There is, unsurprisingly, very little traffic at the intersection of Kirkland Street and Divinity Avenue on a gloomy Friday evening in late March. Gray figures cloaked in raincoats stream out of William James Hall. The tires of my bike screech atop the damp pavement.
Past the two stone lions guarding the entrance of 2 Divinity Avenue, the building’s lobby is hushed. A small group of students stands in a circle holding hands, praying quietly with their heads bowed.
But people buzz inside Yenching Auditorium. Dozens of students stream in, greeting one another and embracing friends. There is shouting and hollering and palpable excitement for the coming weekend. A myriad of outfits are present. Some students are smartly attired in blazers and chinos, others in athletic practice gear. A few dig into salads and sandwiches; this is Harvard, after all, and dinner is nothing if not a meal that can be consumed in a meeting or on the move.
I take a seat in the back. It’s a few minutes past 7:30 p.m. on Good Friday, and Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA) is about to begin its weekly worship meeting, Doxa.
Two student leaders, Alan and Michelle, approach the mic and welcome the crowd (somewhere between 70 and 100 people, according to my imprecise estimate) to this week’s Doxa. A Greek word meaning “glory” or “praise,” doxa is commonly used in philosophy or sociology to refer to implicit common beliefs or opinions, especially those that are unstated or taken for granted. As I will learn over the next 90 minutes, there’s little taken for granted at this meeting, and plenty of belief to be had.
The doors to the auditorium spring open, and the Worship Team—the same group of people praying in the hallway moments earlier—enters the room and assumes its position on stage. As the lights dim, it’s time to sit back and observe.
* * *
HCFA is, at least on the surface, similar to many religious organizations at Harvard: a dedicated group of students and ministry on an otherwise secular campus. What makes it unique is its connection to a pan-Ivy parent organization, Christian Union, a non-profit corporation dedicated to “developing Christian leaders to transform culture” and tailored to target the student bodies of competitive, hyper-academic institutions. At its core, HCFA strives to foster a “Christ-centered community” and promote an intellectual and meticulous study of scripture, bringing Ivy League rigor to the Bible—all under the gentle but strong guidance of Christian Union.
And beyond the divine, HCFA is dedicated to encouraging the sort of individual growth and introspection, be it spiritual or emotional, that many—from administrators to students to critics—say is far too scarce at Harvard. Everyone acknowledges that the College is a difficult and a challenging place to navigate; HCFA can offer students a helping hand for that journey, albeit one deeply tinged with Christian belief.
* * *
In the back of the triangular auditorium hangs a solitary string of Christmas lights providing a golden glow; at the triangle’s point is the stage. On it stands the Worship Team. The team is one of nearly a dozen student-run ministries within HCFA and says that its mission is to “lead people to encounter the love of Christ through songs.”
“Let’s stand together and worship,” cries out one of the leaders, inspiring the crowd to rise. The group begins with a prayer: They thank God for letting them gather together in Yenching, then broaden out to acknowledge the Lord’s various other sacrifices.
This group leads the first 20 or so minutes of Doxa. Folksy songs fill the space. A sextet leads the audience in musical worship. There is a violinist, a cellist, a guitarist, a keyboard player, a seated figure tapping a bongo drum, and one standing and singing; behind them, a projector screen displays the lyrics so the crowd can partake as well. Bathed in darkness, the whole scene has a distinctly summer camp-like vibe to it; it certainly feels more like we are gathered around a bonfire than just a few dozen feet from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?”
The team leads a variation of “Were You There,” a nineteenth century hymn typically attributed to African-American slaves. The audience is quiet at first, but sings with increasing volume and passion as the song continues.
“Were you there when the stone was rolled away?”
Followers stand and sway, forming a chorus. One, clad in a flannel shirt, raises his arms toward the sky before resting them on the crown of his head. Another, in a blue t-shirt, places his hand over his heart, as if pledging allegiance.
As the musicians begin their next song, more audience members join in physical worship.
“Now, nothing is holding me back from you.”
The music swells and builds.
“What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
A number of celebrants close their eyes and stretch out their hands to the stage, grasping, figuratively, at something more. The guitarist takes his hands off his instrument to echo the audience members. One lone attendant sits with his head in his hands, in between his knees.
