By Melodie Woerman
The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens doesn’t have to look far to see its mission field, because it is right outside its doors in every direction.
The church sits smack dab in the middle of the campus of Ohio University, and that is by design its rector, the Rev. Deborah Woolsey, said.
In the early 1950s, the Rt. Rev. Henry Wise Hobson, who was then bishop of the diocese, decided campus ministries should operate from churches on the campuses of the major universities. This accounts for the location of Good Shepherd as well as St. Stephen’s in Columbus, which serves Ohio State University and Holy Trinity in Oxford which serves Miami University.
Woolsey said Good Shepherd’s building even looks like all the other buildings on campus, but with a steeple. When she arrived seven years ago, she suggested painting the doors red, to better mark it as a church. But she said there never has been a conversation about who the church serves or who its neighbors are, “because it’s right there.” And that has provided some unique opportunities during the pandemic.
When COVID-19 first hit, someone donated 150 masks to the church, and Good Shepherd tied them to a tree for anyone to take. When those were gone, Woolsey said, the church bought more, and then more. So far Good Shepherd has given away more than 3,000 masks, which can now be found in small plastic bags tied to the railing on the church steps. Woolsey said the church doesn’t indicate the masks are from an Episcopal church or include any written material. They just want to be good neighbors.
The church also has created the only memorial in Athens County to those lost in the pandemic. Pieces of broken stained glass are suspended inside a pair of facing metal arches perhaps five feet high, signifying, Woolsey said, the many people who died alone during the pandemic, and the ways in which the experience has left everyone broken in some way. A mirror at the bottom of each arch allows viewers to see themselves as part of the memorial. And as deaths in the United States passed one million, Woolsey said the parish hopes to find the money to make additional memorials.
In recent years the Episcopal presence at Good Shepherd has included a coffee shop, the CrossRoads Café, which sells coffee and tea for $1 and takes only cash. “We don’t want to operate on a debt model,” Woolsey said, “in part because I think college students have too much debt.” Patrons also can pay for coffee for others, or if short on cash, can just take a cup.
“You walk in, and you already have whatever you need,” she said. The cafe also gets its beans from Deeper Roots Coffee in Cincinnati, which buys sustainably produced beans from farmers around the world, roasts and sells them to CrossRoads Café and others.
The coffee shop started out in the church basement in 2017, but the church soon discovered that while students walked right past the church on their way to class, few of them stopped in. When Woolsey quizzed student employees about this, they said none of their friends wanted to come inside the church because “they were afraid that we were going to hit them over the head” about religion. Some targeted marketing helped increase the number of patrons until the pandemic hit.
When students were back on campus in large numbers in the fall of 2021, the cafe put coffee and tea machines on carts and moved them onto the church’s large front porch, where students seem more comfortable stopping for a drink, Woolsey said.
The porch is also where she keeps office hours. During the pandemic she wanted to bring a smile to those passing by, so she added another porch chair with a stuffed Grogu, or baby Yoda, from the TV show “The Mandalorian,” with a face mask and a cup of tea. She always wears her clerical collar there, she says, since she is the only woman leading a church in the county. That’s why when the church has worship outdoors, she wears vestments.
Woolsey also turned to popular culture in 2018 when she offered a series called “The Gospel according to Doctor Who,” the time-traveling lord of the popular BBC series. She even had a full-sized TARDIS—the police box structure that permits travel through time and space, built on the church lawn. During the pandemic Woolsey moved it to her back yard, where it was featured in a series of videos called “TARDIS Talks” posted to the church’s YouTube channel.
Woolsey said one the biggest challenge campus ministers face is that so few students have an awareness of religion in general, let alone the Episcopal Church in particular. When setting up the church coffee shop, she met at Good Shepherd with some students in the business school. Most of them, she said, had never before been inside a church, “not even for a wedding or funeral.” And she said this decline in interest soon will have an impact on suburban churches. “They are not going to graduate, get married and then go to a church when they have children. That’s not the norm anymore,” she said.
So right now, campus ministry at Good Shepherd means a good cup of coffee at a fair price, a mask when you need it, a friendly face on the porch and, Woolsey hopes, an introduction to the religion and the life of faith. “There are many expressions of it and this is ours,” she said. “And not today or tomorrow or next year, but some day you may feel ‘I need this in my life.’ And I want you to remember the church with the funky shield with the red cross and the blue field with white crosses.” And maybe a blue TARDIS in the yard, and baby Yoda on the porch.