Campus minister offers KU students spiritual friendship
photo by: Kathy Hanks
For Susan Mercer, handing out a Capri Sun juice pouch to a college student is more than quenching a thirst.
“It’s offering prevenient grace to whoever shows up,” said Mercer, the Wesley KU Campus Minister at the University of Kansas.
When Mercer and Shawn Norris, with the Lutheran Campus Ministry, and Will Chaney, with Canterbury House, set up a sandwich board announcing “Blessings on the go,” in front of Wescoe Hall, students stop for a second and take the refreshment offered.
Though some students won’t even make eye contact as they grab a pouch, Mercer doesn’t mind.
“We’re planting a seed, showing up and being present,” she said.
Sometimes a connection is made. A conversation will begin, just when the person needs it. The next time they might linger. Before long, a student might open up and want to talk more about life. They may ask for a blessing or a prayer.
“I have a heart for college students,” she said. “I relate to them and find great joy spending time with them.”
Mercer has always been a listener, which allows people to feel comfortable talking. Because of that, along with serving as a campus minister, Mercer is a spiritual guide, or some call it a spiritual director — but she likes to think of herself as a spiritual friend. People may know in their hearts what they need to be doing, but it may be unclear. Or they may not have the courage to name or claim it.
photo by: Kathy Hanks
“That’s why listening is so important,” she said. “I can’t have an agenda. It’s not about me.”
Being a spiritual friend is not about bringing someone into a certain denomination or saving souls.
“It’s helping them to see how God may be moving in their life,” Mercer said.
She might just walk and talk with someone, or sit with them in a coffee shop. She doesn’t advertise that she is a spiritual director.
“It’s funny,” she said. “People find you.”
Oftentimes, people don’t have the ability to look at what is happening in their lives, but she can be the objective listener.
“It’s a gentle thing,” Mercer said.
Back in 1996, when Mercer began working at KU, if someone had told her she would become a campus minister, she wouldn’t have believed them.
She was a grant coordinator at the Institute of Public Policy and Business Research. Over the years, she moved up to the position of associate director, as the office became the Institute for Policy and Social Research.
The transformation didn’t happen overnight but evolved through the seasons of her life. As a young girl in Illinois, a teacher invited her to sing in the church choir, and music began filling her soul.
After she married, she and her husband, Jack, moved to Lawrence so he could attend KU law school. They were raising a family, and the First United Methodist Church became their church home.
Their two children grew older and she came involved in lay ministry, serving as worship director at the church’s west campus.
“Something was stirring in me,” Mercer said.
She considered attending seminary, but instead, she enrolled in the Academy of Spiritual Formation, which, according to its website, involves academic study in spiritual disciplines. Mercer spent two years in the ecumenical program, which became a time of intense growth for her.
Two years ago, after much discernment, she left the Institute for Policy and Social Research, two weeks shy of 20 years with the department.
“I felt it was audacious to think I could be a campus minister,” she said. But all her experiences over the years were leading her to just that.
Others thought Mercer was right for the job.
“Susan’s passion for KU and for student ministry was apparent to me the first time I met her,” said David Watson, Five Rivers and Parsons district superintendent with Great Plains United Methodist Church.
“She brings an energy to her work with Wesley KU that is joyful and heartfelt,” Watson said.
Mercer’s previous work on campus has helped her build relationships in her role as a campus minister, Watson said.
“She has a collaborative spirit that connects with other campus ministries as well,” he said. “It’s a natural connection.”
This year, Wesley KU Campus Ministry will share a building with the Lutheran Campus Ministry at Westwood House, 1421 W. 19th St.
It’s not about the denomination, Mercer said, but building community. One juice box at a time.