In my work as College Chaplain at Muhlenberg College, people often ask me if I am sad that there are not more Lutheran students. My usual response is “Well, it doesn’t really keep me up at night…” What do I mean by that?
In his book “Who Needs a Lutheran College,” Tom Christensen writes: “When we think of religiously-affiliated higher education, we often assume that it will be parochial, narrow, doctrinaire, and bent on making converts, and that it will want to teach its own views and silence all others.” As a part of a network of 26 affiliated colleges and universities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Muhlenberg College defines Lutheran Higher Education in a different way.
In Lutheran Higher Education, we ask these kinds of questions:
- What are the deep needs of the world we are called to address through the process of education?
- What kinds of persons does the world need in order to serve these deep needs?
- What are the real needs of students who we meet through this educational process?
- How do we educate such persons?
- What gifts and limitations to we bring to this task?
The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Muhlenberg College is a multi-faith collection of student organizations and staff. It includes the ELCA and Protestant Community at Egner Chapel, Muhlenberg Hillel at the Leffell Center for Jewish Student Life and Roman Catholic Campus Ministry at the Newman Center. It also includes opportunities for affiliated student religious organizations such as Disciple Makers Christian Ministry and the Muslim Student Association. The college takes seriously the mission of Religious Life to “provide spiritual support and hospitality to the whole community” and “encourage interfaith cooperation and engagement in all areas of College life in order to enrich the lives of individuals and to work together for the common good.”[i]
The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has shown how very important our grounding in the Lutheran theological tradition lived out in a multi-faith environment has been. At the forefront of our decision making, has been the care and support for all people, including students, faculty and staff. While most students left campus by March 16, around 100 students initially remained for various reasons (30 will remain on campus for the summer). In some cases, they are international students unable to travel to their homes, or students with no primary residence outside the college. They may have also stayed because they had immuno-compromised family members at home. During the pandemic, the work of the Religious and Spiritual life team of the college, has been grounded in a collaborative effort with many different colleagues, to provide care, counseling, support and programming for students online—as well as actively supporting students who have remained on campus. Here are some of the ways we have done that:
- Holding daily virtual office hours for pastoral care conversations with students and others
- Hosting online religious services
- Hosting small group ministry and educational events online (i.e.Bible Study, Jewish Learning Fellowship)
- Keeping the U.L.E. Community Cabinet (on campus food pantry) stocked for access by students who remain on campus
- Supporting students who have had increased responsibilities caring for family members with Covid-19
- Supporting students who have encountered other forms of economic hardship during the pandemic
- Helping faculty connect students to various campus resources during this time of high stress.
Here is the story of one student who remained on campus:
FAQ with Kate Ekanem, Muhlenberg College Class of ‘21
Hello! My name is Kate Ekanem. I am a first generation student from Nigeria. Here at Muhlenberg, I am a junior and my major is Media and Communications with double minors in Women and Gender Studies and Creative Writing. I am involved in various activities on campus; I am a Campus delegate, a tour guide, an inductee of the Tri-IOTA Women and Gender Honor Society and the elected president of Tri-Alpha First Generation Honor Society.
How you have been affected by the coronavirus?
Since the outbreak, I’ve honestly been in a constant on and off panic mood. I am a first generation student, a single-mother to a six-year-old daughter, and an international student from an economically underserved family in Nigeria. It is the first time in many years that I’ll feel like I don’t have anything under control because I am afraid of failing in my usual responsibilities to myself, my child and my elderly father back home. In a pandemic like this one—when most students are either calling home or returning home to a family, I realize I am the home that is called by members of my family in distress and that’s because I am the first in the family to attempt a college degree. Monthly, I support my family in Nigeria, my daughter’s care and my own self-care. These were not challenges before the pandemic because I work on campus during school and summer period, but as an international student, I have different challenges than other students. Per their student visa status, international students can only hold on-campus jobs and are ineligible for various relief programs. Thoughts of survival through the summer and the entire period of this pandemic scare me. It’s almost impossible to find the right words to explain the multiple challenges attached to being a first generation student, a single mother, and the eldest child in my Nigerian family. This pandemic awakens my consciousness to the heavy loads I’d been carrying all this while, without deeply considering its weight.
How has the college has supported you and others who remain on campus?
When the outbreak started, my first thought was of my daughter who lives with another family. I knew I’d lose my mind if I were away from her while a virus was out there. I remember reaching out to the college and they responded immediately and made it possible for my daughter and I to stay together. The mere thought of it brings tears to my eyes. Since the pandemic, the college has gone beyond what’s expected of any institution to express genuine care and love for students like me on campus. I’ve heard several students talk about how the college paid their trips back home, provided emergency supports for technology and other personal challenges and during a conversation with a friend from Rwanda who would be graduating this year from Muhlenberg; she mentioned how the food pantry on campus and all the support from the college has been immensely remarkable, leaving her, speechless. In the Muhlenberg community, I have seen love, felt it deeply, and I cannot begin to explain how much gratitude my heart burst in joy to have a school that cares for, and protect their students in a time of crisis like this one. It is definitely not enough to say that Muhlenberg is just an institution––to me, it’s like belonging to a family
What are you hopeful for in the future?
I am excited for the future. I hope to make it through graduation next year. I almost cannot believe I’ll be a senior in fall. It is a miracle that I’ve come this far and I think every first generation student can relate to that feeling. After graduation, I’ll work for a while to save money and be in a place of stable independence to attempt a graduate degree in the future. I was once denied education, and now that I have it, I will never look back. My desire is to transform the destinies of my family by graduating and helping the next person climb the same ladder of success. My six-year old daughter is my inspiration to continue on, regardless of the obstacles. Whenever I see her, I remember that I am doing this for me, for her and for our future.
During this Easter season, students like Kate remind me of the ever hopeful promise of resurrection. Serving at a Lutheran College isn’t about counting Lutherans; but it is about finding the ways in which God is active and alive in our world and service to our neighbor. Thanks be to God for our shared ministry, for all people, in the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod.
Peace be with you,
Rev. Kristen Glass Perez
Muhlenberg College Chaplain
If you would like to support students who remain at Muhlenberg College over the summer, there are a few ways to do that:
- Donate to the Emergency Grant Fund for Students. All donations directly support emergency hardship needs for Muhlenberg College students including the M.U.L.E. Community Cabinet on campus food pantry.
- Donate new or gently used kitchen items to support students who remain on campus. Contact EgnerChapel@Muhlenberg.edu if you are interested in donating items.