One of the best parts about working for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is the opportunity to learn about all the projects, services and care that are provided by our many ministries. Over the past few months, your development team has had the opportunity to interview our exceptional staff and volunteers to learn about their service and life as leaders in our ministries. Earlier this month we sat down with the Rev. Dr. Katrina Grusell, chaplain for campus ministries. We really enjoyed the conversation, and I think you will too!
Mark Talcott – Director of Development
Episcopal Diocese of Maryland
Campus Ministry: an Interview with the Rev. Dr. Katrina Grusell
by Martin Scarborough, Senior Development Associate
Fall has returned to the Diocese of Maryland, and with it the hustle and bustle of students returning to campuses for the new academic year. As many of our young adults leave for school (and plenty more from out of state arrive), we would like to tell you about our Lutheran Episcopal Campus Ministries and the outreach they provide to college students on campuses in the Baltimore area. This outreach program is spearheaded by Pastor Laura Sinche, a Lutheran chaplain, and is assisted by several amazing clergy, volunteers, and churches in our diocese, including Katrina Grusell, who served as Episcopal chaplain to UMBC for more than 10 years.
Though Katrina recently departed from the program to serve as interim rector at a church in New York, we had the privilege of talking to her over the summer about this ministry and why it is important to create spaces for college students to explore their faith on campus.
A Life of Faith and Learning
For Katrina, faith and learning have always gone hand in hand. Growing up in The Episcopal Church, Katrina found a particular sense of ministry and spiritual connection with her faith through summer camps, spending summer after summer building her faith and connection to Christ both as a camper and as a counselor. That passion for uplifting her peers and younger campmates evolved into a passion for educating and mentoring young adults that has driven her ever since.
While serving as rector at Church of the Holy Apostles, Katrina became involved in diocesan campus ministry as a volunteer, serving on the ministry’s board. When the position of Episcopal chaplain opened at UMBC in 2012, Katrina soon stepped up to fill the role. “It was a great partnership,” Katrina explained, describing her joint ministry to the church and campus, “Holy Apostles is near the campus, and we had students joining us for worship, so it was a natural fit.”
For Katrina, the opportunity gave her the chance to support to young adults as they discern who they are and who God is calling them to be. Spending time in service to students navigating the challenges of going to college and developing into socially, emotionally, and spiritually mature adults is her greatest joy.
Helping students through their challenges helped Katrina wrestle with her own. In 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and decided to step down from her role as rector to focus on healing, but stayed on as chaplain through it all. “I stayed on as chaplain at UMBC so that I would have something meaningful to get me through that difficult time. Now I’m just finishing my 10th year, and that’s a lot to celebrate for me!”
The life of a campus chaplain—much like that of a parish priest—changes on a daily basis depending on the needs of those being served in the moment. While there are some constants like the weekly fellowship meals and meetings (prepared by volunteers from the now Church of Holy Apostles and St. Stephen) – Katrina has to be ready to shift gears when current events or a crisis unfold. Even the discussions and prayers during weekly meetings can change when issues take precedence. “We recognize that on any given day a student may have a situation or there may be a cultural shift that causes us switch gears and respond to the new needs of our community.” Katrina explained, citing the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 as an example: Katrina and Laura put a pause on their curriculum to let the students process their grief and frustration and fear about the killing and the riots that followed. “We are very flexible; we need to be flexible to meet our students’ needs.”
Food plays as much a key role in this ministry as prayer and conversation: Often, staff will direct students who are food insecure to attend campus ministry’s weekly meetings for the meal, regardless of their faith background. Katrina and the college students are happy to have them.
“[In addition to weekly meals], I do a tremendous amount with our food program on-campus, Retriever Essentials. Our Lutheran partner, Laura Sinche, does a lot at Towson with their food pantry.” Katrina said. “That’s an important part of who we are and it’s an important part of our ministry. Knowing that The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Chaplain, or in Laura’s case, the Lutheran pastor, will support any student on campus, regardless of their faith tradition or where they’re from, or anything, we support them by helping to feed them!”
