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Community Service Attracts UAlbany Students to Campus Ministry

Doctoral student Matt Barry said the Protestant campus ministry on campus provides a sense of family and close friends to students like him who are away from home. (Photo by Mark Schmidt)

During spring break 2007, then UAlbany-undergrad Matt Barry mucked out houses in New Orleans and stripped them down to the framework 18 months after Hurricane Katrina. “It was a heart-wrenching experience to throw someone’s belongings into a pile of trash by the side of the road,” said Barry, now a third-year doctoral student in chemistry and one of eight Peer Ministers with Cornerstone Campus Ministry. Cornerstone is the Protestant campus ministry based at UAlbany’s Interfaith Center, formerly Chapel House.

Barry’s group tackled the job side-by-side with students from the Jewish organization Hillel, the Muslim Student Association and the campus’ Catholic group, the Newman Association.

“We worked together and by the end of the week, no one cared what religion or background anyone else had,” said Barry. “In one week we established relationships with the people of New Orleans while simultaneously forging an interfaith relationship back at the University.”

Over the last ten years under the guidance of Rev. Sandy Damhof, Cornerstone has built a student roster of 85 participants and communicates regularly to an email listserv of more than 1,000.  The Protestant denominations encompass American Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ.

Earlier this year, Barry explained in a sermon to the First United Methodist Church of East Greenbush that the key to UAlbany’s campus ministry growth has been meeting students where they are. Cornerstone accomplished this by offering UAlbany students the chance to feed and clothe the homeless and by holding interdenominational services at 5 p.m. on Sunday evenings, rather than on Sunday mornings. Barry says getting up early on a Sunday morning to attend a church service is not something college students need.

“What I did need though - and what I feel many college students need - is a sense of family or very close friends away from home,” Barry said. “Cornerstone provides that through home cooked meals on both Sunday and Tuesday, with all events geared towards building friendships and having a good time, and that is what has kept me coming back all these years.”

In 2012, Cornerstone worked with the Office of Student Success and Student Association to send roughly 100 students and volunteer team leaders on two trips to rebuild homes in the Rockaways after Superstorm Sandy.  Student response to the trip was so great that some students were turned away, Barry recalls. Working with Respond and Rebuild, the students mucked out mud, sand and debris, removed mold and rebuilt homes, while other students volunteered with the Red Cross to make progress.

These ongoing efforts highlight community service, one of UAlbany President Robert J. Jones’ priority initiatives.

“The media often labels college students as ‘slackers’ or ‘self-absorbed,’ but my experience is completely the opposite,” said Damhof. “College students have a lot of positive energy and a passion to make a difference. They just need help channeling their energy and their passion in the right direction, including connecting with community organizations where they can serve and make a difference. Once they get a taste of what it’s like to truly make a difference, they are eager to volunteer over and over again.”

This is demonstrated in other ways as well. One Tuesday evening each month, Cornerstone brings students to meet in downtown Albany with volunteers from St. Stephen’s Church in Delmar to give food, clothing, and blankets to homeless individuals. The students love the experience and the group continues to grow.

“Our students have really learned what it means to be homeless by better understanding the critical needs of these individuals. They have started to form relationships with those they serve. I’m confident they will never look at homeless individuals the same again and that’s an experience they will carry with them into the future,” said Damhoff.

Prior to Damhof’s arrival, the Protestant minister’s job was a full-time position on campus. She serves part-time, and some 20 area churches act as Congregational Partners, like the East Greenbush United Methodist Church where Barry preached. Each Congregational Partner makes a commitment to host dinner and devotions, work on mission projects in Fort Plain, N.Y., hold fund-raising bake sales in their churches to support mission trips, and/or offer financial donations.

Other Cornerstone outreach projects this year include:

·         Picking apples and baking apple pies for Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless, as well as making dinner and brownies;

·         Working with UAlbany Alum Amanda Paeglow to host a Halloween Party at the Arbor Hill Community Center for some 1,000 children and parents at a family-friendly and safe event;

·         Returning to Fort Plain to work with homeowners doing flood recovery work as well as serving in the Manna Meals program to provide lunch to volunteers and homeowners; and

·         Planning a mission trip for Jan. 2014. Learn more about Cornerstone Campus Ministry.

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