Thursday, September 25, 2014

Forecast from the Plaza Prayer Station: Overcast with a Request for Prayer

Yesterday it rained.  And rained.  And rained and rained and rained.  I prayed that today would be clear for my time at the Plaza Prayer Station.  I haven't yet figured out the rain plan.  Today dawned overcast, but no rain.  (Thanks, God!)  A little chilly, but not cold.  No need to find a shady spot in the Plaza today.  When I arrived, the Multicultural Student Association had set up a Spanish Fiesta in the corner that I have come to think of as "my spot."  Spanish food and beverages called out invitingly from tables.  I didn't want to intrude on the event, so I found a different spot, still in view of the chapel.  Apparently there was supposed to be dancing at the Spanish Fiesta, but the speaker system wasn't working, so no salsa today.  I would have enjoyed watching that.  Several of the MSA students came over to see what I was doing and expressed their appreciation. 

Each time I go, it's a little different.  I told myself, "Be open."  Open to a new location.  Open to a new experience.  Open to whatever God brings on a given day.  Today one of my skateboard "dudes" dropped by for a couple of minutes, but for the most part the station functioned the way I had originally imagined it, with students and even staff stopping by for a prayer.  Prayers were requested for injuries, for sick relatives, for clarity and growth. I broke out my oil stock for a wounded eye.  I lost count, but I would guess I had at least 10 prayer requests in about an hour and a half.  A few stopped in to ask what it was all about, and one person called out in passing that I could pray for everyone to be okay.

One of my favorite moments was when I returned to the station after a bathroom break and discovered a student taking a picture of the "How may I pray for you?" sign with his phone.  He told me he was really glad that someone was doing this.  Several people walked by and said "Thank you," and many more smiled.  After I said a prayer for one person, she asked me how she could pray for me.  A gift!

I find that I am at peace in this ministry, though I could still use a little more confidence in my ability to pray extemporaneously.  Each Thursday I want to get there earlier and stay later.  I think I would enjoy being out there all day if I didn't have other responsibilities to attend to as well.  And if the rain held off.  I'm guessing I need to come up with the rain/cold location next.  I had thought it would be the coffee shop, but it's so crowded and loud.  It's tough to find an inside spot that is both visible and yet private and quiet enough for a conversation or a moment of prayer. 

Today is the first day I've had people read the sign, stop, turn around, and come up to me to ask for a prayer.  It seems to be filling a need, and for that I am grateful.  It makes me wonder where else we could set up prayer stations or "praying posts" if you will.  Again - not in order to find members or create pledging units, but to carry a ministry of presence into the world and meet people where they are.  The students are so grateful for the prayers.  Who else might be longing for them as well?
View of Trible Library from my chair

Friday, September 19, 2014

View from the Plaza Prayer Station: Never Underestimate God

I had such low expectations for this ministry.  My whole goal was to be brave enough to set up a sign and sit next to it.  I had figured it would take a long time for students to get used to me being there.  Never underestimate God. 

Week 1:  I show up with sign and chair and nervously sit and pray.
Week 2:  One of "my" students comes by to say hello and then a handful of "new" students come over to check out the prayer station and stand around chatting with me.
Week 3:  "Repeat customers" come over as soon as I arrive and plop down next to me on chair and bench, sharing concerns about their lives, asking about my faith tradition and why I started this ministry, conversing about the Enneagram and labyrinths, and sharing pictures of their projects for art class.  I extend the time I'm there to accommodate the traffic and to give myself time to pray once the Plaza clears out for class.

In three weeks this ministry went from no visitors at all to a constant stream of students hanging out, coming and going, checking in and introducing me to friends.  New lesson this week:  eat lunch before I come because once I sit down, there's no time for food.  And:  Never underestimate God.

I have been praying for a way to reach more students.  Fliers, campus email and tv announcements, Facebook, texts, and banners have failed to reach more than a handful of students.  Or our message hasn't been compelling enough to stand out from the plethora of campus activities.  And so, in the interest of ministering to a campus instead of just trying to grow a group, I wanted to figure out what a small Episcopal campus ministry could offer this school.  Many of the students already participate in campus ministries like InterVarsity, Campus Crusade (CRU), RUF, or Young Life, and many more participate in the astounding variety of Bible studies provided on campus.  We began offering a weekday Eucharist last semester, but that's still hidden away in the chapel (even with all the aforementioned advertising.)  It feeds a few, and that's wonderful, but I thought we could do more.  How, though, to become visible?  (Especially if we are shy and introverted!)

