Ignited by MDGs

A passion for social justice links students with new church ministry
June 26, 2008

During the Eucharist of the 2006 convention of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota, Bishop Michael Smith articulated three major mission initiatives: a continuing mission to Native Americans, a continuing mission to the Sudanese immigrants in the Fargo-Moorhead area, and a new mission to college campuses.

The Rev. Canon Kevin Goodrich, O.P., canon missioner for the diocese's Southeast Region, attended the convention and heard Smith's call. But when Goodrich first came to Grace Episcopal Church (the region's central office and parish) in Jamestown, he thought he didn't have the time or ability to do anything with local Jamestown College. One of North Dakota's few private colleges, it is a small liberal arts school with a historical connection to the Presbyterian Church.

The school has an enrollment of more than 1,000 students. While it offers a weekly chapel service, only a small percentage of college students attend. Grace Episcopal Church is a family-sized parish located about half a mile from the campus that then had an average attendance of 40.

One night Tony Campolo, an evangelical minister and commentator on religious, social and political matters, came to speak at a leadership conference at the college and challenged students to get involved with issues of social justice.

"I attended the main event where Campolo spoke, and I was struck by the power and energy in the room for the issues about which he was preaching," Goodrich said. "I sensed a movement of God, and I was taught that when God is doing something you need to join in."

Goodrich sent out a mailing inviting students with a heart for social justice to meet with him on campus. At that meeting, the students selected the U.N. Millennium Development Goals eradicating extreme hunger and poverty and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria
and other diseases to focus on for their own ministry.

Close to two years later, Grace Church has established a ministry called "Grace on Campus." Through grants, the church now employs two part-time peer ministers who are college students who organize, serve and lead the ministry to their peers.

Activities have ranged from AIDS- and malaria-awareness events to a guitar-hero social night to discussions about the true nature of love.

The most visible part of this new ministry is Grace Church's new evening service Sunday Night Praise, affectionately called SNP by most of the students who attend. Each week, 20-30 students and members of the larger Jamestown community attend an informal Eucharist in the parish hall. A home-cooked meal follows. Many college meal-service programs do not include a Sunday evening meal, so the dinner has been a big hit for everyone. It also allows for intergenerational connections to be made and nurtured.

North Dakota has few Episcopalians, and the vast majority of students who attend this service do not have an Episcopal background.

Lana Ross, a junior at Jamestown College, says she likes the service "because of its relaxed atmosphere."

Small congregations in North Dakota often find growth and mission a challenge.

"All the Episcopalians already attend" is a frequently heard reason for why growth can't occur. Accepting the idea that the church exists for those who are not yet its members brings about an important change of attitude toward ministry and mission.

"As is often the case, the best work comes from God's initiative and not from our own plans," Goodrich says. "Oftentimes we believe small congregations can't develop innovative ministries, but they can with the direction of the Holy Spirit."

Vital stats
Congregation: Grace Episcopal Church
Location: Jamestown, North Dakota, Diocese of North Dakota, Province VI
Average Sunday attendance: 55
Year founded: 1881
Current leadership structure/staff: part-time priest-in-charge

Resources

  • The Episcopal Church's online resources for those involved in ministry in higher education settings:
  • U.N. Millennium Development Goals: www.un.org/millenniumgoals