Faith and Fellowship for Fifty Years

By Katie (Paxson) Hammaker ’93

During her junior year at Ship, Amy Grey ’03 Rev. Jan Bye, campus minister, rushed to Grey’s side. “Jan was there for me. She called the hospital to get answers. She even called my boyfriend, who was at work, to tell him.”

Several days later, Bye even drove Grey to her father’s funeral outside of Philadelphia when her family was unable to get her. 

UCM is an interdenominational campus ministry that provides opportunities for Ship students to develop spiritually and grow in their faith. Ship is the last university in Pennsylvania's State System of Education with UCM. As the minister for UCM, Bye coordinates religious life and spiritual support services on campus.

UCM will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary at Ship this spring. Bye has been with UCM for nearly half its existence. An ordained United Methodist minister, she moved to Shippensburg from Ohio with her husband and young son in 1994 to take the position. 

“It’s been a privilege to do this job. Spiritual development is an important part of a student’s overall development, just as important as academics.”

“The relationship between campus ministry and the university has been an extraordinary one,” said Dr. Jody Harpster ’74M, past president. As the former vice president of Student Affairs, Harpster worked closely with Bye and served as the university’s liaison to UCM.

Bye describes UCM, originally known as the Campus Interfaith Association, as a clearing ground for students of various faiths. She works to connect them with appropriate resources to meet their spiritual needs while they are on campus.

Students of numerous faiths are represented at UCM—Lutherans, Methodists, Muslims, and Presbyterians, to name a few.

“Our main goal is to be welcoming of anybody and everybody,” said junior Zach Miller, “especially people who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere else.”

“UCM is my family away from family,” said graduate student Austin Wisser ’17. “It’s nice to be around other students who share my beliefs and values.”

“Some of my greatest relationships and fondest memories were made through UCM,” Rachel (Varner) Smith ’98 said. “What drew me in was the ability to make close connections with other students, local churches, and the community.”

Bye maintains a resource center with the names of local clergy and places of worship. She even makes introductions and matches students who wish to visit a specific church, so they can attend together.

“We really like students to explore what’s available in the community,” she said. “We believe that broadening the resources for students will help them succeed.”

Exploring Faith

UCM offers many on-campus options for spiritual growth. “Worship services are on Sunday afternoons so the college students can sleep in,” Wisser said.

Students can attend a grilled cheese and bible study every Wednesday at the campus spiritual center.

“There is something comforting about faith, friends, and a warm and melted cheese sandwich,” Bill Connor ’04-’05M said. 

“It beats ramen noodles and easy mac and cheese any day.”

Food is a common theme for UCM activities. Bye hosts an informal dinner gathering at Kriner Dining Hall on Mondays for any students who wish to join her.

While free food is a popular way to draw students in, the lack of it is a valid problem for some. UCM recognizes this need and maintains a food pantry that is open to any students who need it. It is stocked with donated soup, pasta, peanut butter, and other canned, non-perishable items.

“It started when the state budget held up student loans,” Bye said. “Many students lacked money for meals until their loans came through. Also, some of our international students must stay over breaks, and the dining hall is not open.”

UCM also organizes numerous social events each semester. Game nights, volleyball, hayrides, trips to the movies, and hikes on nearby trails provide quality fellowship time.

Participation in UCM is, of course, by choice. Some parents call or approach Bye and ask her to direct their son or daughter to a church. Bye will reach out to these students, but only if the student has granted permission through a form in the new student packets.

“I can invite students, but I am not here to harass them,” she said. “Students are adults, and they can make their own decisions.”

Some students just want to learn about faith. “This is a safe zone where they can ask questions and explore their faith. Students can have conversations with others in a loving and respectful manner.”

One way that Bye helps students learn is through Questions of Faith, a weekly discussion group that explores social and political issues from the perspective of different faiths.

“Some students are very conservative, some more liberal, but they care and respect each other as they explore their faith,” she said.

“We wanted to understand and learn about our faith,” Smith said. “Some students stray from their faith during college, but I developed a sense of belief and what I wanted for my life moving forward.”

Smith met her husband, Michael ’00, at Questions of Faith. She said they did not always agree on the issues, but they did agree that when they got married after college, they wanted Bye to perform the wedding ceremony.

