Every Wednesday morning, I try to convince hundreds of power-walking Tulane students to accept a free donut hole. I figured donut holes were the perfect giveaway item because they’re bite-sized and not too major a commitment. At the beginning of the year, I got five dozen doughnut holes per week, but I reduced my order to four dozen recently after a couple outings when I couldn’t get rid of all of them. The most common phrase I hear from students is “Thank you, I’m good.” This phrase seems to capture something about how millennials present themselves to the world or perhaps just how they respond when thirty-seven year old bald men wearing clergy collars with rainbow buttons on their shirts try to offer them free sweets, claiming that there are “no strings attached.”
I get it. They can see right through my little ploy. Nothing in this world is free. If they take a donut hole, it means they have to come to my church or at least hear my thirty-second spiel about why they should accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior. Except that I don’t play that way. Sure, there’s a marketing aspect to what I’m doing. I have a big campus ministry banner in front of my table. I want people to associate the NOLA Wesley brand with kindness and generosity. Whenever we have upcoming events or service projects, I bring signup clipboards or fliers. But each time someone asks, “What’s the catch?” I always respond, “The donut holes are absolutely free, period. If you’d like to come make a meal for the homeless, build a Habitat house, etc, the signup clipboard is right here, but it isn’t tit for tat.”
Some of the students mindlessly write their name and email on the clipboard as a reflex so I always say that I’ll email them later since I know they can’t make commitments like that on the fly. I would say that maybe 10% of the people who sign up on the clipboard actually come out to volunteer for events, which isn’t a terrible rate of return. At first, I didn’t include signup clipboards as part of what I was doing. But I found that having service opportunities available as part of my table helped me to “make sense” a little more to the students walking by. Oh, he’s just recruiting volunteers for a service project; he’s not going to try to pray Jesus into my heart if I get too close.
But what if I actually want the free donut holes to be an entirely gratuitous act of love? What if my actual agenda is injecting gratuitousness into a capitalist world where nothing is free? I don’t want to manipulate people into coming to church. Actually I want to purge that salesman mindset from my brain altogether. Part of giving away free donut holes is for the sake of my own discipleship. Jesus is using it to make me someone who’s willing to love without expecting anything in return the same way that he loves me. The grace that is foundational to my faith demands that I live my life as a rebellion against a world that only believes in transactions. If all that I’m doing is just a bait and switch church recruitment strategy, then I’m just another corporate marketer who wants customers for the sake of my company’s growth.
The problem is that gratuitousness doesn’t make sense in our capitalist culture. If I were selling the donut holes as a fundraiser for underprivileged children somewhere, I would probably get rid of them faster. Giving away free donut holes makes about as much sense in our culture as sitting down with students to talk to them about their struggles without having the professional credentials to do so and without charging their insurance companies $200 for 50 minutes.
I actually do sit down with about 6-10 students a week to offer amateur active listening and companionship. What we talk about varies widely. With some of them, it doesn’t go much deeper than chitchat. With others who trust me enough, we cover some pretty heavy stuff. If they’re into Jesus, we talk about Jesus. If they’re not into Jesus, I adapt how I talk to meet them where they are in their particular spiritual journey. I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I try to make that clear when there’s an issue that needs to be addressed by someone with more training. But I’ve seen God work through those relationships and bring healing.Being a pastor means being a lifelong amateur in a capitalist society where everything is clinicized, professionalized, institutionalized, and monetized. In the eyes of the market, my amateur vocation of spiritual shepherding and nurture is obsolete. What I have to offer has been replaced by professional yoga instructors, psychotherapists, life coaches, and TED talks. But it’s getting expensive. At Tulane, all the extra student services that are now expected to be part of the product of the college experience have driven the tuition up to $63,000 a year. And they aren’t enough. On this campus, where everyone says, “Thank you, I’m good,” we’ve had five suicides this school year so far. The demand for our mental health services has skyrocketed so that staff are severely overextended.
A recent yahoo.com article titled “Tulane’s mental health meltdown” described the crisis that Tulane is facing. Students are limited to 12 counseling sessions during their time in college with the free on-campus counseling center, after which they have to seek paid counseling elsewhere. Otherwise, the demand would be impossible to meet under current staffing. When students have to medically withdraw from school for psychological reasons, they are required to find off-site psychological resources as a condition for their return. One student related being unable to find a psychiatrist in New Orleans who would accept her insurance.
I can totally sympathize with students who feel like they’ve paid a fortune to come to Tulane and are not getting the mental health services they need. I went through this struggle as a college student. I had a meltdown my junior year during exam week that put me in the hospital for a few days. UVA’s on-campus counseling had a similar policy which seemed pretty pointless since good counseling requires a long-term trust relationship, so I had to go off-site to find a therapist. The reason that I’m in campus ministry today is because of what I went through in college. I just haven’t figured out how to offer my amateur compassion in a way that doesn’t elicit a “Thank you, I’m good.”
Maybe I’m naive, but I think our campus’ mental health crisis calls for a cultural solution rather than a market solution. I’ve been reading Peter Block’s Community: the Structure of Belonging. He talks about the way that our society has replaced communities with systems that are “capable of service but not care.” Because we have been shaped to think of ourselves primarily as consumers, our instinct is to demand better service from the people in charge rather than reframing the conversation to consider how to better care for each other as a community. Our Tulane community needs to empower amateurs who cultivate spaces of belonging rather than solely thinking in terms of enhancing its system of professional service-providers. I’m not sure how to do this. Part of the onus is on the power walking students who say “Thank you, I’m good” to slow down and pursue their ambitions a little less tenaciously so they restructure their daily lives to allow space for vulnerable community building.
Though I know it’s a bad idea, sometimes I want to shout after the power walkers as they’re flying past: You don’t have to be good! Because you are infinitely loved by a good and perfect God who delights in you. And all he wants is for you to accept his grace and see your beauty and stop trying to prove yourself to an impossibly perfectionist world.
I wish I knew the perfect formula for creating communities of belonging and safety. That’s really what I believe to be the goal of the movement established by Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago. Everything we do — worship, Bible study, prayer, community service, social justice — has the purpose of establishing an authentic human family we call the body of Christ where everybody belongs and everybody contributes. There are powerful forces in our world that push in the opposite direction. I can’t do much for complete strangers who say, “Thank you, I’m good.” But this Wednesday, I’m going to ditch the donut holes and try homemade chocolate chip cookies instead. Maybe something different will happen.