By: Rev. Julia E. F. Poulsen, chair, Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry
An innovative and compassionate ministry is being led at Simpson College by Rev. Mara Bailey who is also a graduate of Simpson. Bailey is proud of her United Methodist heritage and training and helps Simpson College to maintain that connection to the United Methodist Church (UMC). Simpson has historically sent many of its students off to seminaries after college graduation. Bailey named four current Iowa United Methodist pastors who attended Simpson since she has been chaplain are now back from seminary and serving in Iowa.
Bailey wears many hats as chaplain to the students, faculty and staff — deep listener to those who are broken, faculty (covering the New Testament in a semester each year) and is a co-worker with Rev. Eric Rucker who runs the Simpson Youth Academy
for high school juniors and seniors each year, thanks to the Lilly Endowment.
Today’s students are extremely busy with jobs, required internships and volunteer work necessary for graduation, so commitment to regular worship attendance and community events on campus is at a low right now. Therefore, the chaplain and Religious Life Community
focuses on spiritual small groups on campus and on helping students attend churches in Indianola. Local churches are willing and interested in having students come to worship, so Bailey gets them a ride when needed. Before COVID-19, local churches would bring a home cooked meal to the campus chapel on Tuesday evening and worship would follow. This meal and worship will begin again in November.
Another service provided by the chapel staff and Religious Life Community leadership is Holy Grounds
, a coffee shop in the front of the chapel building. It is accessible 24 hours a day 5 days a week so students can find peace and quiet for study and use the wi-fi and printer. Delicious coffees (all fair trade or locally sourced) are available for a small fee. Volunteers run the coffee shop. It is a great place to meet with friends for a break from the stress.
When deaths or losses occur, Bailey often gets a call. At times, she runs a Campus Grief Group, and is always available to meet privately with the person in grief.
Discussing big questions about life’s purpose, exploring a call, relationship problems, suicidal thoughts, Biblical questions and more are not only dealt with by the chaplain. Student chaplains (work study positions) also work alongside the student residential staff and help students by being a loving faithful presence who listens, cares and builds relationships with students who are lonely or want to talk. Student chaplains also plan events where students can make friends and have fun together. The focus of the Student Chaplain/Residence Life partnership is on working together to create communities of belonging and combat isolation, which is an increasing issue among college students.
Ministry as a chaplain means serving a religiously diverse community which is one of the marks of United Methodist higher education. 68-70% of the Simpson student body identifies as Christian (Catholic, Protestant, or other denominations) and the remaining 30% identify as atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated. 18-20% of the students are currently Roman Catholic on campus. Because of this large representation, the chapel provides regular Mass and other opportunities for Catholic students who want a deeper connection to meet together and with an area priest.
Another student-led group is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Approximately half of the student body are athletes. FCA is a large active group. Other small groups include men’s and women’s Bible studies, a social justice group, and a coffee and life chat group.
Learning about different religions and cultures is available on campus through guest lectures and in trips to mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. Less than 1% of the students are Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu. Soon a new faculty person will teach Buddhism and related topics. A Jewish faculty member provides a Passover Seder each year for interested students who want to experience the Hebrew festival. Simpson religion classes expose students to knowledge about faith, the Bible, religions and current events examined through the eyes of faith.
Chaplain Mara Bailey and the Religious Life Community operate under the idea that "All Beliefs are Welcome", but not all "Behaviors are Welcome." This idea might seem surprising to the United Methodist in the pews, but it works on campus where young adults are bombarded with so many ideas about life, faith and vocation and they have so many questions.
Bailey offers a safe place to think about and delve into faith and spirituality as long as the expressions of belief do not denigrate others or dehumanize anyone based on an aspect of their identity, background, belief, or experience. Bailey regularly explains passages in the Bible and beliefs of the denomination to help the young adults in their thinking and faith development. She explains that the local churches train the young people then passes them briefly to the college where she and the religion faculty and student chaplains work hard to keep them connected to faith and then they pass them on to graduate school or careers or starting families or military service with hope that they will stay connected to Christ and their faith in their futures.
The apportionment dollars given to our four United Methodist colleges goes to the operating funds to help cover the chaplain’s salary and the ministry of the chaplain. Our colleges in Iowa are Simpson, Morningside, Iowa Wesleyan and Cornell. Simpson is the only one currently with a United Methodist chaplain and Bailey is full-time.