Last year I tried bringing Micah the black lab puppy.  Lots of students came up to pet him - he was a big hit.  But conversations ranged from "May I pet your dog?" to "Thanks for letting me pet your dog," to questions about Micah's age and known tricks.  And, we couldn't go inside.  I interacted with students, and I understand that some chaplains are able to transform the interest in the dog into deeper conversation.  I am not so gifted.     

This prayer station ministry, though, seems to be working.  Not to grow a group.  To minister to the campus.  The students I talk to are leading their own Bible studies as part of another campus ministry.  And yet they are drawn to the presence of a person praying for them, someone who doesn't judge or grade them, someone who isn't there to enforce rules, someone with a little more life experience, someone who has time to listen.  And maybe that's the most important thing - being visibly available to listen.  One person told me that after she had met me last week, she came through the next day and looked over to "my" corner of the Plaza and felt sad that no one was there.  Another person said she had seen the station on the way to her chemistry test and it made her smile.  Many of the ones who spoke to me yesterday said they'd see me next week.  They wanted to know what day and what hours I would be there.  

Maybe next week I'll take a prayer book.  Maybe we'll spontaneously start doing noon-day prayer together.  Maybe I'll bring the portable labyrinth from SpiritWorks.  Maybe I'll have another week where no one comes.  But they will see me, sitting there, available if they need me, ready to listen.  There's no telling what might happen.  We need to stay open for surprises - there's no telling what God might do next. 

Plaza Prayer Station
View of Great Lawn behind the Prayer Station

Monday, September 15, 2014

View from the Plaza Prayer Station: Do Not Assume

The second day of the CNU prayer ministry dawned hot and very humid.  I had decided to arrive a little earlier than the week before in order to be present for the peak of lunch - the most crowded time in the Plaza. 

As I settled in, I realized that I was looking right at the chapel.  A good focus for me as I prayed. When I had stopped by St. Stephen's on my way in, I learned that the Bible study group had been praying for me.  I had asked the congregation to pray for this new ministry the Sunday before, so I was delightfully surprised when I learned that they actually were.  My rector also offered me a rosary to take - another good focus for prayer.  This time I was more ready.  I put my phone away after taking a picture of the chapel, and made an agreement with myself that I wouldn't check it until the end of the hour. I knew several people were praying for me, and I wanted to do my part - praying for the campus until someone came up to ask for prayer.

Right in front of me a group of students was hanging out, having a wonderful time.  Two guys with skateboards seemed to know everyone who passed through the Plaza.  If we'd been in another setting, I might have described the two as surfer dudes.  I was a little nervous sitting so close, afraid that they would find the woman in the black shirt and white collar "uncool."  I assumed that they weren't the praying types and was scared they might even make fun of me.  But I couldn't help smiling because they looked like they were having such a great time. 

Though this wasn't a surprise for me, I rediscovered how easily distracted I am when I'm trying to pray, especially when I'm also trying to maintain an open and friendly disposition so as to encourage students to stop in for a prayer.  The rosary helped.  I prayed for all the students in Canterbury by name and all the other students I know as well.  I prayed for the campus, for those who are lonely or struggling or taking tests, for those who are struggling with addiction or any other trouble.  I prayed for faculty and staff.  I prayed for Sewanee and Seabury and the other campus ministries of our diocese and their chaplains and other clergy I know and anyone else who came to mind. 

And then a student I know came up to say hello.  The first person to break the invisible barrier that seemed to be preventing people from stopping to talk.  Plenty of people were passing by and reading the sign, and some even smiled, but until the one student stopped in, no one had spoken.  We talked for a minute and I offered a prayer.  It wasn't long before one of the skateboard dudes came over to talk.  "Here it comes," I thought.  I put on my most welcoming, trying-to-be-cool-while-sweating-in-a-clergy-shirt-and-please-don't-say-anything-mean-to-me smile.  "I think what you're doing is cool," he said. 

