Presbyterian House Provides Spiritual Home Away From Home for College Students

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MADISON, Wis. (RNS) — Emma Brown didn’t know Pres House was a church when she walked in.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman had seen a sign for free ice cream at the Gothic Revival building at the heart of the university’s campus and decided to check it out.

Inside, she met one of its two pastors and found herself surprisingly emotional when the topic of homesickness came up.

That initial conversation led Brown, who came to Madison from Chicago, first to a Sunday worship service at Pres House, the campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), and later to Freshman Connection, a weekly opportunity for first-year students to connect and talk about faith.

Now she’s at Pres House five days a week.

“I kept showing up,” she said.

Pres House sits at the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus between the St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center and a monument dedicated to innovation and tolerance.

Pres House, the campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

On a recent unseasonably warm February day, students zipped past on bikes and skateboards and blasted music in front of the library just across the street. They took their chances wandering out on the still-frozen Lake Mendota, visible from the mall in front of the Pres House building.

“Find yourself among friends,” read one sign in the Pres House windows.

The Presbyterian campus ministry started in 1907 and grew leaps and bounds during the “heyday of religion” in the first half of the 20th century, according to the Rev. Erica Liu, who leads Pres House with her husband, the Rev. Mark Elsdon.

The ministry was innovative for its time, holding several services every Sunday and empowering students to lead as its elders and deacons.

The Rev. Erica Liu speaks during worship Feb. 2, 2020,
at Pres House, the campus ministry of the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

But by 2000, Pres House had fallen on hard times.

The Presbyterian student ministry was shuttered and had been replaced by an ecumenical ministry that met in its building. The Synod of Lakes and Prairies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was considering selling off the property.

But the Pres House board wasn’t ready to give up. So the board called Liu and Elsdon to revive the campus ministry.

“As we got to know the opportunity, it was like, wow, you know, this could be really quite an adventure,” Liu said.

They started out by going back to basics and focusing on the core of the ministry — helping people connect with one another.

Source: Religion News Service

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