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Campus ministers work to bring peace amid protests

While encampments and arrest raids filled universities, ministry leaders had to continue to serve

Police officers talk to protesters near a main gate at Columbia University in New York, April 30. Associated Press/Photo by Craig Ruttle, File

Campus ministers work to bring peace amid protests

At Columbia University in New York City, the Rev. Roger Landry, a Roman Catholic chaplain at the school, said that pro-Palestinian protests had a “dramatic negative impact” on every one of the university’s roughly 36,000 students, even though most didn’t even participate.

The university canceled or moved many classes and exams online, shut off access to campus, and even canceled commencement.

“More students came to see me to try to process various interior reactions to what is happening as well as to deal with heightened anxiety over safety, questions about how to support friends who feel unsafe, concerns of their parents and friends, and how to live a chaotic time as a faithful disciple of Jesus,” Landry told me in an email. He has been at Columbia since 2022.

While counseling and mentoring students, Landry said he encouraged students to pray and “exercise charity,” such as giving a protester a bottle of water. He also reminded students that Jesus is the Prince of Peace who never ceases to say to us, “Peace be with you.”

“We Catholics must be those who, by our words and actions, seek to bring harmony rather than division, to try to find the good in everyone and help that good triumph over temptation to hatred, division, unforgiveness, and various other evils,” Landry said. “That hard work of peace-building often starts with simple things like listening, or saying a heartfelt prayer, or a simple act of charity.”

As the spring semester came to a close this year, more than 50 university campuses across at least 25 states contended with pro-Palestinian protests, according to CNN. More than 3,000 people were arrested.

Many campuses faced tent encampments, arrest raids with tear gas, and groups chanting pro-Palestinian slogans. Campus ministries faced unique circumstances to serve students, and ministry leaders helped students experiencing fearful, anxiety-filled environments.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, protesters broke down barriers keeping them out of the campus’s main quad on April 30. Police had evicted the demonstrators just hours earlier. After their return, they took down an American flag from a flagpole and raised a Palestinian flag in its wake.

Madison Perry, executive director at the Christian ministry North Carolina Study Center, said the protests made the university a divisive and stressful place for students.

“Anytime students get arrested or you see students who struggle, their peers will feel bad empathetically—regardless of whether they agree or not with the same positions those students are taking,” Perry said. “It’s not a happy thing to have happen on your last days of classes to have arrests and protests.”

His ministry has tried to provide students with a place for rest and comfort, he said, adding that the center serves as a Christian community hub near campus. Other ministries, such as Young Life and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, have offices in the center’s building. On average, 300 students a day use the space, Perry said.

Outside the building, there is a large green space—in the last weeks of school, they used it to give students a place to find peace and calm, he said. “The university campus is just so big and we can respond pretty quickly to unrest as it happens and do our best to comfort students and walk alongside them relationally,” he said.

That’s not the first time they’ve used the green space for that this school year, Perry said. In August, faculty member Zijie Yan was fatally shot in a science building on the campus. More than 2,000 students came by in the days after the incident, Perry said. Students have struggled with mental health this last year, he added.

Micah Bragg, a religious life adviser at Columbia through the Reformed University Fellowship, said that students had a wide array of responses to the protests at the Ivy League school.

He said some students felt “legitimately fearful” to walk down campus, others acted indifferent, and some were confused.

“And then I have others who will talk to you right after being at a protest or having gone to a protest … and see the protesters as heroes willing to sacrifice their degree for this cause,” Bragg said. “But it’s just a wide array of different perspectives.”

The encampment on Columbia’s campus lasted two weeks. While there, it shifted the environment on campus for everyone, he said.

Bragg said his goal was and is to have both Jewish and Muslim students attend his ministry groups. At the end of the semester, though, this became challenging when Jewish students left campus due to feeling unsafe, he said.

Bragg noted that all of the students still had to contend with everyday college stress and anxiety amid the protests. He said while there are unique things to do to respond to events like the protests, regular ministry to students needs to continue.

“There’s still just the student who’s feeling depressed and it doesn’t even have to do with [the protests] and you’re dealing with that. Or a student who has really intense legitimate questions about should they believe in Christ or not?” Bragg said. “The regular work of ministry still has to continue on. And you don’t just stop that because of all the other disturbances.”

Carolina Lumetta contributed to this report.

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

I enjoy them immensely and share them every week. —Joel

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