College Ministry: Salt Marsh Ministry

The following is another conversation in the College Ministry:
Conversations and Context series
For more information about this series click here.

One of my favorite places in all of the Creation is Jekyll Island, Georgia. This Island is special because it is entirely owned by the state of Georgia and, by law, 65% of it must remain in a natural state. It is financially accessible to everyone and enjoyed by a variety of people.

It is a nice place to vacation because it has something for everyone. My wife likes having a grocery store and plenty of access to the beach. My sons like the miniature golf and playgrounds. I like the fact that it’s not too crowded and there are lots of trails and natural areas.

Jekyll is one of many barrier islands that stretch from North Carolina to Florida. These islands have a unique ecology. The maritime forests are beautiful and the beaches are expansive during low tide. Most people seem to prefer the beaches and forests to what’s on the western side of the islands, but I think that I prefer what’s less well known and appreciated. The salt marshes, tidal creeks, and estuaries between the islands and the mainland are some of the most peaceful places I know.This summer, I had the joy of taking a guided tour up a tidal creek and into a salt marsh. Because this area has a tidal range of up to nine feet, we had to be careful about our timing. What is a waterway one moment can be a mud pit the next. It is both peaceful and dangerous, a fact that is reflected in the marshy smell that is both delightful and detested.

The marsh is filled with a type of grass called Spartina Grass. It was literally everywhere. It is an amazing grass that can survive hours submerged in salt water, followed by hours above the water. When it dies, it decomposes into detritus, which is then eaten by the crabs and shrimp. It is the beginning of the food chain. As such, it is of critical importance to the ecology of the place.

But you don’t just see Spartina Grass in the marshes. It also washes out to sea with the tide only to be deposited on the beaches. Once on the beaches, it forms the beginning of dunes. Dunes, of course, are key to building and then protecting the island. If it weren’t for Spartina Grass, we wouldn’t have beaches to enjoy, islands to visit, or shrimp to eat.

As I was paddling through the water, I considered how similar it was to my calling, campus ministry. I believe that campus ministry is that often forgotten part of the church. People fail to remember that the Reformation had its roots in campus ministry, or that the Civil Rights movement in the American South was strongly tied to campus ministry (one of our alums once told me that Martin Luther King Jr. told him to seek out the Presbyterian Student Center at the University of Georgia when he arrived in Athens!).

For many, campus ministry is seen as a sort of charity. We throw some pizza at the college students and don’t expect too much from them during their college years. It is tolerated, but not celebrated, as we forsake the work of so many great youth programs.

Instead, I believe that campus ministry is the church’s best hope for a strong future. It is a sort of laboratory for everything that the church will be in the coming years. It is the foundation of our ecclesial ecology.

Just like the Spartina Grass in the marsh, it is underestimated and under-appreciated. But just like the Spartina Grass, it is the thing that will grow and sustain the church. And like the Spartina Grass, a threat to campus ministry is a threat to the church.

For years, we have let campus ministry quietly slip away. Likewise, the church has slipped in ministry and membership. Today, some denominations are recognizing this and redoubling their efforts in campus ministry. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has made some big steps in the past few years as we’ve rebuilt the Office of Collegiate Ministries and started a national campus ministry effort called UKirk.

I believe that we can recover our ecclesial ecology. Until then, I’ll continue to be grateful that I have been called to work in the marshes and I’ll welcome all the help that I can get.

Andy is the Campus Minister at the Presbyterian Student Center at the University of Georgia. He is married to Stacey, and they have 2 boys, 2 dogs, and a picket fence. He is passionate about trees, rocking chairs, coffee, college football, and beer.