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Rooted in Lutheran values: The role of campus ministry in faith at St. Olaf

The St. Olaf Campus Ministry helped organize celebrations in support of three different faith traditions over the weekend of April 15. Muslim students on campus participated in Iftar, Jewish students began their observance of passover, and Christian students gathered for Easter. The overlap of celebrations between these three different faith traditions during the same weekend displayed the unique nature of religious practice at St. Olaf and Campus Ministry’s role in it. 

St. Olaf is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. 

“Colleges and universities tend to be either secular, which means that they really don’t integrate religion into the life of the school, or they tend to be sectarian. Sectarian means that you have to sign onto a particular religious expression through a statement of faith,” said College Pastor Matt Marohl. “St. Olaf is trying to be a third path, which means to have a living active faith tradition, but one that is inclusive and welcoming rather than one that says you have to be Lutheran to be here.” 

St. Olaf’s mission statement includes the phrase “nourished by Lutheran tradition.” College Ministry understands this statement to relate to a core commitment of the Lutheran tradition — loving one’s neighbors. From this perspective, College Ministry understands the diversity of students on campus and seeks to value and support students of all backgrounds.

“I think that as a college, when I think about being nourished by Lutheran tradition, it comes out of having a deep care for our neighbor,” said Associate College Pastor Katie Fick. “And if we care about our neighbor, that means that we really respect and value their traditions, backgrounds, and beliefs and we do our best to honor them and help them live those out.” 

Additionally, Lutheran tradition holds the belief that people should seek to understand and explore the world around them. Being nourished by Lutheran tradition is understood by College Ministry to be a foundation for strong academics in all fields, including STEM. 

The Jewish Student Organization (JSO), Student Congregation, and the organization for Muslim students on campus are all part of College Ministry, displaying its core student focus. For instance, the Student Congregation Council leads the Student Congregation. 

“I think we see ourselves more as part of the College Ministry than administration a lot of the time,” said Student Congregation President Leah Berdahl ’23. “Although the biggest religious group on campus is Lutheran, that doesn’t mean we’re the only religious group on campus. I think that the College Ministry recognizes that in a way that administration does not.”

Berdahl continued, “Student congregation focuses on the campus culture and community. We’re very sensitive to the fact that we’re only part of what College Ministry does, but the college statement has Lutheran faith and values in it and that gives us so much social privilege. So what we grapple with is what we do with our social privilege to support the community.” 

College Ministry believes that religion and spirituality are a major part of what students grapple with while they’re in college, and they therefore seek to engage students with the practice of religion and spirituality in meaningful ways.

“One of my goals would be that students who are intrigued or interested by the practice of religion or interested in spirituality would be able to come to us and find ways that they could explore that. I hope we would really be a hub for helping students explore religion and spirituality and to really support them while they’re doing this,” Fick said. 

Inclusivity is essential to this objective, according to Fick. “I think very personally, I want students to know that we are inclusive of all backgrounds, that they can find care and support in this office for the things that they go through in terms of being a student,” Fick said. 

With an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), College Ministry seeks to support and include students of all backgrounds. 

“I wouldn’t talk about Easter without talking about Ramadan and Passover,” Marohl said. “We are vitally aware of the diversity on campus and we really think that religious diversity has to be a part of the DEI discussion and kind of life on campus as much as any other diversity,” Marohl said. 

The Student Congregation and College Ministry is hosting a trip to Hocokata Ti, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s Cultural Center on April 23. The purpose of the trip is to bring awareness to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. This trip is part of the College Ministry’s efforts to go beyond the land acknowledgement statement and actively engage in anti-racism practices.

“In 2020, we signed the pledge to further anti-racism and anti-racist practice, and going beyond the land acknowledgement was a part of that,” Berdahl said. “So we listened to native voices and they said we just want our culture to be preserved and known about.” 

With the campus at the green alert level, College Ministry is able to reflect on their services during COVID-19 and what they hope the future of College Ministry looks like. During the height of COVID-19, chapel went online, and when St. Olaf returned in-person, chapel adapted to be half online and half in-person. 

Chapel continued to follow COVID-19 protocols set by an ecumenical church group and the Minnesota Department of Health. Social distancing, masking, and no singing or speaking in unison occurred during that time. College Ministry began using sign language during chapel services and instituted a time of writing and contemplation where the community could interact in different ways. 

“Attendance has been a little lower in person and a little higher online,” Fick said. 

“When so many things went virtual, I feel like people’s awareness of what College Ministry is really went down,” Marohl said. “We talk to students all the time and if they don’t know us and know what we do and know who we are, they might not know that we are resources that talk about all sorts of things. So I wonder how to promote ourselves in this post-pandemic world.”

Overall, College Ministry seeks to address the needs of students. This creates a distinction between the academic study of religion and the practice of religion, and it highlights the importance of College Ministry on campus. 

“In College Ministry we are engaged in the practice of religion,” Marohl said. “We are engaged in what it means to actually live and engage with a faith practice.”