The inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” The students at the University of Arkansas’ campus ministry might not be poor or yearning to breathe free, but they certainly qualify as huddled masses.
The Rev. Susan Rose, campus minister at U of A, serves the United Campus Ministry (UCM), an ecumenical ministry of the Presbytery of Arkansas. UCM recently hosted about 1,000 freshman girls when it served as a rest station during sorority recruitment week.
“We serve. It’s hospitality for about 11 hours for 7 days,” Rose said. “They say that they feel very welcomed at the center.”
According to the University of Arkansas, about 20 percent of undergraduate students belong to the 33 fraternities and sororities on campus.
Sorority recruitment takes place the week before classes start, and most recruits are freshmen. When they’re not attending getting-to-know-you parties hosted by the sororities, the girls visit the rest stations, where they can cool off, use the restrooms and rehydrate from the hot Arkansas weather. UCM began hosting a rest station three years ago.
“Through that first week the first year, we listened to the girls and we added things that other people didn’t have,” Rose said.
UCM’s bathrooms are stocked with hair spray and other toiletries so the girls can freshen up between parties.
“They’re out from about 6:30 a.m. until 6:30 or 7 at night, so that body spray and deodorant is a big deal for them,” Rose said.
UCM also feeds the girls, who often skip breakfast to attend early-morning parties. Freshmen are away from home for the first time and in the stressful situation of trying to make a good impression for sorority recruitment, so most were too nervous to eat at their assigned lunch times. When they finally got down time to relax and calm down in the rest stations, suddenly they were hungry.
“They eat by the ton!” said Rose, who began stocking up on small things like crackers and gummy bears. “I went through 35 pounds of animal crackers in two days.”
Fundraisers and donations from local churches keep the rest station stocked. The UCM station is known for going above and beyond the call of other campus rest stations, a feature that one sorority member remarked on.
“I told her we do this because we’ve listened to the young women coming through and you say your’re tired and we gave you a place to sit. And you said you were hungry and we gave you something to eat and you said you were thirsty so we gave you something to drink,” Rose said. “I said, ‘It almost sounds Biblical doesn’t it?’ And that always gets a good laugh.”
UCM’s early motivation was a bit more self-serving, Rose said.
“We did it as a way of advertising, a way of getting people into our building and showing them who we are and what we do,” she said.
So far the ministry hasn’t translated into the “return business” Rose hoped for, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. In the rest station’s third year, Rose has had the chance to speak with a few sorority members who once came through UCM as recruits and has found that UCM made a lasting impression on them.
“This year I just really accepted the fact that we’re doing this simply to serve. Just like many churches do food pantries and they don’t necessarily expect the recipients to come back — they just want them to know that they’re loved in the name of Jesus Christ,” Rose said. “And that’s kind of what I did this last year with sorority rush now. We have very positive buzz with the young women in sororities.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.