by Moira Cullings
LAWRENCE — Even mask mandates and social distancing requirements won’t stop St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas here from connecting students to the Catholic faith this school year.
“Our whole mission with coronavirus is to not see the social distancing as something that limits us, but actually as something that allows us to reach people we wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise,” said Joseph Duong, a junior at the University of Kansas.
“With everything that we know is going to be more complicated and not [go] according to plan, there’s so much room for more unexpected blessings and ways to go above and beyond,” he said.
St. Lawrence is working diligently to create safe in-person and virtual opportunities for students to connect and share the faith.
Many of these students are taking all their classes online, vastly reducing the peer-to-peer interaction they would have during a typical semester.
One of the center’s first major events of the year was its Mission Formation retreat, which took place Aug. 28-29.
Around 125 students were broken up into small groups and gathered at retreat hosts’ homes to ensure social distancing. They watched presentations that were livestreamed from St. Lawrence and had discussions within their groups.
The first evening, the students also cooked a meal together, and at the end of the retreat, they gathered together for praise and worship in a larger space.
“The retreat is designed to build culture and to unify this group of students who are in very different places — either in their faith life or [in] the expression of their faith,” said Stacy Cretors, director of mission focus at the center.
“It was all socially distanced,” she said. “They knew all the rules.
“They loved just getting to spend time together in an environment where they haven’t been in a really long time.”
Cretors and the rest of the St. Lawrence team spent the summer improving their camera and sound systems and training staff members in livestreaming technology so opportunities like the retreat would still be possible.
For Father Mitchel Zimmerman, the center’s chaplain/director, these steps to allow students to connect safely in person and virtually are crucial for the center’s mission.
“From the beginning of COVID, my leadership team has tried to see the difficulties as opportunities given by God to stand out and reach students when others can’t or won’t,” said Father Zimmerman.
“We’ve been determined to reach students creatively and not to lose the special opportunity of the signs of the times,” he added.
Outside of special events like the Mission Formation retreat, the center offers students a variety of ways to grow in faith.
Its Alpha program, run this year by Duong, is a video series created to reach students who are unsure if they are Christian or not.
“Its whole premise is starting from the ground [up] and not assuming that anyone even believes in God,” said Duong. “You share a meal, you watch a video and then you discuss it.”
Students involved in Alpha gather in small groups, making it possible amid the pandemic.
Even so, Duong admits he was tempted to cancel the program this year because of the additional challenges due to COVID-19.
“Given everything that’s considered, no one would blame us if we didn’t have Alpha and just waited until after the pandemic,” he thought.
“But when you look through history, the past 2,000 years, anytime there’s a catastrophe — whether it’s a war or a plague — the church has never backed down,” he said. “She’s always been there right in the midst with her sheep.
“That really is what’s fueling me during these hard times.”
Cretors believes the mission of St. Lawrence Center is more important than ever this year, despite the obstacles they will face.
“When we feel limited,” she said, “it’s more of an invitation for God’s providence and his grace to work even more abundantly.
“To see how God is moving despite the limitations has been really inspiring.”
To learn more about the campus center and its efforts, click here.