College life (Christian) in the city

College life (Christian) in the city February 27, 2008

Any list of great cities in the ancient Mediterranean World would have to include Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Corinth, or some other crucial crossroads near what would become Constantinople.

Thus, these cities became the five patriarchal sees of Christianity in the first millennium.

“From day one, there was a commitment to the dominant cities and regions of that time,” said J. Stanley Oakes, chancellor of The King’s College in New York City. “That’s where the early church flourished. That’s where the early church did its work. … People who care about nations and culture and economics have to care about what happens in great cities.”

Yet any study of American Protestantism in the early 21st Century would focus on Colorado Springs, Colo., Grand Rapids, Mich., Wheaton, Ill., Orlando, Fla., and, perhaps, Dallas. It would not include New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Washington, D.C., or the other great cities that shape this culture.

Oakes thinks that’s tragic, which is why he has dedicated a decade — backed by Campus Crusade For Christ’s vast network — to building an evangelical college in the Empire State Building. The leaders of The King’s College are convinced that if their students can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

The college is based in a 45,000-square-foot “campus,” with offices on the 15th floor and classrooms, a small library, a workout room, student lounge and other basic facilities on two floors underground. There are only 220 students, but administrators expect 130 freshmen next fall, said Dean of Students Eric Bennett.

This is not a normal Christian college setting and everyone knows it.

Quartets of students live in one-bedroom apartments in two high-rise buildings nearby on Sixth Avenue. Student life activities revolves around flexible activities in nine academic houses named after leaders selected by earlier students — Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Winston Churchill, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony.

It’s hard to explain a college’s mission to outsiders who consider its core values a kind of heresy against the status quo. As a Village Voice profile put it: “King’s students adjust well to the style and pace of midtown, though their relationship with the city is never quite clear: Are they here to contribute to New York? Or save it?”

A recent Washington Post style feature contrasted an after-hours student chat group about the writings of Protestant hero John Calvin with what it called a more typical Saturday-night student scene in mid-town Manhattan, which would offer “mind-altering substances, which segue to deafening music, which ultimately leads to nudity.”

Continuing with its “Sex in the City” theme, the story added, “Dating is permitted,” but that “there are no rules against sex, but it’s quietly discouraged.”

Actually, Bennett said students pledge to follow an honor code backed by a handbook full of traditional doctrine. The sexuality statement, for example, says the college “promotes a lifestyle … that precludes premarital and extramarital intercourse, homosexual practice and other forms of sexual behavior incompatible with biblical admonitions.”

But the city is what it is. Thus, these fresh-faced Christians from 37 states and 11 countries are going to run into some New Yorkers who want to hook up, sell drugs, flash tattoos or worse. Bennett said that no one flinches when students sit in bars all hours of the night, studying for tests. No one wants to build a cloister.

“We’re not out to police our students,” he said. “You could try to live in a bubble here, too. But that’s not what we’re trying to do. That’s what we’re fighting against.”

It would be easy to say that The King’s College is about evangelism, said Oakes. It would be easy to explain that it hopes to help churches serve the poor and engage in other social ministries. That work is essential, but the goal is to build a college, not a church. And the long-range plan is to live and grow in New York City, as strange as that may sound.

“We love it when people mock us,” said Oakes. “But we honestly believe that, if we keep doing what we do here, in about two decades people are going to be saying, ‘Even though we don’t agree with them, those King’s people are interesting.’ We want to make it hard for people to avoid us.”

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