On one unremarkable afternoon, in the middle of the seamless flow of days that the new socially-isolated status quo has brought all students, six students logged into a Zoom session. Contrary to most student’s video conferences, everyone actually looked very happy to be there.
This was partially due to the fact that this wasn’t a class. The group was just a small facet of the on-campus ministry organization RUF, or Reformed University Fellowship. RUF, the campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church of America, was a steady presence on campus throughout the semester, with the “large group” meeting seeing attendance of about 40 students every Tuesday, and various get-togethers scattered throughout the week. All of these fellowship-focused meetings were under the leadership of Weston Duke, the RUF campus minister who greeted each student individually from his dining room table.
Despite the sudden change from in-person to remote conferences, the meeting was remarkably peaceful. Students smiled and shared about their week, read Biblical passages and prayed for each other. The liturgy focused on Psalm 23, with a poignant emphasis on “…Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” and a request for prayer for the “perplexing harshness in creation” and for “the care for a groaning creation.”
During a moment of reverent prayer, the virtual parishioners presented a fascinating dichotomy to the current state of many students during this insane time: while most students are overwhelmed and under-rested, vibrating the visible strain of trying to keep this semester together, these students were completely at peace, and if even for just a moment, far closer online than in any in-person meeting.
This moment of simple being was not easy to coordinate. Thanks to the efforts of one massive group chat, a scurry for the liturgical passages and firm prodding at Zoom’s finicky connection, this online prayer meeting was born. And all of it thanks to Duke’s singular determination to keep the campus ministry rolling, despite the pandemic.
After winding his way through three different universities as he moved from student to intern to seminary student, Duke found his way to Murfreesboro two years ago to serve as MTSU’s RUF campus minister. Throughout those two years he has balanced a continuous cycle of ministry: a weekly “large group” meeting, weekly “small group” Bible studies, and the 24/7 job of ambling up to students on campus, fresh lunch in hand, to kindly ask how they’re feeling that day.
Needless to say, it is an interactive, social fellowship that Duke has had to completely rethink thanks to MTSU’s decision to go remote in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At first, it raised a of questions about what that meant for me and my position with RUF,” Duke said. “I was unsure whether I was going to be able to continue doing ministry at MTSU for the rest of the semester, or whether I was going to have to mail it in.”
Thankfully, the one thing the world is in abundance of right now–commiseration— worked in Duke’s favor.
“I’m part of a larger network within RUF where campus ministers are sharing ideas. As colleges around the country started to cancel classes, we very quickly started to shift towards the idea of doing virtual ministry,” he said.
Virtual ministry, as Duke explained, is all about trying to make the normal still the normal.
“Virtual ministry is essentially trying to do the same sorts of meetings, but just through an online video platform,” he said. “So we’re still having our large group meetings on Tuesday nights, our small group Bible studies, and we’re also just trying to connect with students one on one, whether that be through a phone call, or facetime or even just text messaging.”
The continuation of this kind of support is, as Duke believes, absolutely vital for students during this crisis for three particular reasons.
“First, because there has been so much upheaval, they need someone to talk to about that more than ever,” Duke said. “That’s why I think that all that has taken place has not actually hindered ministry, it’s opened up more opportunities for ministry.”
“Second, I think it’s important that we continue our meetings because people do need some semblance of normalcy throughout all of this,” he continued. “They’re looking for anything in their lives that will remain constant. And obviously as Christians, we believe that God is a constant. He is unchanging. And so we want to be a tangible expression of that for our students by continuing our ministry as normally as possible.”
He concluded, “Third, I believe God made us relational beings. We are not meant to live in isolation. And so it’s important for us to find ways that we can continue connecting with one another, even as we practice quarantines and social distances.”
He laughed. “I’ve never cherished phone calls so much in my life before! I’m like oh yes, somebody to talk too!”
In the face of these chaotic and often difficult times, Duke admits that it can be hard for Christians of any age to stay centered and calm, and even more so for young Christians ripped so suddenly away from their ministry fellowship. But this isn’t the first time Christians have been called upon to test their faiths via pandemic, Duke explains.
“The thing that struck me is that even though this is a very new situation for us, this is not a new situation for the world, neither is this a new situation for Christianity,” he said. “In fact, Christians have had a long history of fighting illness and epidemics. One of the earliest cases was a plague that broke out in the third century Rome, and Christians had a reputation for moving towards plague victims in order to help care of them.”
“(Another example) is when the black plague moved through Europe in the 16th century,” Duke continued. “The famous protestant reformer Martin Luther wrote a tract on whether Christians should flee from the plague. And one of the things he talks about is taking care of ourselves as a way to love one another. But he also talked about not being afraid to move towards the sick and needy out of concern for them as well.”
Beyond these solid historical facts, however, Duke is mainly using his platform to be an encouraging voice for students.
“One thing I keep going back to is that even though everything in our lives has changed, God has not changed,” Duke said fervently. “God was not caught off guard by the coronavirus. This is not outside of his plans. And even though we feel very out of control right now, he is not out of control. He still has a tight grip on all of his people and on this world that he created. And even though we may not be able to figure out why he’s allowing this to happen, we can trust that he does have some purpose for it. So that is one thing that I want to help students see, is that God is still at work amidst all of this chaos.”
And if he could impart just one thing on the entire student body, Duke says simply “wait.”
“I was reflecting on Psalm 46. And at the end of the psalm, the psalmist says ‘Come behold the works of the lord, how he makes wars to cease, how he makes shatters spear and the bow’— and even though he’s talking about military enemies, it is a reassurance that one day God is going to bring an end to all of this, and bring peace again. And so my encouragement is just to wait upon the Lord at this time and to know that he is going to bring about peace once more. We’ll just have to wait upon him.”
He laughed. “Wash your hands, watch for what he’s doing, and wait upon him to work. That’s our slogan.”
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