A Theology of Place

[Remarks given October 2019 to campus ministry leaders]

My theme today is a theology of place.

I hear some clues to where you all are from in your stories and in your accents, and I see some clues in the things you are wearing—New England. California. Walla Walla. A Maryland flag.

I have lived in many places, and traveled to quite a few. I love to explore the places I live and visit, whether the battlefield at Gettysburg, the museums and streets of my present city, Houston. Last month, my wife and I went to Salzburg, the city of Mozart.

Since this is a field school of evangelism, let me tell you my biggest beef with Adventist evangelism: it generally acts as if place doesn’t matter. The same Powerpoint slides are used in Share Him crusades around the world. When the Southwestern Union decided to do a citywide evangelism event in my fair city, Houston, they didn’t talk to the pastors about the needs of the city. or what theme to use, or even where they should purchase billboards. We weren’t asked anything—they did what they did in every other place. They put up their standard billboards. They gave us their standard slides. They gave us the sermons to preach. They mailed out their fliers with their theme. They never asked if anything was unique about our place. They never asked us if our city had any unique needs. They never asked if these materials were appropriate.

Evangelism must have a sense of place. 

And we have to have a connection with that place.

John’s gospel says, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” That’s our starting point. Just as Jesus took our flesh and dwelt among us, our mission must be incarnated in the places we minister.

We think that obvious if we are talking about foreign missions. We wouldn’t send someone as a missionary to a foreign country without knowing the language or the culture. You need to think of communities in the US the same way. You need to think of the university community in that way.

Here are a couple of texts. 1 Cor 9:19-23′

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Acts 17:22-23

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

One of my graduate school professors, Paul Landa, told of visiting Oxford. The Adventist church was having an evangelistic series and had a garish poster out front: “Invasion from space!” There was a handful of cars in the parking lot. An Anglican church nearby was having an Advent series, “Thoughts on Our Lords return”–the parking lot and the church were full. The Adventist church did not take into consideration the Oxford context.

I was having dinner once with someone who wanted to do campus ministry. I asked him, “What do you love about the university?” He couldn’t answer. He had never taken classes at a secular university. He didn’t go to lectures or football games or museums.

My home church is in New Haven, Connecticut, a couple blocks from the Yale University campus. Back in 2008, I think it was, I preached there (for the first time) about campus ministry. My theme: “Come Over to Academia and Help Us!” Afterwards, a couple of the elders said, “In all the years the church has been here, you are the first pastor to give us that vision of ministry to the university.

In preparing this presentation I came across a book, On Parker Street: The Evolution of a Berkeley Neighborhood 1855-1965, by Lyndon Comstock. Comstock says this about the building we are at this moment meeting in:

The Adventist Church, built at 2236 Parker in 1940, seems to have no obvious connection to the neighborhood even when it was first constructed. The socially conservative church was amusingly out of place in Berkeley in the Sixties, especially on the 2200 block of Parker Street. One wonders if anyone from the neighborhood has attended the church in the past fifty years.

I recently watched the 1990 documentary, “Berkeley in the 60s.” Scenes of Sproul Plaza. The Free Speech Movement. Peoples Park. Clark Kerr. Mario Savio. Jack Weinberg. James Rector. Black Panthers. Bobby Seale. Huey P. Newton. Vietnam protests. Songs of Joan Baez. All the names and issues of Berkeley history.

And Comstock said during that period this church we are in was “socially conservative” and “amusingly out of place.” Is it still out of place? Some thought so on March 16, 2018. ICE was in the parking lot and an arrest was made. The pastor, Ron Pickell, was on the news. He said members called him to tell him about the ICE action. “I was FURIOUS about that,” he told the reporter. “We never gave permission, or consent, and we are not supportive of that kind of thing.” Today this church is part of this neighborhood. It is part of this community. How could a church faithful to its calling be here in this place and not speak about immigration? About harassment of foreigners? About bigotry and hate and war and peace?

There are suicides each year here. Cal keeps numbers, but I couldn’t find them right away. But it is an issue talked about regularly.

I found an article online from Daily Cal, April 26, 2013, “In the face of depression, moving forward.”

“Cal is a very stressful place — there’s an intensity, an academic integrity,” said Aaron Cohen, a psychologist at the University Health Services Tang Center. “That creates a lot of stress, anxiety, depression — you name it. So I do think there can be a pulse on this campus where we’re not creating a healthy environment.”

Even after surviving a war zone, UC Berkeley freshman Unis Barakat found himself succumbing to the lingering emotional scars of his experience.

Barakat had spent his childhood on the Gaza Strip in Palestine, fearing for his life as helicopters fired missiles and cars exploded around him. Before he moved to the United States, family members physically abused him, holding his mother back as they threw him down the stairs.

In the spring of 2011, Barakat attempted his first suicide.

“I was sick of the injustices in the world,” he said. “It wasn’t a place I wanted to be. I really wanted to kill myself at the time.”

What is our place HERE? How is ministry different HERE? What does this place need to hear from us? What do we need to hear from this place?

Let me tell you about my experience. I started in full time campus ministry in 1996 at another campus in the UC system—UCSB. I was employed by St Marks University Parish—the Catholic Campus Ministry. I loved that place. We were surrounded by fraternities and sororities. The first Freebirds was around the corner. The beach was a five minute walk. I got involved on campus. I collaborated with other campus ministries in the Veritas Forum. I coordinated a faculty spirituality dinner series. I was chair of the interfaith fellowship. After two years there, I was hired by the Archdiocese of Galveston Houston as Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry. I had a $750,000 campus ministry budget. I had centers at Rice, UH, PV, TSU, the Texas Medical Center, UTMB, and other places–each of which was unique. The ministry in each place was unique. I hired campus ministers for each place based on their gifts that fit there. Nine years later, 2007, I found myself returning to the SDA church. The conference president said, “You really need to get to know Lane Campbell, our director of young adult and campus ministry.” Lane in turn said, “We are having an ACF retreat, and Ron Pickell, the NAD coordinator for ACF, is coming. You need to meet him.” That was 12 years ago. Ron and I have spoken together many places, and enjoyed learning about each place we have traveled.

Place matters. Each campus is different. Each campus has different gifts, different challenges. So do you. Before you come up with a plan for ministry, get to know the place. Become part of the place. Become part of the university community. Be a word made flesh, dwelling among these people.