The Power of Community

By Lucy A. Forster-Smith

Students from the Harvard Dorm Crew enjoyed a well-deserved dinner break hosted by MemChurch in the Buttrick Room the Friday nig

Our Mission Statement

The Memorial Church of Harvard University is a space of grace in the center of the Yard, rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ. Affectionately known as “MemChurch,” we pursue partnerships within and beyond Harvard, empowering community members to serve the world as well-informed, compassionate, moral citizens. Through worship and ministry outreach, MemChurch aims to promote justice and mercy by confronting life’s challenges, differences, and our own imperfections with courage, empathy, and an ethic of love. By doing so, the Memorial Church seeks to educate minds, expand hearts, and enrich lives.

At the beginning of Fall Term, the Memorial Church unveiled our mission statement. This statement was born of many months of deliberations about the distinct history and decisive future that this church holds. A university church in the 21st century carries in its purview a powerful charge, simply by its existence, to stand at the intersection of global citizen leadership, intellectual preparation and in the case of the Memorial Church, nurturing spiritually fortified Christian leaders for our world. As I have labored in my post as University Chaplain and Senior Minister of this church, I realize that our work arises at a time when so much on our planet that is done in the name of religion tears at our moral and global fabric. The second sentence of our mission statement carries with it a charge to address and redress engagement with the world. This aspect of our mission arises from humility, from our deep sense that the only way to mend the brokenness is to claim our own brokenness and anchor our action in the power of the Beloved Community.

There are several examples within our current programming that this portion of our mission statement is currently living out. One mandate is that we work in partnerships of common purpose as part of this great University. When tragedy strikes, the church holds its doors open and its caring presence to harbor hurt and heal, through God’s grace, the broken of spirit. We do this work in partnership with Harvard Health Services, offices such as the Freshman Dean’s Office, the Office of Student Life, the Graduate Commons, and Student Life Offices in our Graduate and Professional Schools.  When grand celebrations are in order, the President’s Office, Harvard Alumni Affairs, a range of student associations and organizations, and many others draw our skill and joy in a liturgical sensibility that frames rituals and traditions. Or in the unfortunate reminders that come to the fore of our common university life such as the revelation of the prevalence of sexual assault or that our drive toward a racially inclusive and radically engaged campus have not been achieved, we partner with Harvard Chaplains and chaplain partners at other Ivy League and local colleges and universities, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, the Harvard Foundation, and many others, working together to make this campus safe. But we are just beginning this work! The call of our mission is heard each day, when a student group uses our building, when prayers are raised at Morning Prayers, and when a group gathers for compassionate conversation on contested issues. We thrive on partnerships!

A second mandate for our work is that we empower community members to serve the world. I daresay that all of our work as a university church is animated by this instruction. When the Memorial Church Student Advisory Board gathers over dinner and discusses how their service to the church awakens a connection with a vocation this end is served, or when they ask bigger questions of friends about the meaning and purpose of their life on campus or to connect their athletic commitments to their leadership and faith, the flow of faith and service courses through their lives. Student engagement through the Memorial Church is also what Professor Jonathan Walton names as “a teaching hospital.” Our students are here for a brief time and our work is to offer opportunities to experience the inspiring preaching, insightful teaching, pastoral care that holds their deepest longing and worthy dreams, and service to others that will engender a life-time of committed living.

The last statement ties to a dimension of the Memorial Church’s common life that is worth noting. For many, many years the church has gathered students, faculty, and congregational regulars to consider requests from local non-profit organizations to fund their work. Indeed, this partnership to serve local community need is a powerfully engaged outreach. But as is true with so many moments of engagement, the Grants Committee, as it is called, become a community themselves as they listen, pray, deliberate, visit, and ultimately provide funds to extend the work of so many programs in our community. When one looks into the tear-streaked face of a Grants Committee member who recounts life-giving, life-bearing moments in his own involvement with this work, one knows we have been visited by angels unawares and the power of community lives its way into our common life.

All of these practices and programs are but an intimation of the abundant life God has in store for the Memorial Church as it continues to listen, speak, awaken and serve the Harvard community. What a privilege and honor to join hands with so many to live out our mission. Blessed be! 

See also: Mission