Free Church Chaplaincy at the University of Bristol currently receives a Home Mission Grant. This month Free Church Chaplain Mike Peat tells us a little more about how Home Mission support is enabling a warm welcome and mission opportunities to students nearby.
In a week’s time, the streets around the Multifaith Chaplaincy Centre at the University of Bristol will be transformed. There are already a significant number of new overseas students, feeling their way in a city and culture that is new to them. But next week is “Welcome Week” (it was called “Freshers Week” when I was an undergraduate), and the north central region of Bristol where the university’s main precinct is will suddenly swarm with thousands of new students. For many of them, a milestone into early adulthood will have passed overnight, as parents say goodbye to them at the doors of halls of residence, waving them off into a new phase of independence and responsibility in their lives.
On the same day as I write this update, my newspaper includes two article about university life nowadays, which are potent reminders that these students are entering an environment affected by daunting difficulties as well as enriching opportunities. One article reports on the lengthy waits for mental health support that students in various UK universities face, a consequence of reported student mental illness increasing five-fold since 2010. Many of the thousands of new students arriving at the University of Bristol next week will walk past the Chaplaincy Centre on their way to register: we chaplains will be standing out in the street with hot drinks, snacks and information cards, eager to make them feel warmly welcomed and well aware of the support we can offer them.
The experience of previous years suggests that some of these “freshers” will join with students of other years in treating the Chaplaincy Centre as a “second home” on campus, a safe refuge where they can find food and friendship, with chaplains on hand every weekday to support them with the various worries that arise at this transitional time of life. Some of them will take part in learning opportunities that my chaplaincy colleagues and I will be organising throughout the academic year. These include the “Faith Crawl” which enables students to encounter religious faith as it is lived out by various different communities in Bristol, termly retreats, and the “Wisdom talks” which we started last year to help students explore how spiritual resources can help them ponder the big issues in all our lives, e.g. relationships, vocation and death.
The second article about universities in today’s newspaper is a reminder of why opportunities to explore deeper spiritual questions about life’s meaning and purpose are especially important at the present time. It reports that most British universities are worried about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on their institutions. There is mention of shortages ranging from products used in laboratories to toilet paper, as well as the worrying impact on international relationships that are vital for learning and research to flourish. At a time of great uncertainty about the future, chaplains have an opportunity to contribute to reflection on what a university education is for, as a social good and indeed as a channel for the service that professional vocations of all sorts offer to the Kingdom purposes of God. Wellbeing staff at the University of Bristol are increasingly directing students with needs to the Chaplaincy. This is partly because we can offer pastoral support quickly, but also because our calling distinctly equips us to help students explore troubling “existential” questions that are about more than just their mental health.
Please pray for all our students at this formative time of their lives, as they discover who they are, where they are going and, above all, who they are always loved by. Pray for university staff, facing the pressure of performance measures and uncertainty about the future. Pray for me and my chaplaincy colleagues, as we seek to offer pastoral care and facilitate spiritual insight for both students and staff, in a university community poised to increase in size considerably as a whole new campus is built over the next three years.
Students on a “Faith Crawl,” at the Salvation Army Centre in Bristol.
Getting ready for “Surplus Food Café” at the Multifaith Chaplaincy Centre on a Friday lunchtime