Most private schools in the south are Christian or at least started out Christian. Tulane is different. Though Paul Tulane, the founding benefactor, was Presbyterian, Tulane from the beginning has always been a secular institution. It draws the vast majority of its students from outside Louisiana, largely from the northeast and midwest. Students seem to come to Tulane for two main reasons: because they want to change the world or because they want to party. It is a work hard, play hard environment where everyone is always incredibly busy. Many of the students double and triple-major, taking 18 or even 21 credits a semester. And it was within this fast-paced, high-pressure environment that God said make me a monastery as I was walking the sidewalks with my prayer beads in August of 2014.
Promoting any kind of spirituality on a radically secular college campus is like tossing mustard seeds onto an asphalt sidewalk and praying that somehow they’ll find a way to burrow through the cracks. So many things I’ve tried have failed. I’ve learned there’s a gap between what students think is a cool idea and what they will actually participate in. For instance, meditation. It’s the most uncontroversial spiritual activity in the history of the world. How could anyone have a problem with it? Everyone gets that it’s something you should do for spiritual self-care, etc. The student wellness center offers classes on mindfulness. But when I’ve actually organized times for students to come together and meditate, very few have shown up. This fall nobody did.
I complained about this to my spiritual director. I couldn’t understand how students would balk at something so easy and non-threatening. She said, “What do you mean meditation is non-threatening? Sitting by yourself in quiet without distraction is terrifying.” And I said oh you’re right. It’s true. I actually don’t even know how to meditate even though I imagine myself to be some kind of mystic. I have a terrible case of what the mindfulness crowd calls “monkey brain.” It’s impossible not to start planning the future or replaying the past when I close my eyes and sit in silence. I do better with music. Sometimes I can attain a measure of emptiness when I’m playing Taize songs.
So I don’t really have any special knowledge when it comes to mystical practices. The only thing I have is the strange wonder of having encountered the living God in very palpable ways, mostly by accident. This summer, I tasted the kingdom when I was sitting on a bench in New York City at dusk. There is no way to do justice to the glory that I witnessed. It was like being inside a Monet painting. The street lamps, the cars, and the leaves were bursting with radiance. I’ve had about half a dozen moments like that in my life. That strange and wonderful presence is what I want my students to discover. And I still have no idea how to make the monastery that God told me to make, though we did have 45 students come to our breakfast for dinner study break last night.But today God did something really special. I decided that this year during final exam season, I would get up super early and go to the walkway where students pass on their way to their exams. I printed out a sign to hang around my neck saying “Free prayer and blessings for your exams.” I wore a clergy collar and took my anointing oil. And even though Tulane is a radically secular campus where nobody prays, twenty students, most of whom were complete strangers, let me put oil in their foreheads today in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, promising that God would carry them through their exams.
After I was done, a young man walked over to me. He told me that he didn’t need any prayer, but he said, “I just want you to know that it’s really important what you’re doing. I’ve had all these stereotypes about Christianity in my head, but you’re contradicting them. Thank you for doing that.” The Holy Spirit spoke to me in that moment. He reminded me that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the tiniest seed there is, and God is constantly sowing. Tiny plants are constantly popping up everywhere. Something is moving in that young man’s life, and I got to be a tiny part of how God is reaching into his heart.
Then another thing happened. A sophomore college student donated $50 to our campus ministry. I was completely astonished because I never would have given $50 to anything when I was in college even if I had the money. So when I saw her today, I thanked her, and she told me that she and her boyfriend had decided not to give each other presents for Christmas but to give money to causes they wanted to support instead. I started crying during dinner tonight as I was thinking about it. Sometimes God uses me to sow his seeds; sometimes he uses others to sow his seeds in me. For most of the past two weeks, I’ve been in a state of despair about the impossible fundraising task I’m facing right now. Nothing has become any less impossible. But I’ve been conquered by gratitude like a strange joy weed that embedded itself in my heart through the incredible generosity of this young woman. The seeds never stop being sown.
If you want in on the joy of sowing mustard seeds at the most secular college campus in the South, we would welcome your support. We have a GoFundMe campaign for one-time donations. We need $10,000 by the end of the year and we’ve gotten $2660 so far. If you’re willing to help us become more sustainable in the long-term, we invite you to consider becoming a monthly patron. Thanks for all of your support! We’ve got a long way to go but somehow God has convinced me that we’re gonna make it.