Speaking Truth to Power
By Rev. Bernadine Grant McRipley
My first exposure to campus ministry came as a member of the Trenton Campus Ministry (TCM) board. I was active with Christian education and ecumenical activities in my presbytery. At that time I was an ordained elder who had taken continuing education courses at Princeton Theological Seminary. When Mercer County opened a new community college, the TCM board decided to start a campus ministry there. The supporting denomination churches were American Baptist, Presbyterian Church(USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ and United Methodist Churches. There was also some support from the denominations. Their other two ministries were traditional ones at a state college and private college. The community college was a new brand at that time with only commuting students. Moreover they did not come directly from high school (as many do now) so the age of most was in the late twenties. Evidently the TCM board had enough confidence in me to appoint me their chaplain (the college’s terminology) to Mercer County Community College (MCCC).
With a board open to experimentation and learning the nature of this new kind of campus and students, we were able to initiate a chaplaincy program as an integral part of student services. The most memorable ministry that we did was for an abused wife. A counselor informed me of the situation and asked for help. I was currently working with a female county executive working to start a shelter for abused women but at that time there was a long way to go. My board rallied to the circumstance, even informing me to take all the time I needed and helped with resources for the woman and her son. Contact with some local churches resulted in finding a safe place to live, free legal help and a place in a church daycare center for her son. When the woman asked why we were helping a stranger, I told her it was because we are Christians.
The ministry there called for establishing a presence with staff and their programs which resulted in being able to reach students. This included the Black Student Union, one of the few student groups on a commuting campus. I worked with the financial aid director and chaired a community outreach program to students on financial aid. Finances were a problem for many students, and our churches were sometimes called to provide a helping hand. The college gave me an office and support. In turn I was expected to participate as staff , including serving on college staff search committees,even chairing the call of the dean of its urban campus. In MCCC’s’ beginning, our ministry was able to do more with our part-time ministry because the college was experimenting with reaching out to the community. They sponsored a non-credit course which I taught on conserving the environment using denominational materials. It was open to the public which was part of the mission of the college.
TCM was able to cooperate with the college where the mission of the two overlapped. Before leaving Mercer to go to Trenton State, I received a UCC grant that was used to start a mentor program, which was continued by the next TCM chaplain, the Rev. Nancy Schluter who recently retired as chaplain at Rider University. (“Chaplain” is the title designated by the institutions.)
New Jersey United Ministries in Higher Education (NJUMHE), 1974-1980
When NJUMHE came into being, I was one of the campus ministers who attended loosely coordinated meetings. I became coordinator for NJUMHE and divided my time between MCCC and UMHE, both part-time. This was when I was also enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary. NJUMHE was financially supported by American Baptist, Presbyterians, Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ. Although the United Methodists were not an official UMHE member, they also played an important role in the ministries to students and staff.
The ministries were located as far north as Newark and Hoboken and south as Camden, including the campuses I served part-time while being part-time UMHE administrator. There was only one full-time ministry at Rutgers, the State University. The ministries I served at MCCC and later at Trenton State College while also serving UMHE were greatly enhanced by the institutions and staff. The presidents at both institutions included our ministry because we provided much needed services to their students. I was treated as adjunct staff and given office space and services. For UMHE I worked from home with no support staff. Some support came from the New Jersey American Baptist office and later from Reform Church staff. Much of my New Jersey UMHE travel was made possible by Clyde Robinson of the Presbyterian Church.
Doing campus ministry while serving UMHE gave me a better sense of actual ministry at that time. At Trenton State College (now College of New Jersey), there were traditional aged students who lived in dorms on campus. However it was called a “suit-case” setting because many students went home for the weekend– which meant ministry focused on Monday-Friday. This was also true at some other UMHE campuses. For me, this resulted in establishing a presence with faculty and staff whenever possible as well as with student groups. We were on their turf and learned to use that to our advantage. This allowed me to work with the student- run Women’s Center and its advisors from the Women’s Study program. Since many of the students were education majors, I was able to get the local female superintendent of education to address the group. It was also my first opportunity to work with a female rabbi. It was illuminating for this group of heavily Roman Catholic women to engage with a female rabbi and an African American protestant minister (I was ordained as minister of Word and Sacrament by that time).
The ministry there somewhat mirrored life. I also worked with the Black Student Union who was seeking their place on campus and into the world, including two African students who shared their dream of returning home and becoming leaders.
There was joy in weddings, especially in the memorial chapel in June, but the campus was not exempt from death. Four students were killed in a car crash and it affected the whole campus. The administration asked the Council of Campus Ministries to participate in a memorial service. In a mostly secular environment, it was clear the students responded to the spiritual care given to them. We clearly had a place on their turf.
At a National Campus Ministry Association meeting, I was able to get administration approval for two student services staffers to do training on avoiding or combating racist acts. I had participated in such a training event with staff and student leaders. There was a bonus to having TSC staff on our turf. Interacting with campus ministers gave them a deeper understanding that campus ministry is more than Bible study for a small number of students. This helped to interpret our ministry. I eventually left a ministry I loved because I could no longer afford to serve in it. It served me well in a parish and also gave me a solid foundation when I later worked in the PCUSA Washington D.C. office. Under the guidance of church policies I pursued justice issues as when serving in campus ministry. My colleagues in NCMA showed the value of higher education is not for prestige or economic advancement. The principles of those ministries always included justice. “Speaking truth to power” in Washington with Catholics, Protestants and Jews is harder than it sounds, but campus ministry never was a pushover.