Feeding students is both a symbolic and tangible sign of God’s community of love on campus. For many students who have felt distanced by religion, whether through their upbringing or through its representation in the media, the hospitality of our Lutheran-Episcopal ministry is a welcome relief.
“We know there several different religious groups students have access to at UMBC. Lutheran Episcopal Campus Ministry is specifically known in the UMBC administration as a group that is warmly welcoming of the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s a part of our identity. It’s important to us because we know that’s not offered in any some other programs on campus. We have a unique place of hospitality, welcoming, feeding, and accepting people where they are, with no strings attached. It’s who we are as Episcopalians. We’re able to provide support to students in a way that other groups can’t, spiritually but also emotionally, and I think that matters.”
Currently, the UMBC campus ministry group represents a wide variety of young adults from a variety of religious backgrounds: Episcopalians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and others that have been wounded by past experiences in church. “It’s also not unusual for us to have atheists who come with questions and then end up staying with us. It’s all about gathering in with the wide arms of Jesus, gathering those who were moved by the Spirit to come and be with us. We’re creating a distinct kind of community that responds to the individual needs of our group!”
Much like church provides a community and space for spiritual transformation and growth, campus ministry provides that to college students who may not otherwise be able to connect to their faith on campus. And the impact on students is just as lasting. When asked about a time where Katrina saw how campus ministry could change lives, she told us about one of her former students:
Lizzie was a student who joined Campus Ministry at UMBC in 2016. She is an Episcopalian and an active member in her home church. When she came to campus, she brought a burst of vitality and energy to the group, participating week after week during her three and a half years (she graduated early). Almost two and a half years after she graduated, Lizzie asked Katrina to officiate at her wedding to her high school sweetheart, Ethan. At the wedding, Katrina discovered just how important her presence in Lizzie’s life had been. “Person after person said to me, ‘are you the one from UMBC?’ and they would say, ‘You have no idea how much that program meant to Lizzie.’ and I was reminded that what we do really matters. I was just blown away by the impact that my ministry and this wonderful ministry had on this young woman’s life. It was really of God!”
Growing a Community of Love
Like with all the ministries of our church, the pandemic disrupted campus ministries. Remote learning and isolation impacted both chaplains and students alike, and Katrina and Laura worked hard to stay connected with students through the turmoil. Now that campuses have transitioned back to fully in-person classes and gatherings, campus ministry is rebounding. UMBC once again has a vibrant, bustling campus community and is looking to the future with excitement. Katrina expressed enthusiasm for the revitalization of the program and new opportunities for participants.
“Come this fall, we’re going to do a big push for our spring break trip. Twice now during my time here, our spring break trip has been to the Deep South to study the Civil Rights movement and talk about racial reconciliation. This has been very educational, highly moving and important work around racial reconciliation for our students. We have done this trip in combination with Towson University, Morgan State University, as well as with the University of Maryland in College Park. I don’t know if we will do this exact trip again, but trips like these get students outside of their contexts, and help all of us to better understand the world we live in.”
Campus Ministry is just one of the many ways our diocese is making a difference in the lives of young people in our community of love, and there is a constant need for support. “I think one of the most important things that folks can do is to identify young people in their congregations who are heading off to college.” Katrina suggested. “It doesn’t matter where they’re going – if they get their students’ names to Pastor Laura ([email protected]), we will get those names to the local campus pastors so students can be cared for when they arrive at their new home. If it’s one of our campuses in the Diocese of Maryland, we want to know, so that we can welcome them in!” Likewise, it is important to remind students in local parishes that there are campus ministers available to them, and it’s worth connecting with their campus chaplain before school even starts.
College is a time of transition and growth for young adults. For many, the bonds and experiences made during college will shape their priorities long after they leave. It’s very comforting to know that our campus ministers are present to support our students and show them a great passion and love for God as they make their faith their own.
This amazing ministry is a critical part of our community of love in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and depends upon your generosity. To learn more about this ministry and our other collective ministries visit: https://episcopalmaryland.org/bishops-annual-appeal/.