Showing Up for a Campus in Crisis
UU Campus Ministry Spans the Divide
By Rev. Evan Young
As an ordained Unitarian Universalist campus minister, I’ve had plenty of times where I sat with a student as they went through some kind of crisis. Showing up when things are hard to offer an honest, caring, supportive presence is a core part of what I do at Ohio University, where I serve United Campus Ministry, a progressive ecumenical and interfaith organization. But this fall, for the first time, I’ve had to show up that way for an entire campus. Let me tell you what happened.
On September 2, the newly elected president of Ohio U’s Student Senate uploaded a video response to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge she was issued by the university’s president. Rather than a bucket of ice water, Megan Marzec dumped a bucket of fake blood over her head, while calling attention to the Israeli government’s treatment of the people of Palestine and calling on the university to divest from all academic and other institutions connected to or supportive of the government of Israel.
Both the president of the university and the Student Senate responded immediately, making it clear that Marzec was speaking for herself, not for the university or for the student senate. Still, as you may imagine, things went viral–or, maybe, ultraviral. Within days, Marzec’s email and Facebook were flooded with hate messages, death threats, and rape threats from all over the world. The university and the local chapter of Hillel were deluged with phone calls and messages from concerned parents and donors, threatening to pull their students and/or money from a campus that (to them) was feeling more and more unsafe. The student body, and student leaders, were overwhelmed by the scope and passion of the debate, and by the media scrutiny they were suddenly under.
The next week, student members of Bobcats for Israel (BfI) attended the Student Senate meeting and mounted a “filibuster,” calling for Marzec’s resignation. They held the floor for close to 40 minutes, while student senators, faculty members, and students shouted their disapproval, raised chants against them, and at times physically confronted them. The rhetoric grew extreme, with some reporting insults such as “fascists” and “Nazis” being yelled at BfI members. Eventually Marzec called for a Senate vote on whether the BfI students should be removed from the meeting, and four of the protesting students were arrested and removed.
That’s how our semester began here–with a plunge into a heated and intensely personal controversy, with a crash course in Middle Eastern history and current politics, with a crisis among student leaders and activists, with heightened tension between different faith communities, and with a university administration caught unprepared to deal with a conflict of this scale and intensity.
The anguish, the outrage, the need to be heard and the challenge of listening have all been at least as present and apparent in this case, for the whole campus, as they ever were with the individual students I’ve usually dealt with. So, because that’s what I’m called to do and to be, I’ve showed up–to speak at Student Senate promoting healing across faith divides and inclusive education about the Middle East; to share a meal with students and staff at Hillel after the BfI students’ court hearing; to talk with OU administrators about how we might bring hurting groups of students together for conversation and healing; to listen to Palestinian students’ stories of oppression and fear of reprisal; and to speak, out loud and in public, what I believe about community: that it is possible and necessary to affirm each other’s inherent worth, to accept one another, to respect free speech, the right of conscience and mutual responsibility.
I speak because when it seems like all there is to hear are the chants of frightened, threatened, anxious, angry people, it’s good to be reminded of the things we care most about: the people in front of us and beside us, the relationships we have with them, the ways in which we trust and depend on each other. Megan Marzec’s video has thrust us into a conversation we’ve needed for a long time, not just here in Athens, but as citizens of the global community in which this anguish is being lived out. We have to find a way to have this conversation if we’re to be the people of integrity we’re meant to be. And I believe, at the end of this long journey, we’ll be better people and a better community for having undertaken it together.
As the weeks have gone by, I’m seeing more of us show up–students and staff, faculty and parents and members of the wider community. Not because we have all the answers, but because we believe in the value of being in the room together and having to figure it out. It’s still too soon to know exactly how our community will respond to the challenge Megan raised. But we WILL respond. We’ll educate, we’ll reach out, we’ll heal and bond and find a way to move forward together. And helping all that to happen is why I’m here on campus; it’s why, especially now, Unitarian Universalist campus ministry matters. We know interfaith work; we know the beautiful difficult mess of creating beloved community. We can help and we need to show up.
Evan’s role in the interfaith healing walk that took place on September 11th, 2014 was highlighted in both the university newspaper “The Post” and in the student alternative publication “The New Political“