Growing in the Spirit

April 22-28, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 16
Growing in the Spirit
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Campus ministries are filled with young adults who didn’t leave their religion behind when they left for college. Whether gathering together to worship, sharing a meal or wading downstream picking up waste and debris, students who are active in campus ministry find ways to strengthen their fellowship and faith. Paola Tovar, a student at Binghamton University, said that by attending Mass at Newman House, she has learned more about her faith. “It has given me the confidence to practice my faith and express it in my everyday life on campus,” she said.

Tovar has been a member of Newman House since she started college. She said that administrators at the faith center at Binghamton University should take pride in the fact that there are so many motivated, enthusiastic students who are willing to work to build a strong and supportive community. “For example, to build fellowship, we have a choir that is welcoming and supportive to its members,” Tovar said. “We also try to have community nights every so often and we organize retreats that are very successful.” Tovar said that the students at Newman House participate in a variety of community service projects throughout the school year, including working at soup kitchens and building wheelchair ramps for the disabled.

Joe Sharkey, also a student at Binghamton University, said that in addition to attending Mass at Newman House, he has helped organize and lead retreats and community dinners that allow Catholic students to get to know one another and discuss their faith. “I am personally very open about my faith,” he said. Sharkey said that sometimes his commitment to his faith can become challenging. “Many students don’t believe in God and frown upon anyone who does,” he said. “Catholic students won’t find support from many of the fundamentalist Christian groups that are scattered around campus,” he said. “This causes many students to keep their faith to themselves. I however, feel that my faith is part of who I am and if others are going to judge me on that, then so be it.”

Sharkey said that several things help him maintain a strong faith-filled life while on campus. “I make going to Mass every Sunday a part of my routine,” said Sharkey. “Even when I’m busy, tired and overwhelmed. That hour helps me re-center and reflect on what is important.” Sharkey said that he also finds volunteer work fulfilling. “There is something about helping others that helps strengthen and maintain my faith,” he said. Father Robert Sullivan is the campus minister at Binghamton University. Tovar said that the accessibility of Newman House and Father Bob has helped her build her faith. “Father Bob, along with the whole Newman House community on campus, has definitely taught me more about my faith and the learning just never ends,” said Tovar. “I am just so proud to have such a supportive and wonderful community.”

Amanda Porter, a Binghamton University student, is also Eucharistic minister at Newman House. She said that this new ministry has helped her keep her faith alive. “While in college, I have been trying to mature in my faith and nurture it with individual Bible study and small prayerful projects that keep me focused,” said Porter. Porter said while at college her faith is being put into action through the choices she makes. “I am becoming more engaged in issues concerning the well-being of others and look for ways in which I can help,” she said.

Father Sullivan feels that campus ministry is the best assignment in the diocese –– maybe in the world. Previously, Father Sullivan taught religion in high schools throughout the diocese. He loves celebrating the liturgy with the students and spending time with bright, articulate young people. “The college is a fascinating place to work, especially when you’re not on the payroll and don’t have to answer to university hierarchy,” said Father Sullivan. “The rhythm of the calendar is very healthy,” he joked. “You work like a mad man for 15 weeks and then it all just stops for a while. You have to make a complete change of pace until the students come back for the next semester.”

During those semesters, Father Sullivan teaches college students about their faith. “The celebration of the Eucharist is the heart of Christian life. It’s Christ’s gift to us and should be taken seriously. It’s important for our spiritual growth,” he said. Father Sullivan also said that spiritual growth is not measured by one’s feelings or religious experiences, but how one treats the Lord and their neighbor. “Our celebration of the Eucharist is a microcosm of what the outside world is supposed to become, what we are supposed to make it –– people of every race, language and way of life, who don’t know each other very well or at all, sitting together in peace and harmony and mutual acceptance,” said Father Sullivan.

Father Sullivan said that one of the great things about working at the university is that one gets the chance to start over and learn from ones mistakes every semester. Also, getting to know people of other cultures and races is an important part of growing up, he explained. Father Sullivan tries to teach the students life lessons as well as faith lessons. “Leaving home and going to the university is like Jesus going to the desert. The usual sources of our security at home are missing,” he said. “You’re totally on your own and that can be scary. On the other hand, there are people who are supportive and helpful –– all you have to do is knock on their doors.” Binghamton University student, Jessica Macey found that support and friendship in the first friend she found in the nursing program. “She was also a devout Catholic,” said Macey. “Right away, we began going to church together and have attended retreats back home. I think that our religion has made us even closer,” she said. Macey also said that she spreads the word about her religion and recently helped a friend find faith. That friend is now preparing for baptism.

