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Hoya crackdown

Religion | Georgetown University gets tough with campus evangelical groups

Issue: "Stealth care," Sept. 16, 2006

Student members of six evangelical campus groups at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C, were on pins and needles last week as they awaited word about their future. They had gone to administrators of the Jesuit-run school and stated their case; would the school now reverse its announced decision in mid-August to expel the ministry organizations?

The two largest groups the school kicked off the 10,000-student campus were InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) and Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, a popular Assemblies of God student ministry; each has about 100 student members. The groups were classified as "affiliated ministries" in the university's Protestant Ministry division of Campus Ministry.

Students can continue to meet informally for Bible study sessions and other purposes-as many are doing, leaders told WORLD. But they can't do it under the auspices of the ministries. That means no literature tables, no advertising and no promotions inviting other students to join in activities, no staff presence, no organized campus gatherings.

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The expulsion came as a shock that caught students and faculty alike by surprise. There had been no advance warnings, no conflicts among campus groups, no "or else" demands.

Yet there had been ominous tremors earlier. Although only about half of GU's students are Catholics, it was obvious for years that someone wanted tighter control over the Protestant presence on campus, especially the thriving evangelical groups. There had been several "restructurings" of the Protestant office.

In April 1999, citing budget constraints, GU Campus Ministry officials forced out senior Protestant staff, including Protestant Chaplain Bruce Epperly, a 17-year veteran at GU. Although the well-liked Epperly was a theological liberal with United Church of Christ credentials, he got along well with evangelical campus leaders. He and they took a "covenant agreement" imposed by Jesuit Campus Ministry officials in stride; it committed Protestants not to proselytize or bash Catholics.

Protests by several hundred students at campus rallies fell on deaf ears. (A senior rabbi also was axed but won reinstatement after personally appealing to the GU Board of Trustees. Epperly retains ties to GU as an adjunct professor.)

With the appointment of new Protestant senior staff about three years ago, more covenants came down, spelling out expectations and what could and could not be done as ministry. Among other things, leaders of the evangelical groups, partitioned into an "Affiliated Ministries" category, were required to attend religious meetings organized by the Protestant chaplaincy. Students complained the services were boring and irrelevant to their spiritual needs, IVCF staff coordinator Kevin Offner told WORLD.

Amid mounting friction and tension over the new mandates, evangelical campus leaders were summoned in mid-August to meet with Rev. Constance Wheeler, senior Protestant chaplain and an African Methodist Episcopal minister. She handed them the expulsion letter. Bearing her signature, it said covenant agreements would not be renewed, effective immediately, and "your ministries will no longer be allowed to hold any activity or presence."

Her letter said the decision was reached "only after much dialogue with the Lord."

As the evangelical leaders pressed her in discussion afterward, one participant told WORLD that she said, "This decision came from higher up, much higher up."

"Higher up" would include Jesuit priest Timothy Godfrey, director of GU Campus Ministry, and his boss, fellow Jesuit Philip Boroughs, GU vice president for Mission and Ministry, an architect of earlier Protestant restructurings. Neither was answering reporters' calls.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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