“Now, by this I’ll reach my home. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
The Worship Team finishes and leaves the stage to enthusiastic applause. The darkness dissolves into light, and the crowd returns to sitting. The magic of summer camp is over. Now, the auditorium is back to a jarringly bright classroom.
* * *
HCFA is far more than a gathering of Harvard students undulating and humming along with Christian hymns in the darkness. There’s something far more weighty than the drama of gospel music at hand. Formally, it’s a non-denominational Christ-centric organization of nearly 200 students—roughly 190, according to Don Weiss, its most senior staff member, and Kate J. Massinger ’16, one of the outgoing co-presidents—who participate in weekly Bible courses tailored to each grade and by gender. A subset of this 190-odd group attends Doxa each week; another handful of students who do not enroll in Bible courses also regularly sit in on Doxa. There is a definite evangelical bent to HCFA’s activities, a far cry from the ritualistic liturgical practices found in many high Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox churches.
At the helm of HCFA are two co-presidents (one male and one female), a number of other student members of an Executive Board, and five full-time ministry staff members. This staff, led by Weiss, works out of an airy office near Harvard Yard on Mass. Ave. With sunlight streaming into the white-washed space, towering shelves of books line the walls and the air is distinctly sweet (the office sits atop the waffle shop Zinneken’s, a popular meeting spot for HCFA members and staff). These offices are where Bible courses typically meet, during which students explore set curricula that focus on certain themes—like sex and spirituality, for example—or specific books of the Bible.
And, like many student groups at the College, HCFA fosters a formal and informal social network. From post-Doxa gatherings to women’s teas to daily prayers at 8:45 a.m. in one of the tower classrooms of Memorial Hall, it seems that the interpersonal aspect of HCFA is at least as important as the scriptural one. Nearly every member I spoke to mentioned having a roommate or blockmate who also participates in HCFA.
When I ask John S. Acton ’17 about how much time he spends on HCFA each week, he says he’s definitely on the “more involved end of the spectrum,” dedicating eight to 10 hours weekly to leading the Seeking God team (which is “dedicated to prayer”). He pauses and rethinks his answer. A cross pendant dangles from his neck. “Admittedly, it’s somewhat hard to figure out where the lines end between things I’m doing as part of HCFA and things I’m just doing with friends,” he says.
David M. Fulton ’16, the other outgoing co-president, describes Massinger and two of the other Exec Board members (Daniel N.T. Yue ’16, a former Crimson design chair, and Elizabeth E. Sult Case ’17) as “some of the closest friends I’ve ever had,” then expanding that group to include a former leader of one of his Bible courses and a previous HCFA president. “I’m lucky I have so many people I can stuff into that category,” he says.
Nick Nowalk, an HCFA ministry fellow who has been at the College since the group’s inception on campus in 2008, mentions these “relational connections” several times while explaining HCFA’s appeal. Both Massinger and Fulton note that one of the most challenging aspects of running the group was constantly devoting time and emotion to the relationships they had with other members and leaders. Scott Ely ’18 says he made a quick and instant connection with HCFA members and staff as a freshman. He felt a further tie to the group because his freshman year roommate also participated in it; at one point, he chuckles that HCFA is actually is how he met many of his current blockmates.
But as happens with all student groups, some people do trickle away from HCFA.
“Even if somebody came to a Bible course or Doxa for a season, to the degree that someone doesn’t feel relationally connected in friendships in HCFA, it’s much more likely that they’ll fade out,” Nowalk says. “Wholly apart from that, on a strictly ideological level, at a certain point, if a student becomes more persuaded that, ‘Yeah, I don’t buy this, I just don’t believe it,’ it’s more likely that at some point their interest will fade.”
And, in a growing group with a membership nearing 200, student leaders must constantly consider if these relational connections still feel intimate. Fulton describes one of the challenges he faced as co-president as “maintaining the initial passion and closeness that characterized your community,” as the group’s successful evangelizing caused it to expand and evolve during his year-long tenure.
