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In search of its soul

By Kirk Noonan

Near midnight on Friday, the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, in historic Georgetown, is jammed. Music pulsates from cars loaded with young people. On the sidewalk, long lines stretch from the doors of the hippest clubs past upscale shops and boutiques. The only draw, at this time of night, is the restaurants and bars — everything else is closed. For many, including hundreds of Georgetown University students, the night is just beginning. Drunk, a young man stumbles out of a tavern and shouts excitedly to no one in particular, “This place is alive,” as he pumps his fists.

The next morning, a few blocks away at Georgetown University it is breezy and serene. Tapering spires and crosses top many of the campus chapels and buildings declaring the university’s Catholic and Jesuit heritages. In almost every classroom building, crucifixes and crosses hang. But religious imagery alone has not filled the souls of this university’s students. Many are searching.

On Sunday morning, aisles of Gen-Xers and college students fill a movie theater at Union Station in downtown Washington D.C., where National Community Church (Assemblies of God) holds its services. Pastor Mark Batterson says area college students, many from Chi Alpha, make up more than 30 percent of his congregation.

“I can’t imagine a better partnership (Chi Alpha and the church),” says Batterson. “To support Chi Alpha we try to do things that will be a blessing to the students.”

On this Sunday, students are served pizza and drinks after the morning service. As the students mingle, Batterson says they give back to the church through leading worship, ushering and serving in the nursery.

“The students bring a lifeblood to our church,” he says. “Churches need to have college students involved.”

‘A lot of people are interested in spiritual things. But many suppress it.’

On campus later that day, student clubs and associations have set up tables marketing their beliefs and causes in search of new members and support. Like seasoned pitchmen, the representatives of these groups try to convince and recruit prospective members with pamphlets and premiums.

At the Muslim Student Association table a student describes the spiritual climate as he sees it. “Georgetown is a place that really tries to be an interfaith environment,” he says. “There is a definite awareness of God among most of the students, but it’s up to groups like ours to light that fire.”

“The amount of spirituality varies from group to group,” says Bobby Delonis, a senior government and psychology double major, surveying the rows of tables. “But, there is more of an outward expression of spirituality here at Georgetown than at other places. Some people are very outspoken about it.”

One student tells me he came to Georgetown an atheist; but after meeting some Christian friends, he surrendered his life to Christ and was baptized in water.

“The way that I felt when I got saved was that there was a God that loved me,” he says. “I felt very spiritual and in love with God.”

But, when he traveled in Europe for several months as part of his studies at Georgetown, he read philosophy books that changed his way of thinking and eventually his heart. Separated from those who were discipling him, he denounced his faith and now claims to be an atheist or deist; he hasn’t decided which. “I think a majority of the people here at Georgetown are searching,” he says, “but as far as I’m concerned my search is over.”

Jayme Freitas, a first-year MBA student, says, “Georgetown is an absolutely secular crowd. But, the students are willing to talk about spirituality.”

“A lot of people are interested in spiritual things,” says Roland, an international student. “But many suppress it — I don’t know if it is because of peer pressure, but it seems that a lot of them are scared to step across that line.”

Harvey Herman, field representative of Atlantic Coast for Chi Alpha, says ministering on a private university like Georgetown is difficult. He explains that Georgetown, along with hundreds of other universities in the Northeast, represents some of the most academically elite, but least evangelized, institutions in the nation.

“It’s a difficult place to do ministry,” says Herman. “But, Chi Alpha is committed to planting a hub of strength here in D.C. for the entire Atlantic Coast. Our goal is to develop a method of ministry that works on campuses located in urban centers. The key to growth in Chi Alpha is leadership development.”

David Owens, D.C. Chi Alpha director, visits with a
student during a student activities fair.

Jacki Pack is one of those going through the leadership-training program with Chi Alpha. She has been at Georgetown for two years. Last year, as coordinator of American Friends, a program the university asked Chi Alpha to take over, she helped place 120 international students with Christian families. The families are recruited to befriend the students and help make their transition into American life smoother.

“We wanted to unconditionally serve and befriend the university and the international students,” says Pack. “Because of our willingness to take on American Friends, the university has seen that Chi Alpha was and is willing to go the extra mile.”

According to David Owens, D.C. director of Chi Alpha, there is a growing spiritual hunger among Georgetown students. As Chi Alpha adds staff, Owens believes, the students are being drawn out of the “woodwork.” Two years ago, he says, during the first week of school only 30 to 40 students came to all of the evangelical meetings combined. This year there were nearly 250.

“In the past two years there has been a sovereign move of God here at Georgetown,” he says. “There are going to be even more by the end of this year.”

Jeremy Cook, campus staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, says the founder of Georgetown, John Carroll, S.J., had a vision for the university that it would be a mechanism for conversion.

“Carroll thought it was a place where people could come and find God,” says Cook. “Obviously it has lost a lot of that since then, but that’s something we remind people of and are working toward.”

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Kirk Noonan is staff writer for the Pentecostal Evangel.


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