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Students set adrift by campus ministry cuts

Northridge, Calif.

Sometime in the weeks immediately ahead, the Los Angeles archdiocese is likely to find its e-mail boxes jammed to overflowing -- with messages from Catholic university students frustrated or furious that their campus ministries are being closed down.

Said Rod Labuni, Newman Club vice president at 32,000-student California State University, Northridge, where 30 to 40 percent of the student body is Catholic, “The church is sending mixed messages. The pope tells us, ‘You are the future,’ then they cut the funds.”

At their last retreat, he said, the students responded to the synod process currently underway in the archdiocese. “They were pressing us to implement new programs.” The recent funding cutback “was disheartening, shocking, when we’re told we are the ones to keep the life going in the church as well as on university campus.”

The campus ministry cutback’s effects are major and minor. After 20 years at the university in Northridge, campus minister Pat Boroughs will be gone by mid-October. Newman Club member Megan McMahon was just about to organize a Bible study class, and now there’s not even money for materials like the Share the Word publication.

The Catholic ministry loses its part-time student secretary, its offices and -- unless a Catholic faculty member steps in as an adviser -- its meeting place in the university’s Interfaith Council offices.

There are at least 80,000 Catholic students in the eight major universities within the archdiocesan boundaries. Only UCLA -- where the archdiocese has invested in a huge building program -- and the University of Southern California, which are university parishes, are spared.

Cardinal Roger Mahony’s sudden guillotining of archdiocesan ministries in September ended outreach programs that dealt with right-to-life issues, Catholics with disabilities, interfaith and ecumenical relations, work with lesbian and gay Catholics and, most pressingly, outreach to the Hispanic, African-American and Asian-Pacific Catholic communities. Departments such as detention ministry are halved; education ministry and others trimmed (NCR, Sept. 27 and Oct. 4).

Archdiocesan campus ministry (Newman Apostolate) director Laurie Oester said she understood the Catholic students’ plight. The current generation of Catholic students on campus might rally and continue for a while, but once this this generation of leaders -- who has known campus ministers -- is gone, she said, she was not certain future generations of Newman Club members “can survive on their own.”

Oester, with more than two decades’ experience in campus ministry, understands the multiplicity of needs campus ministers meet, and the threats students face, including those from cults and fundamentalist sects, which are extremely active on most Southern California campuses.

On Sept. 25 a dozen Northridge students spoke out at their Wednesday noon-to-2 p.m. Newman Club meeting. There is usually a Communion service at the weekly meeting in the Newman Club’s lounge at the university’s Interfaith Council center. Weekly meetings are “drop-in” sessions with a floating population.

Closing campus ministry is a “personal downer,” said vice president Labuni, “because the membership was climbing. We just signed up 60 students at the [new academic year] orientation meeting.”

“As Catholic students, [the cutbacks] put us one step behind,” commented Newman secretary Tatiana El-Khouri. “We have really active members working on adding new features to the club. And now this.” El-Khouri serves as eucharistic minister in her parish and wonders if she can become qualified to conduct the Communion services at the Wednesday meeting.

She lamented the archdiocese’s shortsightedness: “Though we don’t generate funds for the archdiocese now, we are the people who in the future would generate those funds. We harbor a lot of the future resources.”

Several other students addressed how the Newman Club serves them. Debbie Aitken, who was a transfer student last year, said she had a difficult time adjusting to college. “I come from a really, really small town. I was really homesick. I came here and I was made to feel at home,” she said. “I liked the way everyone was talking to one another. They cared, and it’s made all the difference in the world to my college experience. It really brought me out of my shell and made me feel I’m not alone out there.”

Freshman Brad Torti was enthusiastic about the Newman Club for a different reason. “The college students in my parish would come to the parish youth group and talk about their experience with the Newman clubs. I was really looking forward to it. Now, to hear this, it’s frustrating. I was looking forward to getting involved.”

Catholic students will have to find a faculty adviser in order to continue as a recognized university club.

“It’s a large responsibility,” said Newman president Steve Albovias. “We call on Pat [Boroughs] quite a bit. She’s a tremendous resource. She knows everyone on campus. She’s also our contact to [the service sites -- Habitat for Humanity, MEND, a community clinic for the poor, and similar agencies]. She understands the students; she has life experience. She has guided me personally quite a bit.”

In the past, Northridge campus Catholic students have approached the local parish, offering to do service projects -- food drives, tutoring. “Now,” said Vice President Labuni, “we’ll approach them and ask them to adopt us. It’s just down the street, and a lot of students go there to Mass.”

The forthcoming multi-campus Newman Clubs’ retreat in mid-October will take on a different sense of urgency, Albovias said. “We’re having talks on writing to the archdiocese. We want to overflow their mailbox so they can see they can’t just write us off.”

Boroughs said much of her 20 years’ ministering at California State University Northridge has been “loitering with intent. Being available.”

As a senior member of the seven-person campus Interfaith Council, Boroughs’ work has included being the point person for emergency housing after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, when a significant portion of the campus was damaged or destroyed, organizing a residence prayer service after a local shooting and planning services in the aftermath of Sept. 11 last year.

Equally pertinent to the students’ lives as Catholics, she said, the council has sponsored cult awareness workshops in the various university departments.

What the Newman Club offers the incoming students, she said, is key to their faith survival. They learn, “I’m not alone in discovering my faith and what it means to me as an 18- or 19- or 23-year-old.”

“And there’s so much to contend with,” said Boroughs. “I sat in on one religious studies class here and I was appalled. The instructor’s misconceptions of the history of the Roman Catholic church -- students are always coming to me saying their Catholic beliefs are really being challenged.

“Of course,” said Boroughs, “some of them were hearing historical realities [about the church] for the first time and were not aware of its history. But much of it is a strong and continuous challenge to their faith by other groups.”

The Northridge Newman Club has been hit by archdiocesan mandates before. In the 1980s the club had its own building, owned a corner lot and had blueprints for building a new center. In 1993, she said, “during another financial crisis, [the archdiocese] sold everything. Do you see a pattern here?”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002