The Yeow’s house was a safe haven for empty stomachs on Friday nights. Hungry college students would migrate to the two-story on Middlebrook Pike and spread the length of the living and dining rooms. Peruvian chicken, homemade chicken Alfredo or Italian wedding soup could be on the menu. There was always a salad and always a dessert; Elizabeth Yeow—homeowner, mom of three and caregiver to the college students—made sure of it.
Lively conversation amongst the students were fueled by the upcoming weekend. Friday nights were a break from school, stress and campus dining halls.
Aromas of dark coffee wafted from a hodge-podge collection of mugs as the students dragged their chairs into the living room. A guitar was pulled from one case and a banjo from the other, and fingers grazed a keyboard. It was time for the post-dinner ritual: singing hymns and reading verses together from the Bible.
All of these students participate in campus ministry at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Traditionally, campus ministries have built community by making students not feel alone, but the pandemic has challenged the structure and operations of these organizations in the past year.
Christian Students at UTK (CS@UTK) is a nondenominational campus ministry that prioritizes Biblical content and community.
“The pandemic hit the reset button on a lot of things,” Director of Operations, Kyle Van Der Noord, said. “It’s made us rethink the club as if we were a start-up, as if we were starting afresh.”
Before the pandemic, their participation averaged 60 students, but that number has dropped. Pre-pandemic, campus ministries used organization fairs and tabling events during freshman orientation to reach new students who were eager to forge friendships and seeking a sense of belonging.
When these events halted and membership slipped, CS@UTK bolstered their online presence through Instagram and Zoom. Instagram outreach was highly successful, and initially, Zoom meetings were well-attended, but participation diminished as the pandemic drug on and the novelty of virtual meetings fizzled.
“With everyone having their classes on-line, probably the last thing they want to do is attend an extracurriculars event that is also online,” Van Der Noord said. “Maybe isolation breeds more isolation.”
Dinners and Bible studies were less frequent. After all, you cannot enjoy the Yeow’s homecooked dinners through a computer screen.
Luis Abdu, a junior engineering student, explained that Volunteers for Christ, a Christian outreach ministry that boasts approximately 500 members, struggled to adjust. Few freshmen joined, staff members resigned and large-capacity meeting spaces closed.
Campus ministries operate with regular meeting times, which suffered under the gathering size restrictions. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, up to 45 people could be found at the Yeow’s on any given Friday night. Now, small groups of seven or eight members meet at any one time.
“The biggest difference is we had to go small,” Van Der Noord says. “When we are in person [now], it’s all small groups and spread out.”
Despite the obstacles, Van Der Noord noticed a “hunger and desire” among the upperclassmen in the campus ministry. He noted their initiative to maintain closeness among members by planning activities. The pandemic generated a resurgence and reaffirmation in several students’ faith—a turn to hope, help and spirituality to explain the trials of life.
“[Campus ministry] gives a greater purpose to college,” UTK junior engineering student, Megan Hobbs, said.
Small groups may be the saving grace of campus ministries. They continue to foster community without breaking size restrictions.
And small groups keep faith alive.
“Anytime there’s a negative situation like a pandemic, it produces more of an openness within people.” Van Der Noord said. “Whereas socially, we’ve taken a hit. Spiritually, we’ve advanced.”
Edited by Ashley Depew and Maddie Torres
Feature Photo courtesy of Mark Sandlin, CS@UTK staff member