* * *
This week’s keynote speaker at Doxa is Nowalk, who says he will address “what it means to be a Christian” by exploring a perceived internal struggle many Christians feel—“in between the Kingdom of God and the power of darkness in our lives”—that is, in his opinion, ultimately a false dichotomy. He wears a blue t-shirt and jeans, with a mop of curly brown hair. Nowalk is candid, warm, a far cry from stuffy ministers in starched clerical collars and sweeping cassocks.
“Why is it that every day you wake up, you find in one sense or another two sets of desires—desires that are honoring the God, desires that are profoundly dishonoring the God?” he asks.
Nowalk explains that present in the New Testament is an “already but not yet core existence to our identity as Christians.” No more than three minutes into his speech, he explains that he’s been fighting an awful flu for the past few days, and so he may need to stop and take a breather at some point. “I’m not sure if I’m going to make it through this,” he says.
He pauses and asks the crowd to pray to God with him.
* * *
Days later, perched over a small table at the Starbucks in the Garage, Nowalk and I discuss why he so enjoys working for HCFA. Beyond Harvard’s intellectual environment and Nowalk’s connections with students here, there’s a very practical reason why HCFA is an ideal employer. While many campus fellowship positions require their ministry staff to fundraise all or part of their salaries, HCFA receives comprehensive financial support from Christian Union. Nowalk explains that as a ministry fellow, he is a full-time paid employee. This is a major advantage that HCFA carries over similar peer groups, freeing up its fellows’ time to actually spread the gospel.
“I actually wasn’t looking to do campus or college ministry at the time,” Nowalk says of his post-seminary job search. “Mostly because in most campus ministries, somebody like me has to raise their support full time to do this, and doing that when you’ve got a lot of debt from grad school, a family, you want to do it long-term, you want to do it in the Northeast, in a city where it’s expensive—that’s not very doable.”
Christian Union was founded by Matt Bennett, a graduate of Cornell, in 2002. Bennett had worked for the Princeton chapter of Campus Crusades for Christ (Cru) before realizing the potential in the greater campus fellowship landscape for an organization specifically tailored to Ivy League institutions. As Weiss and Hutz Hertzberg, the organization’s current president, explain, these schools have distinct student bodies—future leaders of America, if you will—and rigorous academic programs that necessitate a different method. CU, then, advocates for an intense and intellectual study of scripture as well as a “strategic approach” to “developing Christian leaders.” In plain English, this means that CU beefs up Bible study to Ivy standards and operates with the optimistic viewpoint that student members will, in the future, be Gospel-educated world leaders.
“Being at Harvard is pretty different than being at Ohio State or Northern Illinois University in terms of the student makeup and the ethos on campus,” says Hertzberg, who has served as an academic administrator at the university level and as a chaplain in the United States Naval Reserve. “That was really the impetus behind it.”
And so for nearly 15 years, Bennett, the organization’s CEO, and Hertzberg have led a staff of several dozen in creating a range of Bible courses and cultivating a network of future leaders guided by evangelical Christian faith. What began small—a singular outlet at Princeton—has spread to the entire Ivy League, with some branches containing several hundred members. At seven of the eight schools, chapters have gained official student group recognition—Dartmouth is the lone holdout. Each chapter holds weekly Bible courses and evening worship services (such as HCFA’s Doxa). Weekly teleconferences among ministry staff and CU headquarters ensure that operations are running smoothly all over the country. A hefty sum of donations—Christian Union reported total contributions over $7.7 million in its 2014 financial statement—keep its staff happily employed and its programming robust.
CU’s connection to HCFA is more than a strictly financial one. As Weiss, Nowalk, and all the student leaders I interviewed note, Christian Union provides organizational guidance and help to HCFA. This materializes in the form of providing the five full-time ministry staff, the office space on Mass. Ave, curriculum and materials for Bible courses, and, to a certain extent, the greater ideologies guiding the group’s activities. CU also plans biennial Nexus conferences for networking amongst the memberships of each school.
Still, HCFA members emphasize that the group is very much student-driven and emotionally independent from Christian Union. Hertzberg says that CU chapters “really are student-run organizations” with autonomy of expression. “We look at ourselves as being resourcing agents to these various campuses,” he says.
