The Home We Love So Well: Stories from Home Series
From Campus Ministries to Cyber-Ministries
Online classes can keep learning going, at-home work-outs can maintain physical conditioning, but how do you connect with spiritual life in the age of COVID-19?
That’s been the dilemma facing Chaplain Rhett Butler’13 and his Campus Ministries Leadership Team since in-person worship surrendered mid-March to communion via cyberspace.
This week, Tuesday Night Worship, which used to rock Drum Theater weekly at 8:00 p.m., instead gently breathed into the airwaves—Rhett, alone, sitting in his home with his two dogs (baby Jonah chilling in another part of the home with Rhett’s wife, the Rev. Heather Jones Butler ’13) via Insta Live. Through his words, Rhett attempted to clear away the surreal fog through which listeners were traversing and give them new oxygen through faith and belief.
“I’ll be honest, this has been completely overwhelming,” says Rhett. “And yet, somehow, my faith has grown. I can feel my own inadequacies being replaced with God’s provision and grace. I don’t know how to be an online pastor in the midst of a global pandemic. Thankfully, no one does. I have an incredible peer group of young AWFUMC [Alabama-West Florida Conference United Methodist Church] clergy. We talk multiple times a day and bounce ideas off of one another to figure all this out.”
“Campus ministries reminds me in this time that there is hope,” says Ben Harris ’21, of Birmingham, Alabama. Ben plays guitar for the worship band and helps with lights, sound, technology, chairs—whatever is needed—for in-person worship. Now, he’s learning some new technical skills. “Campus ministries has helped me a lot during this time. A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is to live-stream, get everyone watching, make sure there are no lag problems, etc. In times like this technology is almost all we have, and sometimes it’s not the most reliable. Yet it still works. The community is still there in spirit even if we don’t see each other in person. [Being together online] reminds me that there will be a day again where I will be plugging in the lights or moving some chairs. There will be a day again where I see my brothers and sisters in Christ on a normal basis. Through it all, Campus Ministries has always been there and I know they always will be.”
Lucy Burch ’21 of Florence, Alabama, works as Chaplain Butler’s student assistant, running the communication and social media streams that feed awareness of the program and attract students to CM events. “Campus Ministries has—hands down—been the most pivotal part of my college experience,” says Lucy, who is also the newly-installed student government president and a member of the women’s tennis team. “I would not trade any of my other involvements because they’re also remarkable, but Campus Ministries is my absolute community. Chaplain Rhett Butler has truly shown me God’s grace, which is something that my prior church background had never shown me. These are my best friends. I have grown into who I am meant to be because of Campus Ministries.”
When in-person campus bible study and discussion groups ceased because of COVID-19, new CM groups formed online. One of the small groups, Senior Sanity, meets Monday evenings. “This time in my life is so strange, between the pandemic, finishing my last semester at Huntingdon, and preparing to move off to medical school,” says Amber Shirley ’20, of Brundidge, Alabama. “Having this group has helped me navigate this time in a community of people who have similar circumstances—and discover how my faith is changing, strengthening, and being challenged in new ways. Rhett has done an amazing job of bringing Campus Ministries to the ‘virtual world.’ I feel so blessed that even though I can’t [be involved] in person, I get to finish the school year strong with this community.”
Tori Parks ’20 of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, agrees. “[Senior Sanity] is a safe space to talk about how we as the Class of 2020 are feeling about our year being cut short. This has been a great tool and I think it has really helped many seniors cope and step up to face the challenges ahead.”
“Campus ministries has acted as a safe haven, [allowing me to] take a step back from school work and all the other activities I am involved in,” Tori continues. “It is a breath of fresh air to be able to sit down and talk about things that are completely unrelated to class work. It has given me a break from many stressors.”
Instead of weekly Chapel services on Wednesdays, Rhett sends out written prayers to everyone in the Huntingdon community. Serving faculty and staff in addition to students adds a new audience to his work. “I’ve made an intentional effort in this time to take care of our whole Huntingdon community,” says Rhett. “I’ve received an overwhelming amount of thanks and engagement from faculty and staff.”
Faith in Hard Times is another small group offered Thursday evenings, while a third group is led by Emily Conoly ’19 and Dr. Diana Abernethy, assistant professor of religion. All three of these groups meet online via Insta Live or Zoom, as does a Thursday live worship music service.
In between groups and worship services, Rhett offers individual pastoral counseling by phone and posts suggestions for movies, music, de-stressing activities, and multitudes of memes on the CM GroupMe.
Before this week, Campus Ministries programs had received more than 100 unique views of the two TNW services and worship streams and roughly 40 students had participated in small groups. The TNW online format has enabled alumni and incoming freshmen to tune in and join the conversation.
The April 21 TNW service marked 40 days of virtual ministry and 40 days of quarantine, and the parallels with the biblical story of Israelites wandering in the wilderness were not lost on the chaplain. “Tonight we’ll look to the Israelites’ faith to bolster our own; especially keying in on their hope that with God there is always a Promised Land to look forward to,” Rhett wrote in his communication inviting students to the service. “I have great faith that the Spirit connects us even in our distance, even in this pandemic. Your Huntingdon family misses you, and there are far more people on campus praying for you than just me. We are here for you!”
“This pandemic has shown me more than ever the necessity for Campus Ministry programming,” says Amber. “Through all of the highs and lows over the past few weeks, I’ve had something to look forward to and a community to rely on.”
“The biggest thing that the pandemic has shown me is how fast life happens and changes,” says Tori. “When you are about to graduate from college, your second semester is a period to mentally prepare to step out of the world we have known for four years and enter into our new world, whatever that may entail. With this change being a lot sooner than any of us expected, I feel that the need for Campus Ministries is even stronger than ever.”
” I miss everyone involved,” says Cullen Stafford ’22 of Rainbow City, Alabama. ” I miss the service of others and most of all I miss worshiping with everyone who comes. I think everyone involved with Campus Ministries is doing the best they can with the situation we have been dealt.”
All agree that if they can’t worship in the same physical space, cyber-space is a necessary replacement—even, according to Ben, when they are singing into their iPhones rather than with each other in person. “It was awesome seeing everybody tune in and it was great to think that even in this time of being spread apart we are still able to reach out to each other. I could still feel everybody’s presence behind their phones. It felt like a Tuesday Night Worship. That’s community. Even when you’re not together you’re together in each other’s hearts.”
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