At an April 30 meeting of university chaplains, Adam Dawkins, rector of St. Alban’s Church, Los Angeles, located across the street from UCLA, Episcopal Deacon Christine Mossman and Methodist Deacon Jeanne Roe Smith of Canterbury UCLA, talk about their ministry, which currently involves working with students engaged in protests against the war in Gaza. Photos: Janet Kawamoto

[The Episcopal News] Deacons Christie Mossman and Jeanne Roe Smith, as UCLA partner chaplains, say they were on the front lines to be “a presence of prayer and nonviolence, to be seen and to witness what was going on” when violence erupted as groups of demonstrators clashed on the Los Angeles campus Sunday.

“We wanted students to see that this is not just a Monday-through-Friday thing. We know a fair number of the students involved in the protests. They came out of the encampment for hugs, to meet with us and to chat with us,” said Roe Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Wesley Foundation, and a Methodist chaplain at the campus for 15 years. She also is involved in liturgy at St. Alban’s in Westwood.

“One young man said the experience has made him go back to his roots, the roots of his faith, and that he celebrated his first shabbat in years. That’s powerful,” said Mossman, who is an Episcopalian who also serves at St. Alban’s.

Although news reports often refer to the protesters as “pro-Palestinian,” Roe Smith told The Episcopal News that the student protestors she knows represent a more nuanced attitude, “an intersectional movement. It is not just pro-Palestinian. It is not just Arabs. It is all the people who are concerned about humanity at large, or who have been highly marginalized by systems of oppression and racism. Their message is ‘cease fire and divest.’ It is about divestment of the war machine, wherever it is, and the current largest iteration of that is in Gaza.

“It [their message] is not attacking Jewish people. That is not at all what they are about. Some of the groups involved are the Jewish Voices for Peace, which support something different than what is happening. There are Filipinos, the undocumented, a feminist coalition, labor advocacy projects. This is an incredibly broad-based coalition.”

Mossman and Roe Smith reported that many counter-protestors flooded the campus Sunday; it was unclear whether any of them were students. Some targeted student demonstrators with abusive language and physical confrontation. The chaplains themselves also were harassed, they said; Mossman said she was followed by counter-protestors, who yelled obscenities and attempted to provoke a physical confrontation.

“Being a public university, UCLA had to give them access,” Roe Smith said. “They [the counter-protestors] put up a humongous digital screen. But then it escalated. There were pockets that were pretty crazy, but primarily the students were brilliantly centered, understanding and peaceful.” She said it appeared to her to be people from the outside “that were literally in their faces, literally saying the most horrific things. It was frightening.”

Students formed human barricades, protecting one another from the confrontations, Mossman said. The university had declared the student tents unlawful, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Protests have spread to campuses across the nation.

UCLA vice chancellor for strategic communications Mary Osaka issued a statement decrying the violence.

“UCLA has a long history of peaceful protest, and we are heartbroken to report that today, some physical altercations broke out among demonstrators on Royce Quad. We have since instituted additional security measures and increased the numbers of our safety team members on site.

“As an institution of higher education, we stand firmly for the idea that even when we disagree, we must still engage respectfully and recognize one another’s humanity. We are dismayed that certain individuals instead chose to jeopardize the physical safety of the community.”

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass strongly condemned the violence. Police responded but the number of arrests connected to the violence was unclear.

Inside the encampment itself students are striving for peace, the chaplains said, noting opportunities for yoga and meditation. “The Muslim students pray five times a day. It’s this gentle space where they’re trying to educate people and have dialogue around what is going on,” Roe Smith said.

Students are looking for practical way to directly help in the Gaza situation, said Mossman. “Our students got together Sunday and decided to raise money to assist the Gaza hospital” where the discovery of mass graves has prompted a call for an independent investigation.

New models of ministry: ‘We are all chaplains, at all times’

The chaplains said they are living church at a very different level, and that congregations can assist if they’d “stop trying to be Sunday morning and Wednesday Bible study. That’s lovely, but it’s not going to engage students,” Roe Smith said. “This is where the church needs to be. We are all chaplains, at all times.”

Campuses are “hugely spiritual places” she said. “Students have a natural inquisitiveness, but they don’t like institutions. They don’t like inherent racism and the colonialism of Western Christianity. We have to start doing more antiracism work. It may not put butts in the pews, but it is the healing presence of Christ offered to a community that has been either historically excluded or marginalized or dismissed as irrelevant. It’s bringing the love of God and radical hospitality, and it’s been put to the test, big time.”

Rather, churches could assist with more practical needs, “providing a space for connection, with housing, food, work, scholarships or grants, whatever it takes to finance students’ well-being while they are getting their education,” Mossman said.

Connection to resources is vital, Mossman added. “If somebody has a connection with a farmers’ market, and they can connect a university to the farmers market. If they know somebody who could bring in something like food, or money, or gift cards, or they know somebody who could have a job for somebody. Students need extra cash for gas money so they can go to school. Throughout our diocese, there are people out there who have connections that could share those connections with universities. That would be such a gift.”