Introducing Kelsey Davis: The Future of Campus Ministry at WCU and UNCA
Kelsey's Davis' father was hesitant when she first told him she wanted to be baptized.
"If you love who you love and you are who you are, I'm just worried this is going to be a difficult road for you," he told her. Later that week, he took her to the world religions section of their local bookstore and asked to her do a little homework on other major religions before she made her final decision. "If you still want to be baptized I will absolutely support you," he said, "But promise me you will never try to convert or coerce someone to believe what you believe, and you will always respect religious difference."
Though she was a teenager at the time, Davis still recalls this moment as foundational in her eventual calling to the Episcopal Church and embracement of theological diversity as a core element of her personal faith.
"That's part of why I love campus ministry, because I get to hold the tradition of the Episcopal Church, which leans into theological differences, engages various forms of spiritual practice, embraces human diversities, and welcomes interfaith dialogue," Davis said. "It was really a seed that was planted in me early on."
Davis' personal spiritual journey also helped to solidify a passion for diversity of thought and practice within faith. Davis is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, a former professional soccer player and coach, and shared that her ancestral roots are a mixture of Anglo, Choctaw, and Armenian heritages. While she was originally baptized in a non-denominational church, Davis later attended a Catholic university, the University of Portland. It was here that she truly fell in love with the liturgy and sacramental life.
"I remember thinking, gosh, if I can have some hybrid between a nondenominational modern worship space mashed up with this deeply ancient sacramental, liturgical experience, that's the kind of church I want to be in!" Davis said. "So fast forward a couple of years, I walked into this bar in Fort Worth Texas, and in the back corner was a man standing there in his clericals with a beer in his hand. I knew enough to know he was a priest, so I walked up to him and introduced myself. We ended up talking for over an hour, he was a Lutheran pastor and had started a church in a bar. Eventually he said, 'Do you want to help me lead this church in a bar?' And it was a total Holy Spirit moment because I was just like, 'Yeah, I really do.'"
Davis ended up working on the leadership team of this church for about 3 years. It was during this time that she fell in love with ministry, and felt called to go to Divinity School. It was on a random Wednesday night her first semester at Vanderbilt Divinity School that she found the Episcopal Church.
"A friend had told me I needed to go check out St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel at Vanderbilt and that they had a Contemplative Eucharist on Wednesday night," Davis said. "So, that night, I walked over to the chapel after class, Heather and I sat down, and immediately felt an overwhelming feeling of being home.” The liturgy was spacious, filled with readings and long stretches of silence; we heard Gospel readings paired with poetry; candles were lit and the simple strumming of a steel guitar filled the room. It was everything my soul had been longing for in a place of worship… and the people were absolutely wonderful. After Eucharist, the priest beelined up to us after the service and lovingly said, 'You're going to come back, right?' So we came back the next week, and then the next…. and we never left. The mixture of tradition, creative worship, ancient ritual, and loving community was our introduction was our introduction to The Episcopal Church. St. Augustine’s will always be our first home and first community where we could be fully embraced for who we are. It was the first place both Heather and I felt like we found a home in the Church."