Fulton terms his interactions with CU—“the great mothership in the sky”—as only “fairly limited” during his presidency, something he doesn’t see as a negative. Massinger and Richmond agree that contact with Christian Union, beyond the ministry staff they employ, is pretty minimal for students. According to Fulton, Christian Union typically “defers to its ministry fellows on the ground,” understanding that the power of the organization is built around an “actual human being having a conversation.”
With regard to the emphasis CU puts on Christ-driven leadership, Fulton says this concept is implicitly part of HCFA given that it is a Harvard College fellowship. Anyway, Fulton says, he would feel “woefully unprepared” to teach many of his peers, already adept leaders, how to lead.
* * *
Back in Yenching Auditorium, Nowalk finishes praying for his health. “My heart is beating really fast right now,” he admits. Returning to his homily, he embarks upon a close reading of scripture, focusing heavily on Romans, a book that several Bible courses are studying this semester.
For nearly an hour, Nowalk speaks—his enthusiasm, verbosity, and charisma mask any illness—and tries to impress upon the crowd that the sense among many Christians that they’re inherently “sinful and yet righteous,” unable to avoid wickedness, is somewhat false. Instead, he proposes, “the pursuit of holiness in the Christian life is all about habits and routines and strategies of intentions.” To paraphrase, Nowalk argues that you are more than your sin, which should be seen as an abnormality rather than the default state, avoided by deliberate thought and action.
“Christian obedience is about what you do with your body much more than it is about what you think or what you feel,” Nowalk asserts. “I think so many of us over-spiritualize the fight against sin.” Nowalk is fond of repetition and speaks at a lilting tempo.
“Momentum builds in the Christian life. Momentum builds.”
* * *
So, who are the hundreds of current and former HCFA members, and why do they choose HCFA over Harvard’s other non-denominational Christian organizations like Campus Crusades for Christ or InterVarsity? What is it about HCFA, besides the close-knit community it creates amongst members, that makes it so special?
For one, HCFA creates a dedicated body in which Christians can explore and further understand their faith. This fall, a plurality of freshmen—nearly 40 percent of the class of 2019—reported identifying as atheist or agnostic. It is, as some students and ministry staff say, quite unusual to be an actively believing and worshipping Christian on an Ivy League campus. Ministry staff and HCFA members are certainly not in denial about this reality; while many students in HCFA came to Harvard knowing they’d participate in campus fellowship, Richmond and Massinger estimate that roughly half did not.
“There’s a place to belong even without believing,” Nowalk says of HCFA. While belief in Christ and the Christian life is the goal of the organization, “there is a place for students who don’t have faith, even if they don’t ever end up being convinced.”
A subset of students did not even regard themselves as Christian before coming to Harvard, and some members of HCFA still do not. Nowalk and Weiss, for example, became Christians in college after identifying as non-religious growing up. It’s an experience, they say, that makes them particularly equipped to guide similarly-minded students on this journey.
“I think it’s challenging for students that are processing, searching, and then landing in Christianity,” Weiss explains of the secular college experience. “I think there are stereotypes. There are hurdles. To identify as a Christian at a place like Harvard can be somewhat costly. Not in any kind of overt type of persecution, but I think a lot of people question whether Christianity is intellectually viable.”
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana acknowledges that “there’s always a general concern in a research university or the ethos of a secular modern institution that somehow identifying or expressing religious beliefs might be associated with somehow not a pro-scientific perspective.” Recognizing that some students and faculty experience this phenomenon, Khurana says he think that those are ultimately “false dichotomies,” and that religion and research can certainly be reconciled.
Students in HCFA generally echo Weiss in acknowledging that it can be difficult to be a Christian—and a devoted one at that—at Harvard, although they all emphasize that friends and acquaintances of all faiths (or lack thereof) are supportive of their beliefs.
Acton, who was initially anxious about Harvard’s secular nature, has not found significant barriers to his faith. “You’re not going to gain any social capital from saying you have religious beliefs,” he says. “If anything, people will be more likely to downplay them slightly, although there isn’t substantial pressure to downplay them.”
A junior studying economics, Acton emphasizes that there is both some “social stigma” as well as “opportunity cost” associated with religious groups, meaning that for that anyone committed to a group like HCFA, “they’re probably taking it seriously.”
And so HCFA works to bridge whatever gap may arise at Harvard between the spiritual life and the academic one by providing a rigorous study of the Bible and exposure to important Christian philosophers and thinkers.
