The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens sits in the heart of Ohio University, across from the campus library, next to the alumni center, on the way to classes, dorms, and cafeterias. The past few years it has become our custom to greet students, faculty and staff on the first days of class, offering them free coffee and donuts on the front steps of the church. It was never really about the donuts or coffee. It was a way to be present to our neighbors, offer a blessing in hopes of having a good academic year and doing a little something to make it a good first day.
The pandemic made us reconsider the practice of offering free food, even though it would be outside. More people have returned to on-campus life, but they are doing so with more complex emotions, sensitivities and concerns than in the past. We thought it would be best to change, to try and adapt to the changes on campus.
A few of us were still outside on the church porch. To say good morning, to show we are with our neighbors in this new academic year. And in case someone wanted or needed directions. Instead of giving away free coffee and donuts, we had plenty of free face masks attached to the railings in front of the church. Quite a few students were grateful for the free masks, as they had forgotten theirs in their excitement and rush of the first day of class. And our coffee shop was open with everything for $1.
What we anticipated missing were the people who would stop and talk, those who would linger with us a while on that first day, telling us whatever was on their mind or in their heart while we listened. These conversations were not very long, most were brief encounters that lasted a minute – but we still valued them. We still wanted to give people the opportunity to know we are present, and ready to listen. So, we put up a large sign with a blank white space. A message at the top of the sign invited people to write their thoughts and feelings on the first day. Many parishioners wrote words of welcome, blessings, prayers and encouragement on the sign. We put out lots of colored markers in cups attached to the sign so people could respond to our invitation.
Over the first two days of classes, the sign filled up with the words of those who accepted our invitation. Students wrote messages of gratitude for the welcome, for our presence on the first day. Others wrote messages of encouragement, while others wrote silly messages, and others expressed they had indeed had a good first day. Others shared their own invitations in hopes of getting more followers on their social media platforms. We were thrilled our invitation was accepted.
The sign came down after the first few days of class. But we are thinking about new questions to put on the sign that parishioners and the campus community might contemplate and share together, to keep the unique conversation going. It’s a different way of sharing our stories, hopes and personalities and a new way to be present to each other, but the blessing we are offering is the same as it has always been.
The Rev. Deborah Woolsey serves as Rector at Church of the Good Shepherd, Athens, and as Convener of the Campus Ministry Collaborative for the Diocese of Southern Ohio.