As Campus Missioner for UNC Asheville and Western Carolina University, Davis hopes to help other students find this same sense of community in worship and liturgy. Inspired by the energy and passion of young adults, Davis is excited to continue to cultivate the growing campus ministry at UNCA and plant roots at WCU. Her vision for both ministries is a community that seeks collaboration, values compassion, holds courageous conversations, and practices contemplative activism. "What I wish people knew about college-age students is how wise, passionate, and awesome they are to be around," Davis said. "They ask the best questions and take the kind of necessary risks that age stamps out of many of us. They are leaders, challengers, and curious seekers of finding ways to make our church and society more loving, life-giving, and liberating." For Belle Kozubowski, a current student and president of Episcopal Campus Ministry at UNCA, she sees being both a young adult and a Christian as an opportunity to engage in important dialogue and make a meaningful difference, especially with many of the questions our nation as faced this year surrounding racial justice, political discourse, and social activism. "In a few weeks in ECM, we're going to start talking about Jesus' parables and his teachings, specifically surrounding racial justice and social activism," Kozubowski said. "I think this has given us an opportunity, especially with the current political climate and everything rising to the surface, such as the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I think we have this really amazing opportunity to use our faith to help answer some of these deeper questions that are coming up in our country. I'm really excited about this opportunity, and I think Kelsey is doing an amazing job leading us in those conversations." Kozubowski's faith journey holds similarities to Davis'. Though she grew up in a non-denominational household, Kozubowski attended Catholic school for her freshman year of high school, falling in love with the tradition and liturgy of the Catholic mass. However, after wrestling with some of the ideology of the Catholic Church, Kozubowski eventually found her home in the Episcopal faith. "My grandma is Episcopalian, so I'd been to church with her a few times and was familiar with it," Kozubowski said. "So that's kind of why I was interested in the Episcopal Church to begin with, and it was so beautiful to me that this tradition of the church service had been carried on for so many years." For Davis, fostering the ECM community that had already been established at UNCA prior to her arrival is one of her major goals for the ministry. Rather than trying to reinvent the ministry, Davis hopes to continue to support the spirit of ECM at UNCA and allow the ministry to be a collaborative vision between herself and the students.
"ECM at UNCA was established on the cornerstones of love and hospitality, two commitments that mean that our community seeks to draw a wider circle, to welcome and support all identities, and to feed one another in mind-body-spirit," Davis said. "I think some of the best ministry and the best ways to love is just to show up, when invited and when appropriate, in solidarity in the spaces that are already deemed safe and brave and supported and that is what I hope to be for the students."
At WCU, Episcopal Campus Ministry is just started to plant its seeds on campus. Many years ago, St. David's Episcopal Church in Cullowhee had a relationship with the WCU campus, establishing the Safe Zone Program on campus. Safe Zone is an initiative with the mission to "provide training, support, resources, and a network of allies who are committed to enhancing the campus and local community's understanding of gender and sexuality." In partnership with St. David's, Davis hopes to renew this connection between students and parish and create a safe space in ECM.
"Collaborating and continuing to be in relationship with the Safezone initiative at WCU is an important part of Episcopal Campus Ministry at WCU," Davis said. "In order to be a place of flourishing and welcome to all people, particularly people who identify on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, it is vital that we continue to seek education and training on how to be a safe & welcoming community. It is my deep hope that all students, and particularly LGBTQIA+ students at WCU, can call ECM a safe and brave community. I hope that we can be a place where the intersection of Christianity & LGBTQIA+ life can be nourished & supported."
For the members of St. David's, there is great excitement about forging relationships with college-aged students and opening the parish doors to those who have faced animosity in the past. As an open and affirming congregation, rector Gaelyn Evangreene hopes that students will see St. David's as a place where they are welcomed and loved. "There is definitely a willingness and even an excitement for some parishioners to be like 'grandparents' as they call themselves to some of the students at Western," Evangreene said. "Particularly some of the students who may have felt alienated from the church of their childhood, or some of the alienation that happens when kids go to college and come out, and how that can make difficult relationships with families. So there is definitely enthusiasm from parishioners who perhaps want to stand in that family space for some of these students."
Joining the St. David's congregation in June as a new rector, Evangreene describes the St. David's community as truly characterized by their hospitality and welcoming spirit, and believes it will be a wonderful place for students in grow in their faith and feel at home. "St. David's loves to cook, so I would imagine there would be great enthusiasm for making sure there's always food and hospitality for students!" she said. "I think young people are drawn to and hungry for the traditions of the church, and I think the Episcopal Church has a lot to offer there."
Though she holds the title of Campus Missioner, Davis wants ECM at UNCA and WCU to be a reflection of her student's dreams and passions, a true representation of what they stand for and what they are passionate about. Through her work, Davis hopes to share with the greater church the work being done by young adults and the important role they play in our church community.
"Young adults are already leading in so many ways and should be listened to and respected more often by our society and church," Davis said. "It is my hope that ECM is driven by student voice and leadership. In following Episcopal values, I hope that our campus ministry seeks the dignity and flourishing of all people, is a brave space, and extends the radical love and hospitality shown to us by Jesus."