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Food is integral to campus ministry’s outreach to students
by Carol Price Spurling

Food and drink have long been part of the Campus Christian Center (CCC) ministries on the University of Idaho campus in Moscow.

campus meal
Students gather for meal together.

The Burning Stake coffee house in the building’s basement in the 1960s was a counterpart to the more traditional religious studies and activities on the main floor.  It served as a safe haven for students to express radical, counter-cultural political and religious views.

Today’s campus ministry programs often center around family-style meals, said Karla Neumann Smiley, Lutheran campus minister.

Through the year, she leads a Wednesday Bible study preceded by a family meal for eight to 16 students who gather to eat, enjoy fellowship and study.

These traditional sit-down meals are something new, maybe even radical, for many students who are not accustomed to sitting around a table at mealtime.

“It’s clear from watching the students that they have never set a table before, never experienced taking a break from business just to sit and eat both with people that care about them and people they have just met,” said Karla, who has been at Campus Christian Center for nine years.  “I’ve watched it become more prevalent.  They are growing up eating on the run.”

Her husband Wil often volunteers to cook, and his homemade pizza is popular.  Sometimes students or local church members take turns in the kitchen.

The meal is always a home-style, balanced meal, possibly the only nutritious one the students eat during the week.

“I don’t hear any complaints. Many students are amazed at what fresh, healthy food preparation is and how good the food tastes. I always think that food in any monastery setting tastes better than the same meal anywhere else.  That is the kind of community aspect that we experience here. The fellowship of the group is a good spice,” she said.

“Many times in Jesus’ ministry food was involved, the feeding of the 5,000 for instance, and the last supper being the big one,” Karla noted. “So many times, Jesus and the disciples went away to eat, and then, while they’re eating, Jesus gives some sort of message. He does much teaching around the table.

“For me, the image of the table being related to holy communion, of being welcomed at that table, and extending that fellowship and hospitality to all, is connected to spirituality,” said Karla, who enjoyed time at the table as a child growing up in a Lutheran family in Wisconsin, attending the same church her father grew up in.

A diaconal minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, she has degrees in psychology and religion from Wartburg College in Iowa and a master’s in theology and art at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

An internship at the Grunewald Guild, a center for faith and art near Leavenworth, brought her to the West.  Then she served congregations in Janesville and Madison, Wisc.  Leading a Grunewald workshop for Lutheran students, she learned of the Campus Christian Center.  So when the campus minister position opened she applied.

Although there are many differences between the Vietnam era when the center had the coffee house and the world in which today’s students live, the CCC’s ministries of food are still important to fulfilling students’ spiritual needs.

Most of the programs at the Campus Christian Center have a shared meal connected to them. In a recent newsletter, Karla said that the food offered “is a gift—the gift of the food prepared, the gift of time shared and the gift of pausing long enough to be fed in body and in spirit.”

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, spurred the reopening of the defunct Burning Stake coffeehouse, now named Café de Vida, explained Karla. Sept. 11 also inspired the addition of a weekly SOUP—Sharing Observances, Utterances and Perspectives—program.

The local churches that support the CCC, which are Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, American Baptist, and Disciples of Christ, provide soup.  Students gather to eat and talk.

“The SOUP program started as a formal discussion group.  It was a safe place for people to talk about their reactions to emerging wars, where they would not be made to feel unpatriotic for their views,” explained Karla. “It has become more social now and less formal, but the food part is still important.”

The Methodist ministry also sponsors a soup dinner that accompanies the religion and ethics program on Tuesday evenings.

Campus Christian Center churches also provide a free sandwich buffet for students each day during finals week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Karla said that students come to these programs from different areas of study.

“Some would never have class together, never be friends and never grow to care about each other without this place. Community forms quickly because of the shared meal and study together.
“We have fruitful discussions about what it means to be a person of faith or a person questioning faith. It becomes a faith community exercise instead of an academic exercise,” she said.

For information, call 208-882-2536 or email