A Christian Counterculture
This article, by Peter A. Finnochio (CLAS '14), is republished with permission, and was originally written for The Virginia Advocate, November 2012 issue (p. 9-11)
In late September, Playboy Magazine ranked the University of Virginia as the nation’s top party school, using as its three indices, “sex life, nightlife, and sporting life.” The ranking reinforced concerns that students who don’t “party hard,” engage in questionable activities, or live illicit lifestyles would have a difficult time fitting in at Mr. Jefferson’s University. Yet there is another side of UVa that sets itself apart from this culture. This was a side of UVa that I was not expecting to see at a prestigious public university, but one that I am proud to have become a part of. Here at the nation’s top public university (and, lamentably, top “party school”), an institute that prides itself in being the nation’s first secular University, is a vibrant, thriving Christian community.
Roughly 15% of UVa’s 15,762 students are involved in a Christian fellowship. Mathematically that translates to over 2,300 students. There [are] over thirty different Christian fellowships on Grounds and many are denominational. There is a Catholic Student Ministry, a Lutheran Student Ministry, and a Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). However, some of the largest Christian fellowships are non-denominational or trans-denominational. Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, while sponsored by the Assemblies of God Church, attracts Christians of all denominations. Chi Alpha is the largest Christian fellowship at UVa, comprised of over 500 members from a variety of Christian denominations. This year for the first time, Chi Alpha had to separate their large group service, “Monday Night Live,” into two meeting times, because their numbers have expanded beyond the University’s largest auditorium space.
InterVarsity is also a large, popular Christian fellowship at UVa. Like Chi Alpha, InterVarsity attracts Christians of all backgrounds. There are four InterVarsity ministries at UVa: an undergraduate fellowship, a Greek InterVarsity, One Way – an InterVarsity focused on reaching out to African American students, and an Asian students ministry. Combined, these InterVarsity ministries boast over 400 members. Cru, formerly known as Agape (the Aramaic word for ‘unconditional love’) and previously known nationally as Campus Crusade for Christ, is another pan-Christian fellowship. Earlier this semester, Cru hosted UVa Economics Professor Ken Elzinga, one of the University’s most popular professors and an outspoken Christian. Professor Elzinga has spoken at many Christian fellowships, including both Chi Alpha and InterVarsity. Professor Elzinga [played a pivotal role in founding] the Center for Christian Study, a building five minutes away from central grounds, which is usually packed with Christian students studying for exams or attending programs or lectures intended to deepen their faith. The [Center for Christian Study] also spearheads a program called the Elzinga Residential Scholars Program, which provides an “intensive experience of living in Christian community, considering questions of faith and life, and being on mission as a student at the University of Virginia.” Male participants are housed in the basement of the Study Center while female participants are housed in the building next door. Third-year College student William Barber, who participates in RUF and is an Elzinga Residential Scholar and a leader at the Center for Christian Study, shared his experience, “I’ve been impressed at the ways in which the Study Center staff and Christian leaders around UVa have connected their minds and their hearts and engaged students in their studies and don’t separate Christian life from students’ every day academic life around UVa.”
Christian life at UVa has been impactful to many students. “I feel like the Christian body is very inclusive and welcoming to first years, and I was able to get plugged into fellowship right away,” said first-year College student Stephen Rooker, who is involved in RUF and InterVarsity. “Christian community has been the bedrock of my college experience,” third-year InterVarsity member Chaney Mullins reflected. “I could not have anticipated the spiritual growth I have undergone as a result.” “Christian life at UVa is awesome! There are a ton of different fellowships which reach people from many backgrounds, but there is a great sense of unity through our overall mission of serving Christ,” third-year Engineering student Daniel Eby stated. “Through Cru Christian Fellowship, I have found a strong community of believers and grown personally in my faith.” “What never ceases to amaze me is the truly personal aspect of Chi Alpha,” one of my Chi Alpha core group leaders, fourth-year Engineer Tyler Brobst recalled. “I have met so many people who have truly invested in me and encouraged me as a fellow Christian. Chi Alpha has also provided me with the opportunity to share that gift with others, both at the University and around the world.”
Christian students have their niche at UVa. They have meaningful experiences within their fellowships, attending nonalcoholic parties, going on camping trips or weekend retreats, playing broomball at the Downtown Mall, or attending a drive-in movie. Christian students also make warm, lasting friendships within their fellowships and small groups. However, the most fortunate experience of all as most members of this community will tell you, is the opportunity they have had to grow in their Christian faith even within the confines of a challenging environment full of temptation and deprivation. Yet this ever-growing group of devout students have set themselves apart from that world, and are transforming it. If you are a Christian student at U.Va. worried that you won’t be able to fit in if you publicly express your faith and stay true to your principles, there is a thriving community of Christians ready to welcome you. Opposite the temptation and deprivation of typical college life, a Christian counterculture is growing.