Catching the Ecumenical Spirit in 1968
By E. Thomas Miller
The several campus ministries at West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia met together in 1968 and developed a covenantal relationship with one another, representing nine denominations, and endorsed by their several denominational local committees. These included Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, United Methodists, Presbyterians (PCUS and UPCUSA), Baptists (SBC and American Baptists), Disciples of Christ, and Lutheran (LCA and ALC). We agreed at that time that we would serve our own constituencies with our separate religious, worship, study and church relations. And at the same time we developed a division of labor for the University pastors and chaplains along with local pastors involved in ministry to and in the University. I was elected chair of the new ecumenical counsel to coordinate our strategy for ministry.
Several chaplains were deeply involved in relationship to those protesting the Viet Nam war as well as a team of chaplains and others who counseled students who were exploring conscientious objection, some of whom completed their applications for 1-0 or 1-AO status for their draft boards
Another group, headed up by a campus pastor and joined by persons concerned about the use of drugs, developed the Drug Education and Crisis Intervention Hot Line (24/7), and provided seminars in several dormitories. The group of nine ordained clergy of our covenantal group divided up the residence halls and provided Chaplaincies in cooperation with the house parents and resident assistance.
Student Action for Appalachian Progress
Several outreach ministries were developed, including Student Action for Appalachian Progress, a tutorial program for school children in the coal camps in Monongalia County, which at the time was one of the largest coal producing counties in the nation. At the height of this SAAP program, students logged 30,000 hours of tutoring by 200 students who had been trained by university faculty in the best tutorial techniques. This program, supported by the Mountaineer Mining Mission, sponsored by the United Presbyterian Church, USA, Tutorial programs were conducted in the neighborhoods . Faculty and staff conducted training weekends before each semester. Each weekend was concluded with an “altar call” from yours truly to sign on for a semester and definitely not to poop out on their “tutees” which would be more disappointing than not at all.
The first female campus minister (a United Methodist deacon) staffed the Women’s Center which provided rape counseling , problem pregnancy counseling and lively discussions for University coeds. A vigorous support group of 25 coeds functioned and a hot line was established.
Shared Program and Work Space
Another significant innovation was the sharing of office space for a number of the denominational campus ministers. The Newman Club shared their office space with a United Methodist and a Presbyterian campus pastor, renaming their center “Ecumenical Campus Center.” Another ecumenical center was established on the second campus of the University where three CM’s shared – Catholic, (Paulist Order) United Methodist, and Presbyterian. The Center was later renamed Bennett House in memory and in honor of the chair of the ecumenical student group on campus, who had become a CO and served as a non-combatant soldier, and who was mortally wounded while rescuing a fellow soldier from the battlefield. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, reportedly the second CO to be awarded such an honor in the USA. A third center was established near the main campus which was shared by CM’s: United Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic , and Episcopalian.
The Last Resort
A Coffee House Ministry, begun by the Presbyterians, was staffed by the campus ministers on Friday and Saturdays. The downtown facility was called “The Last Resort” which seated over 100, featured student folk singers, poets, comedians, and dramatists who staged three plays a year. The Resort was open to all students, faculty and staff of the University. A downtown basement seating 100, featuring, of course, coffee, grill, and tubs of peanuts on Friday and Saturdays during the school year. The outstanding Drama Department “adopted” the Resort for three dramatic productions each year, including musical reviews, plays. Folk music was standard as well as original poetry readings, and a hilarious comedy team, mimicking the Burns & Shriver duo. Tony and Rune later went on to star in Godspell in Washington DC. after their graduation. (Ironically, both were Jewish).
Other joint programs in Morgantown included a Telephone Reassurance Ministry (for shutins), MonVac (a voluntary action center), a Simulation Games program for students and faculty, a citywide campaign which was a referendum for a youth center with an ice skating rink which was passed by a 75% community election, and a local chapter of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU).
Our Ecumenical Campus Ministry was written up as an effective ministry by a national Episcopal newsletter published at the Episcopal Seminary in Cambridge, MA.
Following a decade of ministry in West Virginia, I was called to be the Minister to the Campus and Assistant Professor of Humanities at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. There I was campus chaplain to 1100 students and 250 faculty and staff. Following my earlier practice of ecumenical ministry, I conducted weekly chapel on Tuesday evening (during Coffee break @ 10:00 p.m. The college had hosted a summer high school Hillel conference on campus, and as a result several dozen Jewish students who had fallen in love with the campus matriculated at the College. We tried to get the national Hillel Foundation to form a Hillel and were turned down because there was not enough to form a group. Our response: We formed a Havarem (Friends), and the chaplain was nicknamed “Rabbi.” Episcopal eucharist was also offered in the Wynn Chapel as well as Catholic Mass and a Baptist Student Union. Due to our Jewish contacts we were able to host Elie Wiesel for a series of lectures. Other luminaries included in the endowed lectureships were Fr. Henri Nouwen, Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Dr. James Forbes, senior pastor of Riverside Church, NYC.
After retirement Tom also helped create a Presbyterian Higher Education non-profit organization in North Carolina which functioned for ten years (2003-2013) in support of and encouragement of 21 Higher Education Ministries in the five NC presbyteries. He is now retired and living in Davidson, NC, home of his alma mater, Davidson College, and has been appointed to the alumni Board.