Freshmen get invitation to believe
Mixed in with the usual deals on pizza and new bank accounts greeting University of Arizona freshmen this semester are a large number of offers to connect with God.
Christian-themed DVDs accompanied by a note from a local Southern Baptist church for the first time were mailed to the home addresses of the nearly 6,000 students who begin their first year of college classes at the UA on Monday.
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As they arrived in Tucson last week, many students found pamphlets, free water bottles and invitations for home-cooked meals from a bevy of religious groups. At least 25 organized faiths have a presence on the UA campus.
Hillel, the campus Jewish student organization, provided dollies to help students move into the dorms this week. On Sept. 3 and Sept. 10, Hillel for the first time will sponsor a “Hillelfest” on the UA Mall to increase awareness. At First United Methodist Church, college-age members this summer sent personal letters to incoming UA freshman who attended United Methodist churches in their hometowns.
Religious leaders say part of the reason for stepping up marketing to students is that young people now, unlike their counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s, seek structured spirituality after being raised by baby-boomer parents who rejected religion.
In 2001, the American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by the City University of New York Graduate Center, found 72 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 identify themselves as a member of a religious group or faith compared with 86 percent of all American adults. Adults 18 to 29 were more likely to identify themselves as Catholic or Baptist than adults 65 or older, and the survey also found that more than half of Americans identifying themselves as Muslim or Buddhist were 30 or younger.
“I think there’s more of an interest in religion across the board,” said Bryce Bouchard, who along with his wife, Susan, works full time resurrecting the nondenominational Christian Navigators group at the UA. The Navigators has not had a presence on the local campus since the early 1990s.
“In the 1980s and ’90s all Christian groups really suffered,” said Bouchard, who had an information booth on the UA Mall for interested freshmen last week. “There’s more of a resurgence not just in college but throughout the country.”
First Southern Baptist Church has had some complaints about the DVD it produced, yet the church’s leaders say it was a way to provide information, not to convert.
The DVD, for example, is really a multimedia brochure telling students about First Southern Baptist Church and also providing phone numbers and Web sites for campus Christian groups, though as of last week, many incoming freshman said they hadn’t looked at it.
The DVD includes “click on” areas for information such as testimonials from Christian UA students and a presentation fashioned after a music video detailing activities for college Christians who attend First Southern Baptist Church. The church accessed the students’ addresses through Refuge, the on-campus Baptist ministry.
“It’s OK for them to do that, I’m just not interested,” said Starr Golomb, an 18-year-old Scottsdale resident who moved to Tucson last week to begin her freshman year. “I’m going to be busy with school and I have a job, and my social life and other stuff. And I’m not a church kind of person.”
Golomb said she did not watch the religious DVD. She briefly wondered how the church got her home address, though she wasn’t offended; she simply threw it away. Her attitude toward organized religion may remain the same throughout her college years. But religious leaders say there’s an equal chance that it will change.
While much of this semester’s religious marketing surge is coming from conservative Christian groups, incoming freshmen will also find advertisements in the Arizona Daily Wildcat from the campus Episcopal ministry inviting them to consider a more liberal perspective to faith. The ads have slogans reading, “If you think church is only for families, remember Jesus was single.”
The Rev. Jeffrey B. Reed says he hopes to reinvigorate the Episcopal ministry at the UA, which had not had an Episcopal chaplain in more than a year before Reed was hired this year. He makes regular trips to the Student Union, where he mingles with students during lunch.
Reed said another part of ministering on college campuses is attempting to stem the loss of young people who are raised in a faith, leave at 17 or 18 and return years later when they have their first child.
“I think it’s a key age because it is the point where students are making their own choices and their own decisions. It’s when they start choosing their own brand of toothpaste and detergent,” said Rob Gaschler, college pastor for First Southern Baptist Church, 445 E. Speedway, which paid for the DVD production.
Gaschler said in his three years as college pastor for First Southern Baptist, he has seen his church’s college-age membership go from two to about 200.
Many UA freshmen, like 19-year-old Erik Petersen, have open minds about religion but aren’t exactly certain whether they will get involved. Petersen, who is from Sierra Vista, did not watch the DVD he received. If he does get involved in church life in Tucson, he said, it will probably be with the Lutheran church because that’s his family’s denomination, though he does not describe his upbringing as particularly religious.
“Religion is not a huge priority, but it is somewhere in there,” said Petersen, who will study finance.
Yolanda Herrera, an 18-year-old Tucson resident and engineering freshman, did not watch the Christian DVD. Herrera was raised Catholic but says she’s not particularly religious.
Campus religious groups are not supposed to proselytize to students who are already involved in a different faith, said First United Methodist Church’s Rev. Dan Hurlbert, explaining, for example, that he directs Jewish students to Hillel rather than asking them to join his church.
The UA’s United Religious Council, of which Hurlbert is a former chairman, includes groups representing virtually every faith on campus ranging from Muslim to Quaker to Mormon. While some faiths have formal on-campus ministries such as Baptist Student Ministries, others are more informal groups of students from the same faith, among them Hindu and Baha’i.
The presence of non-Christian religions on the UA campus has been increasing since the 1970s.
Hurlbert, like other campus pastors, said some of the students he meets are more interested in organized faith than their parents. He recalled one student who feared her family’s reaction to the fact that she had become a regular church-goer.
“A lot of us come from divorced families and I think there’s a return with this generation to conservative thought and conservative political views and family values,” said Jenny Rimsza, a 21-year-old UA senior who joined First Southern Baptist Church her sophomore year.
Like most of the student members at First Southern Baptist, Rimsza does not come from a Southern Baptist background, or even a religious upbringing. She first heard about the church through a friend in her sorority, Pi Beta Phi, which now has its own Bible study group. While an intern at the Central Intelligence Agency this summer, Rimsza helped coordinate a Bible study for employees.
Rimsza, who appears on the DVD, remembers that when she was a UA freshman she had everything she thought she needed in life – goals, good grades, a social life and comfort. Yet she still didn’t feel fulfilled, she said. Finding God allowed her to fill that void, she said.
“You have an infinite hole in your heart and you try to fill it with finite things like boys and a sorority but I found it can only be filled with an infinite God,” Rimsza said. “My whole freshman year I was so different. I am a completely different person than I was two years ago.”