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COMMENTARY: A day in the life of a UM campus minister Eric Van Meter, Oct 17, 2011
Eric Van Meter
By Eric Van Meter Special Contributor
When my phone buzzes at 7:45 a.m., my stomach sinks. Most pastors dread the late night calls, which usually mean that someone has died or gone to the hospital or filed for divorce. Campus ministers, on the other hand, live in fear of anything between 4:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., a time when any self-respecting college student is fast asleep.
It buzzes again. This is a phone call, not a text. My worry doubles.
“Hey, you know the men’s room?” a voice blurts. It’s Andy, one of my senior student leaders.
I close my eyes, picturing our aging campus ministry building with a newly collapsed ceiling, or maybe a freshly sunken floor.
“Listen, Andy. . . .”
“And you remember how there’s a toilet in there?” he goes on. “The seat’s been cracked for a while now, so Connor and I decided to fix it.”
Oh no, I think. Plumbing. I’m already making a list of donors to call to ask if they can just dig a little deeper this month.
I hear another voice in the background, saying something urgent I can’t make out. Andy says, “Look, Eric, it’s a long story. The big thing is that we need to know how to shut off the water to the bathroom before it floods any worse.”
I talk him through the process, all the while rubbing my temples and trying to breathe deeply and evenly. When he’s got the water shut off to the building, Andy tells me the story of how rusted bolts, poor logic and a hammer managed to destroy the men’s room toilet and flood a third of our building.
“Get busy mopping,” I say. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Before I leave home, however, I have research to do. Like most campus ministries, our Wesley Foundation is in constant financial crisis. This has been a good month—we’ve almost broken even—but we still can’t afford a repairman for this job. I get on the Internet and learn everything I can about installing a new toilet. Then I run by the hardware store and collect the necessary supplies before I head to campus.
A note is taped to the men’s room door when I arrive: “Class till 11. Back soon.—Andy.”
Another leader, Susan, is in my office, poring over her chemistry homework. It doesn’t take long for her to get down to what she really wants to say. Her boyfriend wants to break up because she won’t have sex with him. She either has to give up the relationship, or give in to pressure to share her body against her better judgment.
No sooner has Susan gone to class than Cornerstone UMC shows up with food. I’d almost forgotten that it was Thursday, which meant that dozens of students would be coming in less than an hour to share in our weekly fellowship meal and Bible study.
My face must show panic, because Miss Vicki right away volunteers to stay as long as needed to prepare food and serve. I relax just a bit. Miss Vicki is one of the people who loves us best, who sees our students not just for their potential, but for how beautifully they care for God and each other right now. Without her and other local church members who believe in our mission, we’d have to close our doors.
Andy shows up at noon, but we have to wait to work on the men’s room. Our tiny building is packed with young adults who have come for food and friends. One of them, a Chinese student we know as Carmelo, offers to help Andy with the repairs. I ask if he’s ever had to replace a toilet before.
“No,” he answers. “But I am very good with such things.”
And he is, so I let them get to work. Andy and Carmelo both have a confidence about them that almost translates to fearlessness. They may grow out of it, or life may take it from them. But I won’t be the one to discourage them. College students believe they can accomplish anything, no matter how crazy.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these, I think. They are the ones who follow Jesus without fear of what he may call them to do or to sacrifice. They are the most passionate workers and leaders and lovers in our church. Replacing a broken toilet in a run-down building in Northeast Arkansas is not menial labor to them. It is just one more sign of their active participation in Christ’s work, regardless of what form that work may take.
I think of this as I go back to my office to get ready for worship. My phone buzzes again, and I see that I’ve missed three text messages. One is a funny picture, another a question about our leadership meeting. The last is from Susan, thanking me for listening to her without trying to fix her problems, and saying she is ready for worship tonight.
Her message causes something in my brain to click, and I check my worship notes. Sure enough, Susan has volunteered to preach tonight. I text her to make sure she still wants to, given her personal struggles of the day.
Absolutely, she says.
Good, I think. She is a child of grace and honesty, and she will proclaim grace with honesty.
With that in mind, I set aside the reports and bills and emails that remind me how impossibly busy ministry is. Instead, I go into the chapel to pray before our praise band shows up to rehearse. Another long day, and I’ll be home late tonight, but so what? God has blessed me with meaningful work among such inspiring people. That is grace enough for now.
The Rev. Van Meter is director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University.