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Amid the sizzle and sauce-drizzled aroma of stir-frying vegetables, four international students cluster around the stove in Marsh Chapel’s basement kitchen, preparing their weekly meal together. Their host is, apparently, the only American college chaplain specifically ministering to students from abroad.
Rev. Brittany Longsdorf started in June 2013 as the University’s first chaplain for international students, embodying what she calls “a true spirit of hospitality that I think is theologically backed.” (In the Bible, hospitality is both an injunction and a path to reward, as exemplified in a story in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus offers God’s kingdom to those who welcome the stranger.) At BU, Longsdorf’s hospitality has been a pleasant welcome mat for Chia Lee (GRS’16) of Taiwan, one of the vegetable cooks at the September dinner.
“It feels great to have someone have your back and support you,” says Lee, who was beginning her first year at BU. “International students feel lonely sometimes and homesick, and this kind of activity is actually comforting.”
During the weekly Tuesday dinners, students chat about any problems they’re having, their successes during the past week, and whether they’re finding, in Longsdorf’s words, a “place to connect with God on campus.”
They also connect with some very agreeable food. “Yeah, veggies!” Elly Cheng (SPH’15) cheers while cooking. “A lot of meals here, like pizza or sandwiches—there are not enough vegetables,” says Taiwan-born Cheng.
International students, notably from China and Saudi Arabia, are coming to US campuses in increasing numbers. But while many colleges have denomination-specific chaplains, Rev. Loretta Reynolds, president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, says she doesn’t “know of any other school” with a counterpart to Longsdorf.
“I will look forward to knowing how this works for Boston University,” says Reynolds, the chaplain at Kentucky’s Berea College. “This may become a new college chaplain model.”
Presented with this ministerial tabula rasa, Longsdorf—at age 25 little older than her charges—unspooled an aggressive outreach program. Besides the weekly Tuesday dinners, she hosts a Thursday meal on the Medical Campus, Monday morning meditation sessions at Marsh, and a Sunday morning global scripture study.
The new chaplain is a member of the Community of Christ, a 183-year-old, peace-promoting Christian denomination with a quarter of a million members globally. She speaks Spanish and French and can read German and Greek. She’s visited more than 30 countries on 6 continents and has lived in India. Longsdorf says these experiences honed her communication skills with non–English speakers, from reading facial expressions to a comforting hand on the arm to drawing pictures conveying your thoughts. She also studied “active listening,” which requires practitioners to constantly restate what they believe their conversation partner to have said, to ensure they’ve understood correctly.
Prior to coming to BU, Longsdorf worked as a campus minister in the office of religious life at Princeton University. For two years, she also was a part of the pastoral leadership of the historic Princeton University Chapel. She graduated from Graceland University and earned a master’s in divinity studying world religions at Princeton Theological Seminary.