Eighteen years ago I arrived on the campus of Indiana University for my first semester of college.
Thanks to the guidance of older high school friends, I’d filled my housing form out in such a way that I’d guaranteed myself a spot in the air conditioned dorm across the street from the food court. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I also happened to be living on a co-ed floor.
The first few weeks were what I expected. I made new friends and connected with old ones. I looked forward to some classes and dreaded others. I began to understand the concerned look on my parents’ faces when they’d learned the reputation of my “party” dorm.
What I never could have anticipated about that first semester was the event most of us still struggle to comprehend.
Two weeks into my freshmen year, I walked to breakfast on the morning of Sept. 11 to find the cash register abandoned and everyone gathered around the television.
It was silent as all eyes fixated on the smoke and flames streaming from the towers.
It was this moment that I first remember fear becoming a part of my adult life.
Warnings went out about terrorist threats. Muslim students reported being harassed, afraid to walk campus at night. A story was published in the campus paper explaining how the consequences of carrying a fake ID were far more severe now that we were living in the “age of terrorism.” In many ways, the fear that entered our lives that September morning has never left us.
Two things saved me from being overwhelmed by that fear as my young adult life began.
The first was a university community that became proactive in educating students on diversity and inclusivity. However imperfectly Indiana University may have approached the topic in the early 2000s, I vividly remember participating in programs through student government and residence hall associations.
“Talk to one another,” I remember them saying over and over. “Learn each others’ stories. Hear what the ‘other’ has to say.”
The other saving grace in my life at that time was the faith community I attended during college. Although we prescribed to a particular flavor of Christianity, it was an inclusive body of people who expressed their empathy and concern for groups and individuals persecuted in a post-9/11 world.
Over and over at this church I was reminded that to be a follower of Jesus Christ means we are called to love God and neighbor — even the neighbor who does not look or worship like us.
Eighteen years later I find myself in another college town, only this time I feel more like the parent with the concerned look on my face, not the freshmen eager for them to drive away.
It’s scary out there, but I now know what a difference an intentional university and a faithful campus ministry can make in the life of a young adult learning to negotiate the world.
This September, I pray that each of these students will find their way to a faith home that can guide them, as I was guided, to ways of love in a world where fear abounds.
Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed serves as co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Auburn. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Journal for Preachers, The Christian Century, and Presbyterians Today.