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Laboring for the Harvest on Public University Campuses
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By Angelo Grasso

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages....But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” Matthew 9:35-38
 
When Jesus recognizes the need to inject a phrase with the adverb “Truly”, it is because he is saying something He knows we will find hard to believe. But praise God that when we only see a small frame, He sees the big picture!
 
As you observe the public campuses near your church, or in your community, do you see a plentiful harvest? On the campus of the University of Florida, where I minister, Sabbaths in the fall are full of worship. At the crack of dawn, thousands make their way to campus, pitch tents and canopies, set up grills and flat screen T.V.s next to pick up trucks and RVs and settle in for a day dedicated to Gators Football. By noon, 80,000 people pack a stadium that resides in a city of 150,000. They sing, they fellowship, they pray, they worship Gator Football. Secular universities are described as hotbeds of secularism and post-modernity, whose professors worship at the altar of academia. Headlines of binge drinking and wild frat parties on campuses across the country commonly appear on our newsfeed. Even the professed Christians seem to be consumed by a culture of decadence, self-promotion and cynicism. However, to accept this description of public universities not only as ubiquitous but as a reason to withhold our time and energy from them, not only discounts the vast and diverse ecosystem contained within each university campus, but is to disbelieve Jesus’ own words. Here we need a “Truly”.
 
When Jesus’ disciples looked at the world around them, they saw what Jesus saw, a people “weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd”. But what they saw as an inhibition, Jesus saw as an opportunity.
 
The Desire of Ages describes the human condition during the time of Christ in this way, “Sin had become a science, and vice was consecrated as a part of religion. Rebellion had struck its roots deep into the heart, and the hostility of man was most violent against heaven. It was demonstrated before the universe that, apart from God, humanity could not be uplifted.” (The Desire of Ages, Pg. 37)
Seems pretty dire doesn’t it? But what the disciples didn’t see, was that God was working out his perfect design in the midst of all this very real hostility against His kingdom. Here is the Desire of Ages again, “Providence had directed the movements of nations, and the tide of human impulse and influence, until the world was ripe for the coming of the Deliverer. The nations were united under one government. One language was widely spoken, and was everywhere recognized as the language of literature. From all lands the Jews of the dispersion gathered to Jerusalem to the annual feasts. As these returned to the places of their sojourn, they could spread throughout the world the tidings of the Messiah's coming.” (Ibid, Pg. 32)

This is what gets me so excited about public campus ministry! When Ellen White describes the factors that created a ripening of the harvest in Jesus’ time, I see them as present, even now, on our public university campuses. Do you see it? Universities are hubs, through which, the best young minds from all over the world pass, taking what they learn and returning to their homeland to exert leadership and direct culture.

Ok, so we have campuses strategically located around the world, designed for maximum impact and we have a common language, but what about the culture? What about the debauchery and godlessness of the unbelievers and the complacency of the so-called Christians? “At this time the systems of heathenism were losing their hold upon the people. Men were weary of pageant and fable. They longed for a religion that could satisfy the heart. While the light of truth seemed to have departed from among men, there were souls who were looking for light, and who were filled with perplexity and sorrow. They were thirsting for a knowledge of the living God, for some assurance of a life beyond the grave.” (Ibid, Pg. 32)

The reason I’m so excited about this generation of college students is that many within it are truly becoming weary of the dominant culture. They have access to nearly every facet of our world’s information, culture, and entertainment yet they are deeply dissatisfied. Big businesses, universities and world governments are concerned that this generation might just decide to do everything differently. They are pulling back the veil and realizing that the systems of power in this world are deeply flawed and failing. The harvest is truly ripening!
 
What we see here is that the problem is not with the harvest. It never is. Jesus himself called it The Lord’s harvest. The problem is with the laborers. There simply aren’t enough laborers to do the work of reaping the harvest that is our public universities in North America. But what does laboring mean? How do we begin? Here are a few ways in which I have learned to labor for the campus where I am. This list is not exhaustive by far, but it’s a start.
 
1. Experience God on your campus
One of the first mistakes we as campus ministers can make is to assume that we are bringing God to our campus. Trust me, God has been present on these campuses since their inception and has been working in and through His people there long before our arrival. We must be humble and prayerful enough to step onto our campuses to first discover how God is working and who He’s working through. There are tons of opportunities to attend lectures and worship services, demonstrations and art exhibitions. Start by showing up. Pray that God would reveal to you the ways he is working on campus and be open to a season of learning and enrichment as you experience God on campus.