Weiss, for one, welcomes complex questions about Christianity and treats them as opportunities and avenues for discussion. “You can’t fake it,” he says, in a soft-spoken timbre. “You have to be well read. You have to be conversant on all issues. You have to invite all questions and inquiries because how can you not?”
Massinger agrees. “It’s good to have to defend what we believe and talk about it with people,” she says. “I wouldn’t go to a Christian-only school if I had the choice.”
By actively and thoroughly studying the Bible, HCFA members and faculty (a term Hertzberg emphasizes that CU feels strongly about using with regard to its ministry staff) reach greater levels of spiritual self-fulfillment and enriched relationships with peers.
Ely, a sophomore who also sings in the Christian a capella group Under Construction, says one of the biggest benefits of HCFA is the guidance the full-time ministry staff provides through trying times that are pretty universal at the College. “[HCFA is] a community there for people to rely on each other throughout the many struggles we go through on Harvard’s campus,” he says. “It provides a grounding foundation for people of the Christian faith and people who are interested in learning more.”
As one of the new co-presidents of HCFA, Richmond has found that her role “allows you to know people in a different way and engage in a different way,” given the weighty and deeply personal place that faith inhabits in people’s lives. Massinger says that much of the enjoyment she derives from HCFA comes from connecting with others over shared beliefs; relationships in HCFA are not based off of what you’re good at or what social circle you’re in, but something far more internal.
It seems that HCFA provides just the sort of emotional and personal guidance that many bemoan is not present enough at Harvard—though granted, that guidance does descend from the gospel. This religiosity does lead to certain lifestyle tenets—leaders of the group agree to a “standards contract” that Acton describes as having broad recommendations for Christian behavior such as “commitment to spiritual growth” and more tangible expectations for things like abstinence and avoiding excessive drunkenness.
While many students at Harvard would shy away from these sorts of suggestions—it is important to note that casual attendees of Bible courses and Doxa are not asked to submit to them—those same people might, in fact, find the community and spirituality that HCFA fosters rather comforting.
* * *
Every meeting of Doxa finishes with logistical announcements in the form of “Doxa Talk,” a semi-comedic video that HCFA started producing a few years ago, according to Fulton, in order to hasten along this segment of the night. Episodes of “Doxa Talk,” along with each week’s keynote address and a number of other clips (I found “How Not to Invite
Someone to Doxa” particularly funny) can be found on HCFA’s YouTube channel.
This week’s video skit opens with a trio of HCFA members discussing the upcoming Easter Egg hunt at Aletheia, a non-denominational evangelical church based out of the Central Square YMCA that a plurality of HCFA members attend. It’s rumored that not only will the Easter Bunny make an appearance, but so will Jesus Christ himself. “Wait, is it Jesus before the resurrection or after the resurrection?” one of the students in the video asks. They muse on the aesthetics, power, and musculature of Jesus. “He was pretty divinely swole,” another says. “Like, Trinitarian triceps.”
The next bit—“Valley Girl Time”—features Tyler S. Parker ’17 and Tori A. Elliott ’16 assuming silly accents to publicize the imminent Nexus conference, which will be held in New Haven at the Omni Hotel—“easily the hottest hotel in the greater Yale area,” as Parker terms it. There will be opportunities for networking, seminars, vocational panels, speakers, and hundreds of fellow Christian Union students from across the Ivy League. “I’m gonna be at the movie star panel,” Parker jokes. “So, like, check me out.”
Doxa Talk ends with advice from the Campus Kindness team (its mission? “To spread God’s love across campus through quasi-random acts of kindness.”) in the form of a “Tip of the Week” to “rekindle old flames [and] reconnect with old friendships.” Elliott muses about promising to “grab a meal sometime” with a distant friend. “Bless up,” she says. It’s the most sincere DJ Khaled reference I’ve ever heard.
* * *
In the grand scheme of things, it’s not particularly shocking that Doxa Talk ended with a secular “Tip of the Week.” Despite being a self-proclaimed “gospel-centric community,” HCFA has recently made significant efforts to reach out to individuals who might not necessarily feel the call of Christ already. Despite its dedication to scripture and worship, the group has worked alongside secular student organizations. Richmond also describes doing service work in an interfaith context, specifically with Islamic student groups and Hillel. “We see a lot of value in collaboration,” she says.
