Keeping Faith in College

I still vividly remember my first week as a first year at UVA. So much to do, so many people to meet, and the anxious yet excited anticipation about this new place and college life. I came, like most incoming students, wanting to have fun, learn some things, and just see what would happen. I also wanted to live out my faith in Jesus and grow closer to Him. So I accepted an invitation from an old high school friend to go to a lunch at the Center for Christian Study for incoming students. I don’t remember much from that Move-In Day Lunch, but everyone seemed nice and very welcoming. I met a number of older students who were involved in Christian fellowship groups and got invited to attend their large group meetings once school started. My economics professor, Ken Elzinga, spoke about the great opportunities to grow in Christ and develop deep friendships at UVA, and I left encouraged about my decision to come to UVA.

That night my hall mates were going to Rugby Road to check out some frat parties and continue the longstanding tradition of getting drunk on night one at UVA. I wasn’t really interested in drinking, but I went along just to see what it was like and maybe build a closer connection with these guys. I also don’t remember much from that night, not because of alcohol consumption, but because it wasn’t anything special. I hung around with the guys at a couple of house parties, but wound up coming home long before they did and going to bed. I remember turning off my light and lying there, wondering if I was missing out by being in bed and not staying out.

The next morning my old high school friend picked me up and took me to church and I met a few cool guys who could relate to my first night experience. Over lunch they assured me it was worth it not to go the typical party route. When I got back to my dorm, some of my hallmates were waking up—bleary-eyed and hung-over—and all excited to tell me about their crazy fun first night at UVA. I listened intently and told them I was glad they enjoyed themselves and said I’d met some cool people at church that morning. They were happy for me and we found other things to talk about.

The next week we all started classes and struggled to complete assignments, meet deadlines, and make “good grades.” The rigor of the coursework was daunting and we all took issue with parts of it. The engineering students were especially vocal about the amount of work and how competitive it was to do well. I was struck by the anti-religious, and especially anti-Christian, tone of some of my professors and assigned readings. Most of us began to find our way by joining groups and bonding with new friends. I visited a number of Christian fellowship groups, small group Bible studies and churches those first few weeks and eventually got involved with Young Life leader training and First Year Fellowship. All the while, I continued getting to know my hall mates as well as some fellow believers in my dorm.

Then, a couple weeks into classes, things changed. I went to my Tuesday morning French class at 9:00 a.m. and came back to my dorm before my economics class at 11:00 a.m. I turned on the television and was horrified to see two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City.

It was September 11, 2001. The scene was utter chaos, and I was in complete shock. I started thinking of people I knew in New York. My cousin had started at Columbia the week before. The towers were far from her school, but what if she was traveling around the city that day? Then one of the towers collapsed. I stood there in disbelief. I felt like I should do something, but what could I do? I left my room to see if anyone else was seeing this. Some guys on my hall were getting ready and hadn’t heard yet. I told them and we went back into my room to watch the coverage. We sat there for a while, unable to even talk. The next couple weeks were a blur as so many people had lost loved ones and there was so much grieving. Then came questions of how to respond. What action should our government take? Could I support military action so soon, and what about loving my enemies? As a friend, how could I support and love those suffering all around me? Their pain and loss were beyond anything I’d ever experienced. And personally, could I really believe in a good, sovereign God who would allow this to happen? Why did so many people have to die and why is evil allowed to continue like this?

Fast forward twelve years. I am now working at the Center for Christian Study as the Director of Undergraduate Ministries for Men. I am welcoming first-years to UVA at the Move-In Day Lunches and trying to help them live out their faith in Jesus. What has my experience and story taught me about being a Christian at UVA? First of all, there are both challenges and opportunities for Christians at UVA. The social pressures to conform to the patterns and rituals of the party culture are as strong as ever, but the Christian community is vibrant and offers healthy, fun alternatives to Rugby Road. The academic pressures that tell you to base your identity on class performance and grades continue to dominate many students’ psyches, but there are plenty of students rooting their identity firmly and solely in Christ. And the struggle to maintain faith in Jesus in the midst of personal suffering and evil in the world persists and often peaks in college, yet students continue to cling to Christ and find that He is truly their rock. All of these challenges are real, and they must be faced, but they are not insurmountable. Like the disciples, first-years need to hear Jesus’ words: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In fact, all of these trials can serve as opportunities for deepening faith in Jesus. I am grateful that I had to make hard decisions and ask difficult questions during my first year, because I experienced God’s faithfulness and got clarity on what I believed. My questions also pushed me to study and search the Bible for meaningful answers, and when I couldn’t find them to ask campus ministers and Christian professors. The University of Virginia has been uniquely blessed with a network of wise believers, good churches, and wonderful places like the Study Center to take your doubts and get help integrating your faith and life.

Finally, you may assume that my college experience was unusual because of 9/11, but I don’t really think so. Every student will face those similar types of struggles at some point at UVA. and often just as early as I did. The key for keeping my faith was the compelling nature of God’s love expressed in Jesus’ death on the cross for me, and the whole world. This story and its implications were continually driven home as I studied Scripture, worshipped in church, and sought the Lord in prayer. Life only made sense in light of the gospel. For that reason, when I stand up to talk with first years on September 4, 2010, about keeping faith in college. I will share the good news of Jesus crucified and risen for them and encourage them to trust God through all the trials they will surely face in the coming years.