Pastor Ray Ranker and the Lutheran Campus Ministry of University of Maryland

Photo Credit to Katie Simbala. Fun fact about this photo: while we were outside, a drumline was practicing across the road, and Pastor Ray sang along to UMD’s Alma Mater.

The Memorial Chapel at the University of Maryland is a non-denominational chapel that hosts on-campus groups and other special events such as weddings or meetings and lectures. There are several campus ministries that call Memorial Chapel their home base: Baptist Connection, Black Ministries, Catholic Chaplaincy, Episcopal Chaplaincy, Hindu Chaplaincy, Muslim Prayer Services, Orthodox Christian ministries, United Campus Ministry, United Methodist Chaplaincy, Christian Science Chaplaincy, and the Lutheran Campus Ministries.

The leader of the Lutheran Campus Ministry is Pastor Ray Ranker, who recently received the James R. Carr Award for Distinguished Service, an award given to “those who demonstrate excellence in ministry, have an adventuresome enthusiasm for travel abroad, foster engagement with others–especially campus ministry colleagues from around the globe, and exude a passion for integrating a wider worldview into their local ministries.”

When I stepped into the smaller sanctuary of Memorial Chapel–the Garden Chapel–our creative director, Katie, was already there and ready to take photos. We spoke briefly about Katie’s recent trip to visit our companion churches in El Salvador before getting to work. Instantly, Pastor Ray reveals his humor and good nature. Katie, a professional photographer, knows where to place her subjects and how to get good angles. She has Pastor Ray sit on the back of the pew in front of him, with his feet on the bench behind it. Ray instantly starts posing, laughing that he’s not sure what he’s supposed to be doing. We all laugh. Katie assures him that no posing is necessary, all he has to do is sit and talk.

Pastor Ray was a student at the University of Maryland when he had his first experience with the Lutheran Campus Ministry. He described him and his friend as “church nerds,” who were looking to become active in a church community. He said that the Lutheran Campus Ministry felt right, and was the community he was looking for in college. Pastor Elizabeth Platz–the first woman to be ordained as a Lutheran Minister in North America–was ministry leader at the time. Pastor Platz helped find a sponsorship for Pastor Ray to travel to North Carolina for a Global Mission Event, which informed him about the Young Adults in Global Mission Program. The Lutheran Campus Ministry provided him a community and opportunities to volunteer and learn about other cultures. And then, as he was graduating seminary, Pastor Platz was retiring, and Bishop Graham called Ray to take up the Campus Ministry.

After a while, Katie moves us from the Garden Chapel to the bigger chapel, where Katie navigates us to a pew close to a window for better lighting. Laughter still echoed through the room as Pastor Ray tried to figure out how to pose and where to look.

On our way to his office, we pass a friend of his from the Muslim group that shares the space. The Lutheran Campus Ministry has a lot of good relationships with other religious organizations that make their home in the Memorial Chapel. They do interfaith cohorts, where three Christian students, three Jewish students, and three Muslim students take each other to their respective places of worship and share about their faith and practice, and have a meal and share their lives and cultures with each other. It’s a way to not just learn about other religions, but learn how to explain their own religion, and make friends, build relationships, and become advocates for one another when challenges and discrimination rear its ugly head.

The theme of the Campus Ministry is The Humble Walk. Based on Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Pastor Ray sees two themes in the Humble Walk. The first is simply humility. We do not have all the answers. And, as it says on their website, if one is looking for all of the answers, then the LCM’s worship is not the right place for them. “Faith is a journey, life is a journey…there’s not an ‘I’m comfy I’m just going to sit here.’ There’s movement and growth,” he says. 

The main LCM program is a “casual style worship” on Sunday nights at Hope Lutheran Church, which is just under a mile away from the Memorial Chapel. They call it casual because they pull out couches and comfy chairs for people to sit on during worship. “There’s still a liturgy,” Pastor Ray explains. “But it’s not a traditional liturgy.” Students are given the opportunity to provide a testimony–telling the story of where they saw or experienced God that week.