One recent example is the group’s “You Are More” campaign, which sought to emphasize to students their significance as people, rather than the weight of accomplishments, activities, relationships, or academics. The drive saw HCFA host themed study breaks and editions of Doxa to explore this concept.
As part of “You Are More,” HCFA teamed up with the Student Mental Health Liaisons to host an open mic event—aimed at examining the role of stigma in instances of personal failure—at Cabot Cafe on March 2. Several dozen students, perhaps further lured by the promise of free drinks from the Cafe, showed up to support friends and listen to peers open up about moments and experiences of imperfections.
A tall junior, Diana Sheedy ’17, described feeling disappointed in herself after a mistake on an internship project; with big sparkling eyes, she finished by reminding the crowd that we are all inherently valuable as people—“everyone will love you for who you are.”
Acton spoke about his participation in Bible competitions when he was younger. He first joined in middle school, entranced by a community in which he felt totally comfortable and an activity at which he excelled. He continued to participate in high school. While his team’s attempts at a national championship fell short, he overcame these regrets by cherishing the community, friendship, and spiritual satisfaction he found in the group. In losing, Acton concluded, he in fact gained true perspective about his identity and what was actually important.
The various speakers talked about a range of topics—from student council elections to orchestras to lapsed friendships. Some reflected on their faith—Acton being one such example—but others did not touch on religion at all. While HCFA may have sponsored the event, the takeaway was spiritual beyond the bounds of Christianity: We are all greater than our failures, and we all have the capacity to connect to others.
Massinger, who spearheaded “You Are More” with Fulton this past year, says that HCFA leaders had been looking for “accessible ways for people to engage in our community.”
“We thought that this message of being more than one’s work or extracurriculars or relationship status would be really applicable to Harvard students,” Massinger says. “In the Christian story, that means that you are fundamentally reconciled with Christ and your value comes from being created by God, so that’s of course what we were saying. We were never trying to hide that, but just the general idea that you are more than the things you have on your calendar everyday we thought at its core was something people would be interested in.”
There is, implicit in some of HCFA’s work with secular groups, a certain degree of outreach to non-religious students. Because the group isn’t an official chaplaincy, its ministry staff is not bound by certain restrictions related to proselytizing religion. Campaigns like “You Are More” distill aspects of Christianity—such as self-respect—into digestible bites even an atheist would feel comfortable with. Regardless, members and leaders of HCFA emphasize that they never seek to lure students under a false pretense that they would be joining anything but a Christian community.
“In all our pitching and recruiting efforts, we’re pretty honest about who we are,” Massinger says. “It’s very upfront. People at Harvard aren’t going to stick around as soon as they find out it’s a religious organization, anyway, if they didn’t want to participate in that or think about it in the first place.”
Whatever ambitions HCFA may have for its future and growth, Christian Union is open and clear about its own aspirations. The organization’s next three-year strategic plan is in the pipeline—Hertzberg jests that we can talk about it in “six months”—but plenty of projects are already on tap. CU will soon expand its campus ministry outside the Ivy League for the first time ever, arriving at Stanford this fall. There is interest in branching out to even more non-Ivy peer institutions, such as MIT, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago, which yield similar cohorts of alumni. Hertzberg says he hopes that CU, which does have an on-the-ground staff in New York City focused on alumni support, can continue to grow its post-graduate offerings, with richer faith-based programming, career networking, and advising in even more cities like Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
“We can see ourselves growing,” he says, optimistically.
* * *
Every Doxa meeting ends with a standard anthem that leaders and celebrants sing together. The crowd breaks slowly. Members chatter with one another again, and then disperse for their respective Friday evening activities. Some shuffle off to parties, others to nights of catching up on homework and sleep. A sizeable portion peel off for an HCFA-endorsed post-Doxa social in the basement of Quincy. There will be fried chicken. Attendees are encouraged to BYOB, which in this case stands for “Bring Your Own Board-game.”
It’s now dark outside, and the rain has let up. Easter is nigh and spirits are, perhaps, refreshed.