Lesson # 1 - Do not assume that surfer looking dudes don't pray. 

The guy and a couple of his friends talked to me for about 20 minutes or so.  They asked what I was praying for, told me about the Bible studies they lead, talked about an interest in "liturgical" prayer, and chatted about things that interested them.

Lesson # 2 - Do not assume that members of a differing campus ministry will think poorly of the prayer ministry I'm offering.

The consensus among this group of students was that visible prayer ministry was a good thing. One student came up after the others had left and chatted for awhile and then gratefully received the prayer I offered. 

Lesson # 3 - Just don't assume anything.  Stay open to each moment and what it will bring.

Ministry of presence is hard for me.  I feel like I need to be "doing" something and that there needs to be some way to measure it.  What matters, though, is the showing up and the "being" there.  I imagine it will be different each day that I go, and that I will continue to be surprised.  I look forward to what new lessons time at the Plaza Prayer Station will bring.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

How May I Pray for You?

Sometime last spring I read a blog post by Jonathan Melton, campus minister at University of Wisconsin-Madison.  In the post Jonathan talked about starting what I call a "chapel steps" ministry in which he put out a couple of chairs next to a sign that said, "How may I pray for you?"  Although I didn't remember all the details, that blog post lodged itself in my brain, and from time to time I would think about it and ask myself whether I wanted to start such a ministry at CNU.  What he did sounded so brave to this shy introvert.  But it also sounded like a way to have an actual praying ministry on campus, and that appealed to me.

I ran the idea of the prayer ministry past my students, and they said, "If you're willing to do it, we think it's great."  That was the real question - was I willing to do it?  In my head where I'm courageous and filled with great ideas, I was absolutely willing to do it.  But then fear and worry took over when I tried to picture how I was actually going to do it.  So I found Jonathan's blog post and reread it.

Jonathan's question was "How shall I sit?"  My question was, "How do I make the sign?"  When I'm  nervous, I can get stuck on details like that, and then I have a very convenient excuse for not getting around to the actual ministry.  What kind of sign should I get?  What should I put on the sign?  Where should the sign go?  I figured it might take at least another year to figure out the whole sign thing.  So I decided to cut myself off at the pass, and I emailed Jonathan to ask him about his sign.  He very graciously shared where he had gotten his sign as well as sharing some of what he had learned from his prayer ministry with me.  I had no more excuses.  So I ordered a sign and some brightly colored chalk markers. 

On the day I had decided to start the prayer ministry, I walked onto campus and immediately got cold feet despite the almost 90 degree temperature.  I had decided to sit from 1-2 in the Plaza between the student union and the library.  Though I wanted to sit on the chapel steps, not much foot traffic goes by there, so I wanted to be where the students are.  I thought I would scope out my location before dragging the beautiful but way-too-heavy sign to the Plaza.  As soon as I got there and saw all the students milling about for a "Meet the Greeks" event, fear took over.  "I can't do this, I can't do this, I can't do this."  I told myself it was okay to have a day to scout things out and that I could start the actual ministry the following week.  And then I remembered that the night before I had asked a friend to pray for me and she had said she would set an alarm.  She was praying.  How could I go back and tell her that I hadn't even tried?  So I said my own prayer for strength and courage, and I went to my car to get the sign and the chairs and some water.  A student saw me struggling with the sign and came over to help me carry it.  I thanked him and, after picking a spot in the shade but off to the side, I sat down by the sign to begin my hour of prayer.

On that first day, no one came up for prayer or even spoke, though a few people smiled on their way past.  It didn't matter to me, though.  I prayed for the campus and the students in the Canterbury Club.  At the end of the hour I packed up.  It had been a success.  Not because students had come up asking for prayer - I really hadn't expected that would happen on the first day.  Not because I had helped the Canterbury Club grow in membership.  Not because I had been especially focused in the time of prayer.  No, it was a success because I showed up.  Someone prayed for me, and that helped me to pray for others.  It was really very simple.  Didn't require a lot of courage at all.  By showing up that first time, I knew I would be able to continue the ministry on another day, and hopefully over time it would involve more and more people praying and receiving prayer. 

So, if you're reading this, I invite you to pray for the CNU Episcopal Campus Ministry prayer station.  And be sure to let us know how we may pray for you.