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Florida State University:
Finding God at a ‘party school’

By Joel Kilpatrick

Chi Alpha meetings at FSU allow students to build friendships
in a godly environment.

The bazaar at the Florida State University union in Tallahassee bustles with hundreds of students wearing backpacks and buying art posters and used textbooks. Fraternity members hand out rush flyers as freshmen walk wide-eyed through the milieu. Some groups look for souls, not sales. A Jehovah’s Witness information table is situated by a main thoroughfare. People promoting yoga and meditation hand out leaflets encouraging students to “free their minds.” Members of Chi Alpha have a table nearby. The Mormons have a missionary training institute adjacent to campus. The cork board at the union bears flyers side by side, one advertising a lesbian, gay and bisexual club meeting, the other saying there will be a revival meeting at a nearby church.

At FSU, a not-so-subtle war is on to influence the lifestyles of the 36,000 students here. Fraternities, credit card companies, religious groups and even the local bars compete for attention; and for the uninitiated, the clamor can be disorienting. But a committed group of Christian leaders has found that revival can flourish amid the deception and debauchery that sometimes characterize the college experience.

FSU is best known for its football team, the Seminoles. (NFL player Deion Sanders attended FSU, and a wall in the stadium office memorializes him in framed magazine covers.) The stadium, a huge brick structure that seats 80,000, is the secular cathedral, the focal point of campus attention. As one man told me, “At FSU, football is a god.” Newspapers and radio shows brim with analysis about the upcoming game on Saturday. Hotel signs shout, “Go ’Noles!” The Seminole Indian profile is ubiquitous: on towels, T-shirts, hats, backpacks, buildings, bumper stickers and mugs.

Chi Alpha campus missionary Mario
Solari in front of the Chi Alpha

But despite the national attention and the strong party ethic, many students here are desperately lonely. A few seconds of eye contact or conversation reveal a yearning for acceptance. As they walk their bikes across campus, students appear to be waiting for someone to show them true friendship. Their minds seem puzzled that in this place of higher learning, they feel despair. An article in the student newspaper informs them that 47 percent of all women entering college will experience depression.

On the steps of the library I meet Bryan, 23, a student of European intellectual history. He wears a turquoise backpack and loose brown jeans, smokes a cigarette and sports long sideburns.

“It’s definitely a minority who belong to a religious organization here,” he says. “The rest aren’t interested, or they are caught up in being away from home.”

“What about your background?”

“I went to Sunday school from when I was little until I graduated high school,” he says. “I’m not practicing. I guess you could call me a wounded Christian. I saw a lot of hypocrisy, people who were nominal. I don’t know if I’m really content or fulfilled. I always look for new ideas. My beliefs are always changing. I think a Buddhist is just as viable as a Muslim or a Christian. They are all seeking the same thing in the long run. I’m interested in people, but not in belonging to a religious group. A person can be spiritual without having a religion. I don’t think the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I think it’s always been like this and will continue to be. The world is far too complex for a single group to insert their claim to the right way to live.”

At a campus chapel on Thursday morning, leaders of religious groups are meeting with the new vice president of academic affairs. Present are representatives from the Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Catholic churches, and campus ministers from the Baptist student union, InterVarsity and Chi Alpha. Over bagels and orange juice they discuss aspects of student life, including alcohol policies. FSU was recently dubbed America’s No. 1 party school by a national magazine — a label administrators resist but students embrace.

“We have one residence hall where students sign a pledge to be substance-free,” the vice president says. “I think all residence halls should be substance-free. ... I also believe parents ought to be notified when kids are busted for underage drinking.”

The talk turns to the school’s spiritual climate.

“We are in an environment of spiritual renewal on this campus,” says Mark Robinson, the Baptist student minister. “All these groups are growing. We’re experiencing a spiritual revival.”

“I think that’s wonderful,” says the vice president. “That’s good news to me.”