2. Love your campus
As I mentioned before, public universities are vast ecosystems and our descriptions of them should not trend only negatively. There is actually a lot to love about your campus. From life saving research, to community development, there are plenty of ways we can love and affirm the institutions and individuals that make up a public university. So do some research. Find what resonates with you and talk about it, maybe even contribute with your time, resources and prayers. Go to the bookstore and purchase some gear with the university’s logo. It’s o.k. if you didn’t attend. Just don’t buy anything that says “alumni” and you should be fine!  And then, of course, there are the students. Pray that God would give you and your church a christlike love and passion for the students on your campus. If there are students attending your church, go out of your way to invest in them. Create space for them in your physical facility, church leadership, and home. And also, this should go without saying, feed them!

4. Engage "The Other" on your campus
I find this to be such an important, yet overlooked component of successful public campus ministry. Virtually every public campus in North America has a kind of Multi-faith organization affiliated with it. While at Harvard, I was a member of the Harvard Chaplains and here, at The University of Florida, it’s called the Campus Multi-faith Co-operative. And yet, in both places, as far as anyone can tell, I was the first Seventh-day Adventist to join. The response I got when I joined the Multi-faith co-operative at UF was, “We were wondering where the Adventists have been!”

Now, I realize that any talk of interfaith engagement will raise red flags among some, and understandably so, however to obey Christ’s call to labor in His harvest means we must also be subject to His method. “The Savior Mingled among men as one who desired their good.”(Ministry of Healing, Pg. 143) This is step one. Interfaith engagement is a form of mingling among men for the purpose of their, and the greater, good.

Not every interfaith coalition is created equally however, and it is up to you to have the discernment to discover the core values of the organizations near you. You should join organizations that tolerate and respect the individual differences and convictions of each member, while also seeking to learn and grow from the varied perspectives brought to the table.

Another reason for us as ministers to learn the language and practice of interfaith engagement is that this is exactly what our Adventist students on public campuses are doing every day. We can encourage them to not just tolerate the Other in their midst but actually engage them with love, respect and even curiosity. I asked Toni-Kay Gordon, an Adventist, and third year Sociology major at UF to talk about her experience sharing an apartment with three Muslims who are now her best friends. Here’s some of what she had to say;
“It has been an amazing opportunity having close friends who are of a different faith. Since my roommates are Muslims, I’ve been able to learn more about them on a personal, religious and cultural level...Being able to have open conversations with my roommates and respecting each other’s commitment to our religion has been the glue that held our relationship together....I’ve been asked on many occasions to pray for my roommates whenever they are having bad days or feel like giving up. I’ve been told that they admire my ability to trust God and stay positive, even when I’m having bad days.”
 
4. Declare Truth on your campus
We really can’t get around this one. And why would we want to! The message of The Everlasting Gospel is the reason any of us engage in the work we do for our campuses and is at the heart what it means to reap the harvest.  And I believe that, if we properly engage in the steps above, we will have the discernment and sensitivity to practice the most effective forms of proclamation.
Just this past weekend our campus ministry team at UF wrapped up a series of meetings held near campus and in local churches. Here are some ways in which the application of the principles above gave God permission to work on our behalf.
  1. We needed a venue. Our student center exists only in our dreams and we didn’t have the funds for a venue appropriate for our vision. The Chaplain and Director of the Methodist Student Ministry on campus Offered to host our series in their multi-million dollar facility, across the street from campus, free of charge. We work together as members of the UF Campus Multi-faith Co-operative.
  2. We needed funding. The conference where I am employed and local church that I partner with, not only claim to love the campus, they put their money where their heart is. We arranged to bring “The Grace Tour”, a dynamic and spirit filled team of young adult evangelists to UF for one week. The church board and conference joined to fully support the effort financially and church members volunteered to feed the team for the entirety of their stay.
  3. We needed laborers. Because the Adventist students on campus felt invested in, loved, and trusted, a core group bought into Christ’s vision for their campus. Small groups, worship services and social events on campus had depth and meaning. They tirelessly promoted the Grace Tour when it arrived and invited their friends and classmates to attend. Church members also consistently attended the meetings and, again, provided food each night!
  4. God provided the harvest. At the end of the Grace Tour, we were privileged to baptize 21 souls. Their ages ranged from 9 - 50, but the majority were young adults and college students.
The years of labor, relationship and team building that culminated in the miracles of this past week are a testament to Christ’s claim that this really isn’t our harvest at all. It’s His. We have been given the awesome responsibility of laboring together, and with Christ for the sake of the public campuses in our division. Will you, dear minister, take on the challenge of stepping onto the campuses in your territory with a heart and mind open to the possibilities? When you do, Christ and his students will be there waiting for you and they might even say with a smile, “We were wondering where the Adventists have been!”
 
 
Angelo Grasso is the Florida Conference Chaplain for Adventist Campus Ministries at the University of Florida and Chair of UoF's Campus Multi-Faith Cooperative.