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Embracing the unexpected

Going to university in September? Have an open mind about where you might find community, writes Molly Boot


‘When you get you uni, make sure you get involved with the CU, and find a good lively student church: university is a difficult place to be a Christian. I remember ‘x’ lost their faith while they were at university because they didn’t settle in to a good Christian community.’
If you’re off to university in September (congratulations!), you’ve probably heard something like that from several lovely and very well meaning youth leaders, ministers/vicars, parents… and they really do mean well! They want you to find people who will look after you and love you, who will nurture your faith and support you through the tougher parts of university life. These things are all really important –  you do need to find people who will offer that kind of care for you, who will recognise, understand and develop the things at the core of who you are – but, those people may not be in the places you expect.
I’m not going to give you a step-by-step guide to finding where you fit at university: it won’t surprise you to hear that it doesn’t quite work like that! But I am going to tell you a little about each of my communities at university, and what they’ve taught me about myself, God and others. I would never have imagined this time two years ago that I’d have the friends I do. I struggle with anxiety, I find it difficult to be in loud and busy spaces, and changes in routine and environment terrify me! But I’ve found myself surrounded by the most wonderful people, and have found spaces where I feel safe, challenged and loved.

Place yourself in common spaces

First of all, there’s my college. While the Oxbridge collegiate system is pretty unique, and you might not have a college quite in the same way as I do, I’d definitely suggest seeking out places where you’re thrown together with a lot of people of different interests, backgrounds and ages. Once you’ve found those places, if you can, eat there. Take your breaks in common rooms or campus cafés.

I’ve been amazed by the people I’ve got to know and the conversations I’ve ended up having just by making the effort to sit with different people at lunchtime in college every day, or by sitting in my common room and having coffee with whoever’s there. I’ve found myself in fiery debates over politics or theology, I’ve had the chance to really get to know postgrads doing the most amazing research, and I’ve found ways of making proper moments of rest in the day with people I love and feel safe with.
I’ve learnt so much from spending time with people who think about and experience things very differently from me: I’ve found the people who I can be totally emotionally honest with, and the people I feel safe asking my really difficult life questions. Most of them are the people I thought I wouldn’t have anything in common with. My closest group of friends from my first year of uni is a pretty random mix of people who ended up piling into a postgrad flat after a ball one Thursday at 1am to make grilled cheese: The Thursday Gang was born, and we cooked together every Thursday night for the rest of the year. You never know who you might meet if you put yourself in places where you’ll get chatting to people.

Diversity of worship

Then, there are my places of worship – plural. Very plural. Don’t get me wrong, I have my church in Oxford that I go to every Sunday morning, and I love it! I’m training to be a minister, so I’m very involved in church life there, from preaching, to playing music, to pastoral care. I feel very much a part of things there: I know I can be totally myself, no matter how I’m feeling, or how much faith I feel I have. I can be honest about my doubts, and the things I have trouble saying or singing. Even when I’m preaching, I can talk about the bits of the Bible I really struggle with, or the things it demands of me that I find difficult to follow through with. But as well as that, one of the best things I’ve done to feed my faith at university is visit different churches and college chapels.
I’m a Baptist: broadly evangelical, fairly charismatic, and generally liberal. I love choral evensong. The liturgy and music is beautiful, and really helps me to pray, especially when I’m stressed. I go to compline every Tuesday. The chapel is dark, the language is archaic, and it reminds me that people have been praying with the same words for hundreds of years before me. It makes me feel less alone as I’m trying to find out how this faith thing works. I love services that use incense, I love it when the people around me feel comfortable raising their hands and singing in tongues, I love it when it’s normal to kneel to pray, or to cross myself. Give me long, set prayers and BCP liturgies; give me candles and chants in candlelit chapels; give me Shine Jesus Shine and awkward clapping. Belonging to, and being a guest of all kinds of Christian community has taught me that my preconceptions of God are so, so far from a truth that I’ll never reach, but which is closer to me than I am to myself.

Embrace the unexpected 

University is an amazing opportunity to find new places to commune with God and others. My advice: embrace the unexpected. The encounters that have shaped me most are the ones I least planned or anticipated, and the places and people I find my home in are diverse. I’m learning to expect to meet Christ in the stranger, and to recognise him at work in ways and places I’d never imagined.

When you’re challenged, stay humble and open, ask hard questions, and expect difficult answers. In my experience, you won’t lose your faith; it’s true, I’m less certain about a lot of things that I thought I knew about God when I started university. But my faith in God has never been deeper, realer or more sustaining than it is now that I’ve found places where I don’t have to pretend I’ve got it all worked out.

It’s my hope and prayer that you’ll be able to find those places, too.

Image | Alexis Brown | Unsplash

Molly Boot is an undergraduate and minister in training at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, on placement at New Road Baptist Church



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