Sam Gunn, a Catholic worker who lives with a community of brothers near campus, says later, “In the last five years I’ve seen a lot of growth in the Catholic group. Everything I hear from the Pentecostal and evangelical groups tells me there is phenomenal growth. A lot of students are desiring heartfelt conversion.”

After the meeting I catch up with Robinson, the Baptist minister.

“There is the beginning of a revival on campus,” he says, “and there seems to be a rise in conflict, or spiritual warfare. There is quite a bit of interest in spiritual things. I’m not sure if it is lasting or not. People are drawn to worship, but it hasn’t totally filtered into their ethical lives. When it starts translating into daily living and we start seeing lots of people saved, that’s when we’ll know.”

Mary Carter, an intern with the Baptist student group, adds, “Yesterday a girl came in and said, ‘I want to talk to someone about my relationship with God.’ We shared the gospel with her and she accepted Christ. It turned out she had been approached by two Mormon missionaries and was supposed to meet them, but she got confused and came to us.”

On Thursday night in a large conference room on campus, 80 students have gathered for the weekly Chi Alpha meeting. The band — with congas and a cello in addition to other instruments — warms up, and one student explains the significance of the small group ministry to a newcomer. People of all ethnicities are here, and the meeting begins with worship. Mario Solari, the campus minister, started this group six years ago. They now have a house on campus — a former fraternity house that changed hands when the fraternity chapter was disciplined for underage drinking. “We want to build a community of students with a central location,” Mario says. They have purposely avoided the fortress mentality by holding meetings at the union and in dorms.

‘In my freshman orientation packet there was a brochure about Chi Alpha. I looked them up on the Internet. I was having a hard time adjusting and felt like I was drowning. I said, “God, I need You now more than ever.”’

After the meeting, students migrate to the Chi Alpha house and gather in the main room, populated by old couches, red carpet, a Coke machine and a piano. A playful wrestling match ensues between several of the guys as plans are made to go to a restaurant. The house is a hub of activity and a safe haven for students who want to live clean.

“When I came here I didn’t know anyone,” says Carina Cordero, 19, a sophomore from Lakeland, Florida. “In my freshman orientation packet there was a brochure about Chi Alpha. I looked them up on the Internet. I was having a hard time adjusting and felt like I was drowning. I said, ‘God, I need You now more than ever.’ The first Thursday meeting I went to I loved. It was the spiritual awakening I needed. The worship, the preaching — it was like oil.”

At 11:50 p.m. several Chi Alpha students head to Tennessee Avenue where a row of 11 or more bars draws thousands on Thursday, the unofficial “drinking night.” Lining up to get into the various clubs are guys in slacks and girls in evening finery. The air smells of perfume, cigarettes and beer. Several of the establishments allow 18-year-olds inside, though the drinking age is 21. One place offers all-you-can-drink beer for $5.

The Chi Alpha students have brought a tall wooden cross with a banner that reads, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23.” Some students on their way to the bars mock them. Others accept their offer of literature.

“This is my place on Thursday night,” says Brandon, an 18-year-old standing in line to get into a club. “There are certain clubs you go to each night. I’ve clubbed ever since high school. Coming here is kind of overwhelming, but as long as you can handle it in the classroom .... ”

“What is your goal in attending FSU?”

“To get a degree and have fun doing it,” he says.

Roy, a slightly inebriated freshman standing behind us, insists on answering questions as well. He’s here on a scholarship, he says, but he’s not interested in academics right now.

“The party school designation is definitely deserved,” he says. “We take partying to a new level. I partied before I came here, but not as much as when I got here.” After a few off-color remarks about his goals for the evening, he fades into the crowd.

I approach a young lady for an interview, but she is so drunk that my question causes her to lose her balance. She stares at me as if holding my gaze will keep her from falling. “No,” she says uncomprehendingly, and two friends help her away.

For many, the night won’t end until dawn. Then real obligations and feelings will set in again; and, unless someone intercepts them, they will find more opportunities to party. The battle for students’ souls — still undecided — goes on.

Click here to make a contribution to Chi Alpha

Joel Kilpatrick is an associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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