Many of Bye’s former UCM students have honored her with this request. Bye estimates that she has performed at least 100 weddings for UCM alumni during her time at Ship. She also has performed at least ten faculty weddings.

Support System

UCM’s spiritual support and counseling services are available to students and the campus at large.

“UCM provided all of our students, faculty, staff, and administration with spiritual support as we needed it,” said Tony Ceddia, president emeritus. “They helped in many crisis situations over the years—a death or an accident. We were grateful for the support we received.”

Bye responds to more than just crisis situations. For some college students, the pressure of living away from home for the first time or the anxiety of breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend can prompt them to seek help.

“A lot of students, for many different reasons, choose not to utilize the campus counseling services when they need help,” Harpster said. “Some of those students are more comfortable seeking that support from UCM.”

“Ship staff and faculty cannot offer spiritual resources to students because we are a state school, but they can support UCM’s services and send those students to us,” Bye said.

Spring Break, UCM Style

UCM hosts an annual service trip to Louisiana during spring break in March. Ship students join with others from across the country to perform service work, and in some years, relief following a natural disaster. 

“It’s about broadening the students’ understanding of God’s creation,” Bye said.

In the past, students have repaired a leaky roof, constructed a home access ramp for a wheelchair user, and distributed emergency relief kits to residents.

Last year, Wisser painted an “under the sea” themed wall mural to brighten up a domestic violence shelter. “It was so hot and humid that the paint started to run. The mural ended up looking like a Salvador Dali painting,” Wisser joked.

UCM also hosts periodic mission trips to Vietnam, a place that is special to Bye. She adopted her daughter from Vietnam, which inspired the destination for future mission work.

“I was involved in three trips to Vietnam,” Connor said. “It was powerful to be part of such an impactful program, and develop an understanding that I am part of something much bigger than just myself.”

Ship students have assisted in the construction of a school, a health clinic, and multiple homes in Vietnam.

Closer to home, UCM serves the community year-round. Students participate in numerous projects like stocking shelves at King’s Kettle food pantry and building homes through Habitat for Humanity. Each fall, students “adopt” migrant workers from nearby apple orchards, delivering warm clothing, blankets, and food. 

A Permanent Home

Almost since UCM’s inception, its offices have been housed on campus at various locations provided by the university. But the organization lacked a permanent home.

In the late 1980s, President Emeritus Gilmore Seavers approached Ceddia with a solution and a potential significant benefactor.

The late Lee Hippensteele ’48, who served on the UCM Board of Directors, had a passion for campus ministry.

“Mr. Hippensteele was a man of great faith,” Harpster said. “He believed that we all benefit from having a solid religious foundation in our lives, and he wanted to make that available to all students.”

Because Shippensburg University is state owned, no religious buildings can be constructed on campus. So, Hippensteele purchased eighteen acres of private land directly adjacent to campus, and donated it to the SU Foundation with the stipulation that it be used for a spiritual center.

The foundation embarked on a successful capital campaign and dedicated the Cora I. Grove Spiritual Center and Interfaith Chapel in 2001, located just off of Adams Drive.

The center houses UCM’s offices and provides meeting and program space for several campus ministry groups.

“The spiritual center makes Shippensburg University special,” Ceddia said. “Many students see the spiritual aspect of their lives as important, like the nourishment they receive from the center.”

The spiritual center is perhaps best known for its chapel. The chapel is intentionally devoid of religious symbolism and contains a movable altar to accommodate groups of any faith for worship, memorial services, and other religious events.

The chapel is available for weddings, but the bride or groom must be a Ship student, alumnus, or an employee of the university or SU Foundation. The spiritual center has hosted about a dozen weddings since it opened.

Another focal point of the spiritual center is a meditation room, which is a sacred space used by many students for quiet prayer and reflection.

The spiritual center is open daily Sunday through Friday and on Saturdays for special events during the school year.

“It is hard to imagine life at Ship without UCM,” Connor said. “UCM was the cornerstone of my Ship experience outside of the classroom.

“In today’s digital, fast-paced world, I hope that Ship students are still taking the time to get involved in campus ministries and understand the importance of building personal friendships that will last a lifetime.” 

Katie (Paxson) Hammaker ’93 is the director of development and marketing for the Susquehanna Chorale and is a freelance writer based in Mechanicsburg.