Friday, August 26, 2011

Razorbash and Ethnography

Or: what I learned hosting a table at an event that welcomes students to the University of Arkansas campus.

Ethnography is the "science of contextualization." It may now be my primary metaphor or approach to church and the mission of God. Hosting a table at Razorbash this past Thursday was a major ethnographic event for me.

It is somewhat hard to figure the way "in" to describing why this particular event was so apposite. After all, over 140 organizations were hosting tables, including most of the ubiquitous pizza companies, many campus ministries, fraternities, sororities, university organizations, etc. So it must be acknowledged that by hosting a table, we were not attempting something radical, or novel. This is not rocket science.

No, we were just in the mix. But in the context of festivity and welcome, being "in the mix" is everything. You stand at the crossroads of major flows of traffic. You rub shoulders with other ministries, offer a friendly face to new students, welcome older students back to campus, chat with faculty, and so on. And you slowly transform the imagination of yourself and your congregation about the feasibility and necessity of developing a university ministry.

Although meeting new students and inviting them to our church and university ministries was the "focus" of our being there, being there was about way more than just inviting new students. For example:

1) I learned that we have a highly energized group of lay leaders in our congregation passionate about university ministry and equipped to contribute significantly. One member designed a spectacular "Lutherans Rock" banner for us which we'll use at other events in the future. Another helped us print our stickers and large informational banner.Another member (bless her heart!) donated funds to purchase 200 Discraft Ultimate discs to give away with our church logo and web site printed on them. For those of you unfamiliar with ultimate and the frisbee industry, giving these away was analogous to a Halloween scenario, the one house that gives away whole candy bars instead of bagged chocolates. Pretty soon everyone know THAT is THE house to trick or treat. Students kept picking them up and saying, "Wow, this like the real thing." Another member organized our t-shirt order in time so we could be in uniform, others stopped by to offer faculty support. Others of our members are at this very moment calling the congregations of the Arkansas-Oklahoma synod to get the names and contact information of students currently attending the university from their congregations.

2) I learned that there is a large and tight Vietnamese student population on campus, and some of them are Lutherans. They kept stopping by throughout the day. Who knew!?

3) I met some key university staff, including the head of the graduate studies recruitment office. I met Daniel Pugh, Vice Provost for Student Affairs/Dean of Students & Associate Professor of Higher Education, who immediately (yet that evening) helped connect me with the Council of Religious Organizations, which meets monthly on Thursdays. Since we are particularly called as a denomination and church to catalyze ecumenical conversations, I am prioritizing this meeting on my calendar.

4) I learned that students at a university respond to a church table in diverse ways. Clearly some young people have been "burned" by the church and want nothing to do with us. [In retrospect, I wish I would have been wearing a "Safe Zone" button during Razorbash. But there is always next year.] Others are zealous Christians, but connected to some other tradition, so they stop by and then say, "I had a great bible study with Cru last night." Others are really just searching, and if you look friendly, they are curious. Other students come running to the table shouting "there are Lutherans in Fayetteville?!" This was a happy thing, that we could be there for them, but it also left me pondering, "Why are these young people not given more direct information and guidance from their home congregations before they are sent off to a new town? Why don't pastors, youth directors, or other lay leaders make at least some attempt to connect their graduating seniors with campus ministries in the places they are going?" When I walked around to visit other tables, I overheard one telling conversation. A student asked a campus ministry leader, "Is your group based out of a denomination?" The answer: "No, we're non-denominational." Student: "Oh, good, then I'll probably come check you out." [My internal reaction: they're both fooling themselves, every movement has a historical and cultural locus, non-denominational almost always means small "b" baptist. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but let's be honest.]

5) I learned that although there are many campus ministry organizations, very few of them are congregationally based. Most of our full communion partners have campus ministries, slightly teased out and separate from the congregations in Fayetteville they're affiliated with denominationally. So St. Joseph's Catholic Church as the St. Thomas Aquinas Student Center, United Presbyterians has the United Campus Ministry Center, St. Paul's Episcopal has St. Martin's, and so on. Two baptist congregations near the university had tables. 

6) I was reminded again of the power of festival and the need for more of it. There is an energy, a joy, a je ne sais quoi, about designating a common space where everyone can come together, give stuff away for free, and celebrate a new start, that has transformative power in communities. We simply need more public festivals.

7) I reflected, at least a couple of times during the day, on the ministry of small talk. When I met new students on campus, and asked the basic questions--"What's your name? Where are you from? Are you new to town? How are you doing?"--I would watch their faces visibly relax. It's all new. They're nervous. They are so happy to discover a friendly face and a voice that wonders how they are doing. That itself is ministry. Ministry shouldn't always be about outcomes. It should most of the time be about presence. That's why small talk is ministry.

8) We all learned together how hard it is to tighten up your message. If you have a booth like this, what do you want to say about yourself. In a few short words. Ecumenical? Affirming? Liturgy? Theology? Rocking? Focus on the church or the developing campus ministry? How do you title your worship services (see the sticker we created above)? Developing a brief and focused message is no mean feat. Similarly, displaying all of this in a graphically pleasing way also takes some doing.

9) Being present at the event deepened my already considerable respect for the university and its faculty and staff--we received a warm welcome from everyone, all the way from the staffers helping us carry our stuff to the tables, all the way up to the provost and faculty stopping by. The university welcomed us outside organizations warmly and curated a great space for healthy interaction and community building.

10) Everything is cooler (everyone is cooler) when techno music is blaring loudly from speakers on a veranda.

11) Not everyone likes frisbees--the wide receiver for the Razorbacks simply said, "No, I don't want a frisbee. I wouldn't use it." The additional glance we got indicated how much he would not use it. :)

12) I learned that, in all likelihood, if we are going to follow up with these students and communicate with them, the way to do so is by texting. They gave us their e-mail, they're on Facebook, but the one's I have already texted with clarifying questions, etc. responded immediately. 

I'm sure there is much more I learned that I'm not currently itemizing here, and some of you who were at this event (or have hosted tables at similar events) can weigh in with other insights, no doubt. We'll keep finding more ways to do this and connect, hopefully with an increasingly large cadre of students and university folk who are interested in joining us in the science of contextualization. And I am convinced that when we focus on this, we will bring the connecting, ecumenical, paradoxical, freeing and affirming message of God in Christ to the university community in a way Lutherans are uniquely equipped by God to accomplish. That is why we are there.

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