, I am grateful.