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Finding God, Finding Community: What Happens When Students Go Off Campus
Every fall, from October to the end of November, InterVarsity chapters across the country leave their individual campuses to gather with other chapters in their area to worship together, to study Scripture together, to pray together, and to relax together. These weekend conferences away from the normal hustle of campus life are powerful times of community building and vision casting for students, and many meet God in profound ways.
Take the Smoke Jump Conference, for example. In 2015, senior area director Abner Ramos felt a pull from God to help students, Latino students in particular, start LaFe (Latino Fellowship) ministries on their campuses. With assistance from other staff, he was able to fund an 18-month, three city tour to develop staff and students in planting chapters. This fall, he and fellow staff members Kristy Robinson and Russell Gaither Mercado held a Smoke Jump Conference in Nebraska. Latino students from three different states and a number of campuses attended.
The name “Smoke Jump” derives from the elite firefighters in California who parachute into the backcountry to fight fires that other firefighters are unable to reach. This translates well to the vision of the Smoke Jump Conference, where God is lighting fires in Latino students to reach their campuses and asking them to respond. “If I had to answer the question, ‘what do you want to see happen through this [conference]?’ I’d say that I want to empower Latino students and staff to plant ministries wherever the Lord has them; I want people to know that Latinos are not just recipients of mission but leaders in outreach, evangelism, and planting,” said Abner.
Staff saw students respond profoundly to God at the conference. Russell said, “We know the Lord is doing a profound work through Latinos in the West and East coast, but to see students say yes to the challenge of planting new communities in Nebraska floored me.” Students were deeply engaged, with a number of them giving their whole lives to the lordship of Christ, and two students becoming Christians for the first time. Russell went on to say, “Witnessing the strong Latino community in Nebraska and seeing their hearts to follow Jesus into a harvest field reserved for their labor was both encouraging and exciting.”
Other conferences are more general and bring together both ethnic specific chapters and multiethnic chapters. Chelir Grady, a campus staff minister at Texas Southern University, leads a Black Campus Ministries (BCM) chapter. This year, 30 of her students attended the Encounter conference, which brought together chapters from all over Texas for a weekend. She reiterated over and over the significance of chapters having the opportunity to understand more fully the richness of InterVarsity’s ministry, which happens when they gather with other chapters from the region. This includes a broader view of InterVarsity’s vision on campus, and a deeper understanding of the importance of ethnic diversity. “[My] students get to engage with all sorts of other ethnicities—Latino, White, Asian American,” she explained. “It’s an opportunity for growth and for understanding the beauty of all the cultures around them and what it looks like when they come together. . . . The benefits of that are immeasurable.”
Along with the benefits of connecting with other chapters and seeing the bigger picture of InterVarsity is the benefit to individual chapters. Kristi Barclay, a campus staff minister at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, talked about the growth her students experience each year at their Cross Training Fall Conference: “We use our conference for really great training. It’s hard for students to give the same level of time and attention to training done on campus. We can do 10 hours of training in one weekend, [whereas] on campus it would take 5 to 10 weeks. Students come back to campus with more spiritual energy, bigger vision, and more tools for following Jesus on campus.”
Kristi also mentioned the perks of “cross-pollination”—being in an environment that enables learning from other students and chapters. Fall Conferences bring the unique gifts of staff and students across the region to bear in training and learning from each other. Chelir added, “When you get away and you see how God is working throughout the entire region, it charges you up to continue in the mission on your own campus.”
Getting away also allows students to deepen community and build friendships in their chapters, as students spend even more time together than they would in a typical weekend on campus. Both Kristi and Chelir noted this significant bonding that occurs at Fall Conference. As Chelir said, “When you’re away with people you build genuine community. When you’re away for a whole weekend you have to talk and have fun with the people around you.”
However unique each of InterVarsity’s Fall Conferences is, bonding, training, and spiritual formation happen across the board. Every year the Lord brings amazing fruit out of Fall Conferences, from new life in Jesus to a renewed passion for the campus. And though most of our Fall Conferences have concluded for this year, the fruit continues. Students are back at school reenergized for the work God has prepared for them this semester, bringing his good news to others and seeing him transform their campuses. Our movement is blessed to have staff and students committed to seeking Jesus on their campus and off, and a God who works powerfully in both places.