The Welcome Table
by Laurel E. Alexander (March / April 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 2)
We may not be able to build a perfectly welcoming table overnight, but hard work and good intentions can yield positive results in even a short time
University of Colorado at Boulder
...I'm gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days...(traditional spiritual)
At the "welcome table" of the traditional African-American Spiritual, people are able to deeply share all of their troubles, joys, and sorrows with each other and with God. As all of us know who do ministry, the type of community embedded in this metaphor takes time to build and is often hard won through pain as well as joy.
This also applies to my interfaith work on campus at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU). There, one "table" is filled with 20 representatives from most of the religious groups on campus who make up the "Religious Campus Organizations" (RCO).
Another "table" is located inside the Summer Orientation Organization Fair, and behind it are my RCO colleagues.
And finally, there's a large conference table where I sit at a monthly meeting in my role as RCO president, along with all the directors in the Division of Student Affairs at the university.
These three different tables speak of a broader welcome and inclusion, not only in terms of interfaith work but also of a partnership relationship between the religious groups and the university.
When I arrived at CU more than five years ago, the type of interaction and entrée that these tables represent was something I could only dream of. All that existed then was United Campus Ministries (UCM), comprised of 12 mainstream and evangelical groups, and Hillel, the Jewish ministry. UCM met monthly and never interacted much with the other religious groups on campus.
Then, about three years ago, two significant events happened, and a new vision emerged. One event was the arrival of a new Dean of Students, who believed that a partnership of campus ministers and the university could work together in student development.
The other event was the suicide of a student, who hung himself in a campus dormitory. He belonged to a religious group at CU that engages in "cultic practices." Some members of this group who were Resident Advisors in the dorms offered a "reason" for his suicide, saying that "his faith wasn't strong enough." The housing staff was appalled, and they called on UCM members for help.
We responded with an event on "Cult Awareness," and a conversation began about forming a larger religious organization that would contain all the "legitimate" groups on campus. Using models shared by my Lutheran Campus Ministry colleagues, we developed a purpose statement and an ethics code. Thus, RCO was born.
After two years I began to feel that we had made definite progress. Response to the tragic events of September 11, 2001 illustrated that very well. The university immediately pulled together its "Crisis Incident Response Group" and asked RCO officers to attend those meetings. Together, we developed a plan for "drop-in counseling centers," utilizing the counseling services staff from campus in partnership with campus ministers.
In addition, all the campus ministers now carry staff ID cards with "Campus Minister" printed on them. We are seen as a resource to the campus community rather than as a group of people to be tolerated or even mistrusted.
As I said before, both joys and sorrows result from sitting at these tables. Increased credibility, as well as increased visibility with some of our RCO staff serving on university committees, are some of the joys. Another is sitting at orientation tables and learning more about different religious traditions from my colleagues and growing in mutual respect and understanding for each other.
My colleagues and I, however, are still learning to trust one another as we sit at a common RCO information table. We promote every group, not just our own, but some still struggle with that theologically. I am hoping that they will come to understand that "sitting at the table" doesn't mean compromising our own beliefs or faith traditions but rather respecting each other's enough to offer information to students so that they can make a choice.
The "welcome table" of which the Spirituals speak is an image of true hospitality and welcome that occurs finally at our heavenly home. I have been both truly blessed and deeply challenged by sitting around three earthly versions of that table here on campus. I feel I'm offering the best of my Lutheran tradition by seeking community and understanding around these tables, and I know the students appreciate the unity and the diversity they see when we work together.
So, when you come to CU to visit, look for me sitting behind one of these "welcome tables." I'm the one wearing the button that says, "Ask Me about Lutheran Campus Ministry!"
Laurel E. Alexander is an ELCA campus pastor working with students who attend the University of Colorado, Boulder.