Watching God Work at Harvard

As Jeff Barneson prepared to graduate from Stanford University in 1978 he received a job offer for “a plum job at a small firm at Newport Beach, overlooking the water.” It was the kind of job he had been hoping for when he decided on Civil Engineering as his major. But he turned it down.

Earlier in his senior year the Christian groups on campus had presented the Francis Schaeffer film series, How Should We Then Live. Schaeffer’s comment, “Of course the dominant values of American culture are personal peace and affluence,” had been haunting him for months. Walking across campus one evening he was surprised to see some Christian students he knew protesting Stanford’s investments in apartheid South Africa, and being hauled away by police. He also lost his girlfriend to cancer.

“All that began to spin around in my head,” he recalled. “I thought, if that’s how quickly life can be over, why do something I’m only marginally good at, that may not matter that much in God’s bigger mission.”

Called to Campus Ministry
Although God does call some people to serve Him through engineering, Jeff felt God calling him to campus ministry. “Meeting with students, talking about Jesus, and reading the Bible seemed more important,” he said.

He applied to work as a chaplain with the Baptist Home Mission Society and was assigned to the University of Colorado. At Colorado, and at Harvard when he moved there in 1983, he often worked together with InterVarsity staff. In 1993 he joined InterVarsity’s ministry to graduate students at Harvard, where he has served ever since.

Alternatives to Business as Usual
Working with graduate students in law, business, government, theology, and design, Jeff and his InterVarsity teammates focus on creating a counter culture on campus. “I hope we can create a community that looks different from the rest of the campus,” he said. “Most of the time students don’t see an alternative to business as usual.”

The Harvard Graduate Students Fellowship prioritizes spiritual formation, community, witness, and justice concerns. “Academic faith integration (justice concerns) and witnessing are the two dominant things for us,” Jeff said. “The Lordship of Jesus Christ permeates it all: our vocation choice, how we spend our money, where we choose to live, what we do when we play, how we let our friends in.”

Being a part of the New England region’s annual spring trips to New Orleans to help repair hurricane Katrina damage offers a good illustration of how campus ministry is being done. InterVarsity students sign up for a week of work and invite their friends along. This year InterVarsity is partnering with the Humanist Students Association on the project.

Creating a Culture of Opportunity
“What I like about it is that there’s an extended period of time doing an activity everybody can lean into,” he said. “It’s like setting the table for a long conversation with people about things that matter. We could go to the beach for evangelism, but it would not be as effective. This creates a culture of openness and service, which enables other things to happen.”

Participants get invested in late night Bible studies at Starbucks, and often they don’t want to stop when they get back to Boston. Every year at least one person in the group decides to follow Jesus.

“Jeff does not shroud the generosity of the gospel,” observed Kevin Bauder, InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries Northeast regional director. “Jeff has a rare and wonderful combination of being sharp, creative, winsome, challenging, welcoming, persistent, and fun.”

Looking for Evidence of God at Work
As Jeff works on campus, looking for evidence for the many ways God is at work in the lives of faculty and students, he sometimes decides to audit or enroll in a class. Along the way he’s gotten a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government, and served as a teaching assistant in the Graduate School of Design. He’s also the faculty adviser for the Harvard Cycling Team.

It’s not the plum job he had once wanted but it’s the job that allows him to see God at work in the lives of future world changers attending Harvard University. And that is pretty satisfying.