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Uncertainty and hope at the
University of Washington

By Ken Horn

A young man squats in the middle of a busy square, smoking and rummaging through his backpack. His scraggly long hair is topped by a wide-brimmed straw hat. His gaze is distant and glazed, even after I approach and engage him in conversation. “Phil” is 21; his mind seems clouded.

“I am kind of agnostic at this point,” he tells me. “I imagine God to be the entirety of the universe — like the laws of karma and destiny and that kind of thing.” He seems to understand little of what I say about God. His only response: “Cool.”

Outwardly, Phil is somewhat of an anomaly — there are few here with the throwback hippy look. But Phil’s inward spiritual ambiguity is mainstream.

The University of Washington in Seattle has its share of alternative lifestyles, but overall there is a clean-cut feel about the student body — until one looks closely. Today the school’s daily newspaper carries a full-page ad on its back cover advertising an “adult search engine.” Inside, the sports section carries a vulgar picture and off-color headlines. An article discusses how “R-rated classes draw in the crowds.” One course, it says, shows “sexually explicit films” each Friday.

This is Red Square, the central grounds on the picturesque campus. A nearby fountain frames a fair-weather view of Mount Rainier. The square is where “Bigfoot” roams — a giant of a man with long white hair and beard who discourses on UFOs and other cryptic topics. It is a place where independent itinerant preachers periodically trade vicious name-calling with students. It’s also a place of ministry.

Chi Alpha director Ron Jacobson in Red Square
where he holds "Brick Talks."

Ron Jacobson, 39, has been Chi Alpha director here for the past nine years. Ron holds “Brick Talks” in the square, engaging students in conversation who wouldn’t set foot in a church or Christian meeting. Occasionally a heckler will appear, but the students generally respect Ron’s open, polite approach to discussion.

It’s class break now and thousands of students swarm the square from every direction, visual evidence of the magnitude of the mission field. Outside the Husky Student Union building, the Chi Alpha group, known on campus as University Christian Fellowship, mans a table, alongside several others — political and religious. There are 42 groups on campus, including Baha’i, Mormon and Jewish. Christian groups do not compete. They, in fact, often work together. A combined group called Jesus Christ is Lord has sponsored large rallies with as many as 5,000 filling Red Square.

Staff member Greg Diloreto, 30, is manning the table today, along with several other UCF members. Enid, 20, has transferred from another school where she attended Chi Alpha. Today she learns about UCF when she walks past the table. The table displays books with titles like The True Seeker, Letters From a Skeptic, Mere Christianity and Discovering Ancient Wisdom, that are free to all takers. On a board is the question, “What makes you believe or not believe in God?” Someone has written, “Believe, yes. Believe He is all-forgiving and compassionate, not even close, we just hope.”

Erin Tasto, 23, in her third year in UCF and a facilitator of small groups, notes that the table and Brick Talks have created good opportunities to dialogue with people who are searching. Last year, one such woman told Ron she had read every self-help book on the planet in her search. “I couldn’t find the answer,” she told him, “and the reason I was always so emotional at your meetings was because in my heart I knew I was finding what I had been looking for since I was 12.” She became a Christian.

Determined to take the spiritual pulse of the campus, I plunge into “the U district” to conduct interviews. It is a land of fraternities and sororities. Large, aged churches dot the corners, some with effective ministries, others extremely liberal. Couples commonly live together outside marriage.

Students are out in the fall sunshine, playing volleyball, football, tossing Frisbees. Profanity and loud rock music seem omnipresent. I approach students at random and ask them about their belief in God and purpose in life:

Tom, 20: “I’m an agnostic. I don’t disbelieve the possibility of God, but I don’t really see any overwhelming evidence that there is. My purpose in life is just to enjoy it as much as possible.”

David, 19: “I believe God is inside of you. My purpose in life? I haven’t gotten to that point yet.”

I ask Tracy, 20, if she believes in God: “Oh, [deleted], yeah, but I don’t want to stand here and explain it.”

Nick, 18: “Yeah, I believe in a god. I believe in Aristotle’s theory of a prime mover. Something almost scientific; there had to be something that started life. Ideals are a kind of god. I am not sure if I have a clear purpose right now. I have a different purpose at any given time in my life.”

Jud, 18: “Yes, I do believe in a god. As to his form or how he works, I don’t know. Sometimes I think that he is the reason for a lot of the good things we have, and other times I think that human accomplishment has done it. As far as my purpose, I don’t know. I’m still deciding.”

Callie, 21: “I don’t believe in God in the conventional sense; but if there is a god, it’s life and what keeps human beings and animals going. I think everybody creates their own purpose.”

I find one universalist, Eric, 21, who tells me: “I personally believe that everybody was saved when Jesus Christ died on the cross.”

Surprisingly, I find a number of Christians as well, but many have difficulty explaining their faith while others seem embarrassed to talk about Jesus in front of their non-Christian classmates. These hidden Christians show the need for campus ministry that will remind them of their faith.

Spiritual ambiguity is epidemic. Dan Dameron, 24, Chi Alpha intern, says, “I don’t believe I have ever met a real atheist.” Most have vague spiritual ideas, often with a New Age flavor. This vagueness provides an opening for ministry.

I walk across campus with Ron Jacobson. Ron points out a dormitory to which the police are frequently called, then one where a suicide took place last year. Ron was asked to hold sessions on coping for the residents. He has held dorm talks on other subjects such as relationships, dating, stress and life’s meaning.

UCF maintains a variety of ministries — Bible studies, discipleship groups, special programs, socials — with a goal to involve Christians and reach unbelievers.

Lisa Bauer co-leads one of UCF’s several small groups. “There are weekly groups for men and for women,” she explains. “It’s a more intimate level to get to know each other and spend time focusing on issues like prayer.”

Paula Anderson, 29, is the staff member in charge of women’s ministry. She is also involved in friendship ministry to some of the 1,800 international students on campus. “We have students coming from nations where it is difficult to have missionaries, and the door is open for us to minister and share the gospel with them. That’s incredible.” One student became a Christian, returned to his closed country, and currently occupies a significant place of leadership.

The first Friday night UCF meeting of the school year draws about 50 attendees for 90 minutes of interaction, praise and Bible study. Some students are returning while others, searching, are here for the first time.

Casey Clevenger, introduced to the group by her Seattle pastor, says, “I love this group. It’s a huge campus and I came in not knowing anybody. I have a place here.”

Jae Choi, a 20-year-old junior, feels that UCF fills a vacuum and keeps students from getting “sucked in.”

That seems true for Matthew Owen, 22, who had problems “fitting in” when he first came. “I couldn’t be a Christian by myself,” he found. “I had to be a Christian among Christians.” He has become a whole-hearted participant and fervent witness.

Some become interested in broader ministry, like Amy Po, 20, the praise team violinist, who hopes to be a campus pastor and perhaps someday minister in China.

Following the meeting, I walk back among the frats. Warring music jars my ears — heavy rock on one side of the street, loud profanity-laced rap on the other — a world apart from the praise music I had just left. But it is the profane music, the profane lifestyle that is the norm. With only 1,500 of the 35,000 students involved in any Christian group on campus, the challenge is enormous. These leaders of the future must be reached.

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Ken Horn is managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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