CAMPUS MINISTRY AND THE UNIVERSITY OF THE EARTH
By Ted Purcell
Perhaps it all began in the Genesis command to “tend the garden” of creation, or what I have come to call “the original human vocation,” the responsibility to care for the earth, living in a sustainable and mutually-enhancing relationship with the planet and all beings with whom we share the on-going creation. As Thomas Berry reminds us, the earth is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects. The earth, our shared home, is not just a commodity to be consumed, but a community to which we all belong.
It is this inspiring reality which has been the basis of the emerging sense of calling that eventually led me into campus ministry, expressed through a series of contexts including a pastorate in a campus church (Cullowhee Baptist Church at Western Carolina University, 1970-74), and Baptist campus ministries at N.C. State University (15 years, 1974-89) and at Duke University (22 years, 1989-2010). Fifty years!
While at NCSU I followed my long-time practice of auditing occasional courses that continued my education for ministry and allowed me to relate to students in their world. 0nce I took a course in environmental ethics in which we were required to do a project in which we related our vocations/majors to our environmental ethics. Up to that time I had never systematically studied what that would mean for my vocation or for institutional religion. At various times my campus ministry role has allowed me to lead retreats, facilitate vocational discernment groups, and to enjoy class room teaching (Human Sexuality, Spirituality & Ecology, and inter-faith dialogue). Although the obvious relevance of each topic for campus ministry is abundant ( I completed my D.Min.in conjunction with co-teaching a course in Human Sexuality), nothing has enlivened my own spiritual journey so powerfully as the experience in myself and others of the sense of the Holy, the presence of the sacred in the natural world, and the throbbing awareness that the ecological crisis of our time is a spiritual and ethical issue of such magnitude that we ignore it at the peril of countless forms of being, including the human.
These brief reflections invite me to trace the thread that leads throughout my life, so that I enter into a long path that echoes the same refrain at every turn, often voiced by the science of ecology, with its focus on the interconnectedness, interdependence, and the interrelatedness of everything, and the distilled wisdom of the great spiritual traditions of the earth. With resounding insistence they seem to say to all who will listen: There is no such thing as “my life.” We are inseparably bound together, making the necessary journey from “I” to “we,” responding to the community of life which requires us to put the deepest love of which we are capable into action for the sake of the earth and all her creatures. We can love with heart, soul, mind, and strength. And we can love our neighbors as ourselves.
The great privilege of campus ministry often includes extending relationships with students after they graduate. As I write these words, I am in northern California for an immersion into the great beauty of Yosemite and surrounding areas and a weekend of the Bioneers conference, as well as to greet a new baby in the family. I am also very excited about sharing time with several former students who participated in my classes and/or the vocational discernment groups I facilitated through the Duke Chapel’s Pathways program.
The course I taught, Spirituality & Ecology: Religious Perspectives on Environmental Ethics, was designed to help students examine their values, attitudes, beliefs and practices as these may affect their own environmental ethics, as well as to increase their understanding of the teachings of various religious traditions. In addition to reading texts, students kept weekly journals and wrote a paper on the process of their evolving environmental ethic and how it connects with their own vocational work. Some of the impetus for the course came after I was invited to submit a proposal to the Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment following our joint sponsorship of a campus series of lectures by Thomas Berry on The Role of the University in Earth-Human Relationships.
My interactions with the students also included some counseling, weddings, continuing correspondence, and some informal spiritual direction, another aspect of my vocation, which I have been practicing for many years. So here I am, four years after my retirement from the Religious Life staff at Duke, somewhere in between the way it was and the way it is. Lately I’ve been learning to live with Parkinson”s disease, which is clearly, for me, another dimension of the spiritual journey. One of my most fascinating activities is some recent interaction with the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, where I spoke recently on a panel addressing a group of professional yoga teachers on Aging and Spirituality.
But what about campus ministry? Knocking on the big 80, I’m still doing it, only now my campus is the universe, which, by the way, is what the University is supposed to be teaching about, right? Not just how to serve the extractive economy, but how to be in a relationship of intimacy and wonder with all that is.
And the students? They are still with us, here and now, often ready to lead us into the future. At least the ones I know are ready to chant: “It hasn’t all happened yet!” It’s about something called hope. As one of my favorite writers, the poet-farmer Wendell Berry, suggested, be joyful even when you know the facts. I believe it’s good counsel.