For most students, college means a new beginning: new friends, new food, new mentors, and a new address. For most students, that new address is located somewhere in an urban area, large or small. Cities grow up around colleges as much as colleges crop up in cities. The interplay between the centre of learning and centres of culture adds value to both the residents of the city and the community at the university. Even students who live at home will find themselves spending concentrated time in a particular geographic area during college.
Christians know that nothing in life is an accident—that God carefully places his people where He needs them at specific times to bless the world. The Bible is full of stories of God's people who are transplanted into new, foreign lands and positions of privilege. Joseph was moved because of betrayal to Egypt where he saved the land from famine and richly blessed the surrounding nations with food. Daniel was exiled to Babylon in captivity and lived the rest of his life there, advising rulers and helping the city to be a centre of renaissance and discovery. Esther was sent into the palace of the King of Persia to save her people from destruction. And Jesus left the glory of Heaven to redeem creation.
"Yes," you say, "but these people were special: officials, royalty, and the all-powerful Son of God. I'm just an eighteen-year-old in a strange place." Remember that Daniel and his friends were likely about seventeen years old when they commanded the king's attention with their intellectual prowess and devotion to their God. But also remember that going to college is a privilege that most people in the world do not enjoy. Joining the "educated class" immediately puts you in a place of power in relation to many other people.
What will you do with the opportunity before you? You could choose to cloister yourself on campus and only venture out for "Wal-Mart runs," or you could spend time investing in relationships in the city where you are living. You may not intend to stay forever, but as a follower of Christ, you know that God needs you there for a reason.
John Donne said, "No man is an island, entire of itself," but this wisdom hasn't reached many colleges. It's increasingly common for campuses to be an all-in-one service facility, providing food, housing, recreation facilities, concert halls, movie theaters, art galleries, clothing stores, and more, eliminating the need for students to participate in the wider community.
My university alma mater in Troy, a small city in upstate New York, had a rather more balanced view about this. Despite its being ranked second on the 2007 Princeton Review's "more to do on campus" list, the school continually invests in the city. In one instance, the school partnered with the student Habitat for Humanity chapter to build housing for low-income, but deserving, city residents. Students at the colleges in Troy often volunteer at a local soup kitchen, and investment in the community is encouraged and recognized by the administration.
"Isolation syndrome" is a funny thing. I attended college near where I'd grown up, and I lived with my parents to save money. Despite having a car and every opportunity to get out and into the community, I can truly say that my experience was insular. Even now, I could barely give you directions to get around Troy, even though its downtown core houses a developing community full of the things I love: art, architecture, philosophy, and good coffee. Although I had opportunities to serve, I remained on my campus.
In contrast, my husband transferred to a college in Boston for his last two years of film school. We recently vacationed there, and I had the opportunity to meet his Boston friends from other schools or from church. I also observed how familiar he was with the city. We rarely needed a map to get around. Even though he didn't see everything in Boston during his time there, he always had a story about the dinner he had with one friend at this restaurant, or the show he saw with another friend. Clearly, he had invested in the city and its people.
How can a student reach out to the city? I'd like to offer a few ideas.
1. Worship where you live
In another Comment article, "Recovering the lost logic of church," John Seel elaborated on the need for church in the life of the Christian, particularly the Christian student. I emphatically underscore that.
After graduation, I moved to New York City where I didn't know anyone. But Redeemer Presbyterian Church has a great classified ads resource which many Christians in the city use to locate housing and roommates. I ended up living in Greenwich Village with a roommate who invited me to the Village Church, a church "planted" by Redeemer Presbyterian Church eleven years ago. Since I lived nearby, and because the church sounded like what I wanted (strong theology, small congregation, and an artistic focus), I began attending.
In the church and the small group I joined, I met and made many talented, intelligent friends who care deeply about the issues I am concerned with, who love the city as much as I do, and who are committed to staying here for as long as God leads. I even met my husband there. My view of my city has been expanded with fellowship with other "transplants" from around the world.
I've often remarked that I don't know how people make friends without attending church. For a college student, church provides an avenue for fellowship with those in different stages of life. Seek out churches with a community focus, and with opportunities to serve, instead of focusing on what the church can do for you. In serving, you grow.
A note for those who attend churches with college students: befriend them! You have the advantage of being on "home turf." Many students feel they are just passing through, and they are hesitant to reach out. My husband was invited to lunch with families from his church in Boston after the first week there, and they are still friends to this day. It needn't be fancy—college students love good, home-cooked lasagna and some ice cream. Seek out the college students, make them feel welcome, and then invest in their lives.
Also, remember that students rarely have cars, and consider helping with their transportation needs in getting themselves to church. Although I didn't even live in Troy, my father invested in my own campus by driving the church's fifteen-passenger van to campus every week, picking up whoever wanted to attend church that Sunday, and then taking them back after the service. He continued to drive the students after I graduated, cultivating relationships and offering guidance when it was requested. When he passed away last year, many travelled back to attend the funeral because of the impact he made on their lives.
2. Pick a spot
It's one of my long-standing goals to become a regular at a café or pub somewhere in New York City. We're still working to achieve that status in Brooklyn, but the staff at a coffee shop we frequent in the West Village have started to recognize us when we come in. Besides the obvious benefits to being a regular customer (free refills, anyone?), giving patronage to the same place increases the chance of getting to know the waitress, bartender, or barista in a way that stretches beyond cursory conversation—a practice that has diminished in our transient postmodern world. But what student doesn't need a cup of coffee or tea to keep the brain awake?
Consider investing in the people who work in places you frequent. Just spend some time with the waiters at any restaurant serving Sunday lunch and you'll hear horror stories about "the picky church people" who ask for impossible things, complain unfairly about the food, disturb other patrons with their noise, and then leave a lousy tip. As a Christian who treats waiters with compassion and integrity, you're in a position to counteract the negative impressions others have made. Although you may be the only bright spot in their day, you may also find that waiters are open to conversation after you show them courtesy and interest.
3. Serving the town
In most cities (and I'd venture to say, in every city) there's a group of people that needs help. They're easy to identify in New York City or Boston or even Troy: low-income or homeless people needing assistance. Even in a more affluent college town, with some digging you may discover that the "Big Brother," "Big Sister," or "Meals on Wheels" program needs volunteers. And every city needs a clean-up crew for the public cemetery or the local playground.
Volunteering and investing in the community will cultivate interesting connections. You may meet people from other churches and faiths, students from other colleges, and people who are lonely and want to invest. You may find yourself at a nursing home or delivering meals to elderly people who have lived in your city their whole lives and have seen people, places, buildings, and movements come and go. Even if you never build a lasting friendship from your work, you can still know that you've obeyed Jesus command to serve "the least of these," whether or not there's anything in it for you.
A sense of home
No matter where you are, you can reach out and invest in the city, as an ambassador who shows Christ's love where He places you. Only then will you begin to understand God's purpose for you in this place, at this time, in the community of this city.