“Since I have moved on to college, my faith has grown even stronger because it is something I pursue on my own,” said Macey. “I make my own choices and go to church at my own will. I have chosen to follow my faith and belief that God will stand by my side,” she said. The students at State University of New York at Cortland and Cazenovia College seemed to be as faith-filled as those at Binghamton. Cara Gajewski, a senior at SUNY Cortland, is the president of the Newman Club on campus. Gajewski said that in addition to organizing weekly meetings and dinners at the center, she is involved in community service projects as well. “Being president of the Newman Center allows me to share my faith,” said Gajewski. Her commitment to her faith started at home. Gajewski was a religious education instructor at her home parish. “My faith definitely has an impact on my values and beliefs and what I consider okay and not okay,” she said. She enjoys talking about her faith to her Catholic friends on campus. Jason Clark, a freshman at SUNY Oswego, was brought up Catholic and said that his faith has also grown while at college. “I certainly understand it [religion] a lot more now than when I was younger,” he said. “I was an altar server for five years. Then a scandal at my church caused me to be lost for a while. When I came here, I heard about the campus ministry. I tried it and became more and more involved.” Clark said that what he held dear in the Catholic Church was tarnished, but he now feels he can rebuild the faith he had lost. “I feel that I’ve built upon my faith. Now I serve as a lector, greeter, and Eucharist minister,” he said.

Marie Agen, Ph.D., is campus minister at SUNY Cortland. She finds the work very different from her past assignments as a religious education teacher and minister In Virginia. She works hard to reach out to more and more of the students on campus. “We have made progress this year,” she said. “We continue to let the students know where we are located and that they can walk to Mass.” Agen said that in itself is challenging because students often try to fit in worship with their tight schedules. “They always have something else to do,” she said. Regardless of how busy Erin Gondeck is, she finds time to attend the Sunday evening Mass on campus. “It can be difficult to get to Mass here sometimes,” she said. “Mass is at 9 p.m.” But Gondeck said she enjoys the sermons. She also said that her faith has grown while at SUNY Cortland. “In high school, my friends told me I was too churchy,” she said. “They called me ‘the little church girl.’”

On a recent early Saturday morning, more than 15 students from Cazenovia College left their beds to come together to clean up a stream in Cazenovia as part of their faith-filled community service. Deacon Steve Young, who supervised the project, said that this was just one example of how much he is integrated into his students’ lives. “I do everything from blessing boats to calling a baseball game,” said Deacon Young. “I have the most varied job on the planet.” Like Agen, Deacon Young said his biggest challenge of campus ministry is “the un-churched.” “So many people today have no faith experience,” he said. “That’s tough because they experience things for the first time while at college. And by having no faith, they come to me seeking some type of solace. They are looking for parameters and ethics.” As campus minister and inter-faith director, Deacon Young said that tries to represent all cultures — Muslim, Jews, Native Americans and others. As a result, he had to learn the faith teachings of many religions in addition to Catholic teachings.

Amanda Klish is the Newman Club president at Cazenovia College. She enjoys her connection with the Newman Center because it gives her a way to connect with other Catholics. “There aren’t really many people I know who consider themselves religious,” she said. “That’s why I like the Newman Club.” Klish is an art major and a senior at Cazenovia College. Her faith is represented in her artwork. “Many of my charcoal drawings are about the biblical accounts of the Passion,” she said. “My projects tend to be dark and moody. But that’s what I’m going for. I want the people who look at my art to feel the sadness of the pictures.” Klish said that her faith has been strengthened so much while at college that she is considering a religious life when she graduates. “It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized how good God was. Practicing my faith isn’t something I had to do but something I wanted to do.” Klish said she has read several books based on religious life that have inspired her to investigate the possibility of going in that direction. When she leaves college this year, she will spend the summer looking at different religious orders. Klish said she hasn’t told many people of her plans. “But when I think of what I want to do, I think of the religious life,” she said.

In the meantime, Klish will continue to participate in service projects with Deacon Young. “There have been a million service projects,” said Klish. “There is never a time when there isn’t one going on. Deacon Steve has been bleeding us dry,” she said.
Binghamton University, Cazenovia College, SUNY Cortland, Hamilton College, SUNY Oswego, SUNY Morrisville, SUNY College of Technology and Utica College Campus Ministries are all funded by the HOPE Appeal.

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