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Religion

HBCU chaplains evolve to meet studentsí spiritual needs
 
Published Friday, January 11, 2019
by Tiffany Pennamon, Diverse Issues

At 10 a.m. on Sunday mornings, students will find Charles H. Lewter IV preaching from his iPad during worship service at the Johnson-Phillip All Faiths Chapel.

Part of the reason for this preaching method is to keep students engaged, said Lewter, who is dean of the chapel and assistant director of student engagement at Prairie View A&M University. He has been at the historically black university for 25 years.

“This generation doesn’t use pen and paper unless they’re in class. That was a wakeup call for me,” he said, noting that students increasingly use their cellphones to take notes during service. “The story has not changed, but my methodology has changed. … I had to learn that. I evolved just like the students evolve.”

Living through the tenets “faith, education, service,” Lewter’s multidimensional role in the chaplaincy and in student affairs allows him to empower students to focus on strengthening their spiritual journey with their creator while they receive an education.

“When I speak on moral values and the importance of right and wrong and making those ethical decisions when they go to class … I’m not a judgmental individual,” he said. “I meet them where they are. I don’t point the finger, but I do say, ‘Let’s see, what’s the other options to make you a better person’” or to do the right thing?

Lewter steps back to let the students be active participants instead of spectators in their worship experiences, he added. Students will conduct the altar prayer, read the scripture, and participate in mime ministry, the choir or the praise dance team. This year, Lewter launched the Second Sunday Fresh Fire Worship Experience for students, an experience led by a student preacher.

“The best part about it, it’s only one hour,” Lewter said. He added that if he gives students “the whole meal,” they won’t come back.

Lewter’s experience in the chaplaincy is not exclusive to PVAM. For years, HBCU chaplains have played a critical role in nourishing students from entry to exit. The job has become a bit more difficult, in part, because there has been an overall decline in the number of church-going college students in recent decades.

Still, HBCU chaplains mention a need to remain relevant and contemporary as they work to serve traditional-age college students who are in the early years of adulthood. “It’s not church as usual anymore,” Hampton Chaplain Debra L. Haggins said.

Students want their religious officials to give them the gospel and give it to them in a way they understand it, Haggins said.

Hampton’s Sunday worship service starts at 11 a.m. and is only 50 minutes long because students are “programmed” for class time, added Haggins, who has been at the university for 11 years. “They’re on a cycle. We have to pack as much as we can into them.”

Most of her sermons revolve around a theme she sets for the semester or the year. Past themes have touched on Psalms and worship, salvation, identity (“I am not a label”) and self-worth.

Hampton’s worship services are geared to where students are developmentally in their life as opposed to community churches that often speak to the challenges that older adults may face.

“What [students] do have is peer pressure and encouragement to do things that they normally would not do. The goal is to teach them to deal at this level through a Judeo-Christian heritage and faith,” Haggins said, adding that at the university chapel, the message encourages students to “hang in there” as they work through the semester or finals, or “‘That degree is already yours, you just have to stay the course.’”

Haggins works to remain relevant by watching CNN and reading other news and popular culture sites in order to connect her sermons to students’ lived experiences and the world they live in. The chaplaincy, she said, “is one where you must be aware of what’s going on.”

At Bethune-Cookman, the Rev. Kenya M. Lovell points out that B-CU founder Mary McLeod Bethune, in her Last Will and Testament, said “I leave you faith.”

As dean of the chapel and director of religious life at B-CU, Lovell cultivates the campus community’s faith to honor the institution’s heritage, tradition and values through service and theological engagement. She notes that engagement is “shaped in such a way that it is appealing to [students], but also other generations of folks present.”

Ministries available at the institution include the gospel choir, band, the Wildcat Worship team, liturgical dance and mime ministry. Students also serve as chaplain assistants.

Lovell describes her chaplaincy as “ministry in the truest sense of the word.”

“It just really depends on what the needs of the campus are,” she said, adding that she moves “with the fluidity of the day.”

“This includes visiting the hospital with a sick student, faculty or staff member,” Lovell continued. “It also includes praying for the campus community as I visit offices on campus, being present in times of celebration and tragedy, and pastoral care for those who are homesick, need encouraging words or just need a listening ear.”

 

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