To the world it would seem that the Christian church is divided, and indeed we do have theological debates that have separated us. Perhaps the most notable divide is between Catholics and Protestants. For generations both sides have regarded each other begrudgingly, sometimes renouncing the other’s claim to Christianity.
Being interdenominational gives InterVarsity the unique opportunity to bring Christians with different backgrounds together. At the University of California—San Diego (UCSD), Jessica Saavedra, a student, has worked towards making the InterVarsity chapter at her school a place of welcome for both Protestants and Catholics.
For three years Jessica has been on InterVarsity’s student leadership. As she stood to give announcements at the end of this past school year, enthusiastically giving directions to the crowd, you knew that she loved being a part of the mission of InterVarsity. Her petite frame and quick smile held the room at attention as she bantered with her MC partner about upcoming events. In private she was no less animated; she spoke passionately about her faith and her calling.
Jessica is the oldest of three children in a Catholic family where faith is very important. Jessica’s mother decided to home school her children when they were old enough to begin their education. She became part of a Baptist homeschooling program to help guide their instruction.
Jessica participated in youth groups and activities at non-Catholic churches because her church did not have a youth ministry, although she still attended mass with her family. Her faith took on a unique blend because of this unusual upbringing, and she found herself comfortably part of two faith traditions.
InterVarsity helped Jessica to realize the unique gift she’s been given by God. “I’m a half-and-half child,” she joked, “I don’t have a typical Catholic spirituality, and I don’t have a typical Protestant one either.” As a freshman she was the only Catholic student in her Bible study – and while she was comfortable there, she knew that many other Catholics may not have been. Since then she has become like a bridge between Catholics and Protestants at UCSD, helping both sides to understand one another and identify their common belief in Jesus, even when other parts of their faith look very different.
It is Paul’s plea in Ephesians that the Church remain united. He said in chapter 4,
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Jessica has quite passionately taken to heart Paul’s plea for unity. When she joined the InterVarsity leadership team as a sophomore, she began to invite Catholic students to brunch and a Bible study before attending Mass. Together they would study the Scriptures that would be read that morning during the service.
“Within any Christian tradition worship services can become routine – it was so cool to see Scripture come alive to these students, some of whom had never studied the Bible before,” Jessica said. By the end of the year the brunch had grown so big the chapter needed to plan for it more extensively and find more leaders for the next year. Through the Bible study brunch, Catholics began to feel more welcomed at other InterVarsity events.
Undeniably, Catholics and Protestants have variant theological beliefs. The students at UCSD’s InterVarsity chapter have continued to grapple with their differences – learning to dialogue with one another without compromising their faith. They have also learned to live out their faith together.
“It didn’t work for our chapter to only talk about our differences because it would end in both sides feeling like they had to prove that they’re Christian,” Jessica explained. “It was the discussion that happened while living out our faith together that offered the most understanding—it happened when we worshipped together, or did evangelism together, or studied the Bible together, or went on mission trips together.”
Jessica said that she feels part of a bigger Christian community. “I think it’s caused both Catholics and Protestants to realize that we need one another. It hurts us when we’re apart.” Learning from one another, they have come to know a God who is intimate and majestic, distinct and steeped in tradition. The chapter has not stripped away anyone’s faith background, but rather enhanced it.
Jessica reflected on her role as a bridge and how she feels called to continue the reconciliation process even beyond college. “I had no idea what plans God had for me at UCSD to become a part of what he’s doing in InterVarsity. But I want to continue to be a part of what God is doing and I want to seize every opportunity that God has for me to be used by him. Whatever I do, it’s built into me to help Catholics and Protestants become the people of faith that God wants us to be.”
You can make a direct financial donation to support InterVarsity’s work at UCSD by following this link.