They also do two service programs with children in the Langley Park area. They partner with La Sagrada Familia for a program called En Camino Con La Comunidad, where students from the Campus Ministry travel to Langley Park, where they tutor and mentor elementary school children. The second program is the CARing Kids Program, which serves to help and support at-risk children by pairing them one-to-one with a university student, who serves as their “buddy,” and help develop their academic and social skills. 

Outside of the campus activities, Pastor Ray takes his students on one international trip a year, and at least two domestic trips. His goal, he explains, is to give students the opportunity to be out of their own settings–out of their comfort zones–and experience people and cultures who worship and experience life differently than they do. These trips are more relational-based than service-based, Pastor Ray explains, because sometimes it’s more than just going to a place, building a structure, and having it serve as a physical, lasting monument to one’s time there. Relationships and education may not be as physically visible, but the impact can still last a lifetime to all who are involved. However, that doesn’t mean that service can’t be part of it. When the ministry visited the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, they helped with some rebuilding after a Hurricane, and they’ve done rebuilding in Puerto Rico as well. But there is a larger emphasis on learning from the lives and experiences of others. 

Lutheran Campus Ministry stands out against other typical ministries because the members are not “lifetime members.” Pastor Ray has not known the students since he baptised them as babies. He has, as he says, a window of 4-6 years, and then they’ll graduate and leave. But in those years, they are able to participate in many activities, and experience a community and family.

There were two students in the Lutheran Campus Ministry office when the Pastor Ray led Katie and me upstairs. One, coincidentally also named Katie, said she also fell in love with the community of the Lutheran Campus Ministry. One of the perks of the ministry is the free meal before Sunday evening services, she jokes, but even though she may have gone for the food, she stayed for the people. “Pastor Ray remembered my name after meeting me once,” she explains. Everyone was extremely welcoming, and the fact that it expanded beyond just a Sunday night worship into programming and activities that she felt were important to her. She appreciates Pastor Ray’s ability to both lead and delegate, allowing the students to act as leaders and take charge when they can. He allows them to have a voice.

Tori, the other office assistant, was active in campus ministry her sophomore through senior year. “Honestly, Ray and this campus ministry is the reason I did YAGM (Young Adult in Global Mission), and Campus Ministry is the reason I’m looking at seminaries,” she says. She says until she was approached by Pastor Ray, she didn’t have a full knowledge that there were Synods, and communities that would support her through her journey to seminary and beyond. Lutheran Campus Ministry provided Tori with a home away from home, and a familial atmosphere that some miss when they leave for college. She was drawn in by Pastor Ray’s personalized invites, and how he will approach individual students and ask them to volunteer. He’s passionate, and that spreads to the students. “He makes the thing go,” she laughs. 

So what does the future hold for Lutheran Campus Ministry? A recent startup has been the Christain Covenant House, a place for students to live together and commit to being part of a worshipping community, and be apart of the community around them. They dedicate at least one night a week to meeting as a house for dinner and devotions. They’re also starting a partnership with a nearby Methodist church to help them start their own mentoring and tutoring program, similar to what the LCM runs. They’re celebrating the 15th anniversary of their tutoring program–a week before Bishop-Elect Ortiz’s installation, in fact–and the 25th anniversary of their mentoring program and the partnership they’ve had with Langley Park.

Whether you recognize it or not, you’re helping support campus ministry. The LCM is part of the Synod, so as offerings from the church go to the Synod, they can support the Campus Ministry and all of the programs it participates in. But there are many ways to support

However, in a small side note, Pastor Ray mentions that they are also exploring new opportunities and alternative funding sources so they can ensure the ministry can continue for the long term. 

On receiving the James Carr Award for Distinguished Service Award, Pastor Ray points out that Pastor Beth Platz received the second ever award, and “it’s neat to be a part of a great legacy that…God has built with her as a minister, and now me also as a minister.” 

Also, super fun fact: Pastor Ray apparently really loves Haribo Gummy Bears.

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