College social action initiatives have ecumenical appeal

Grant Hemphill, a student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, speaks during a Lunch and Learn hosted by the Diocese of Davenport’s Social Action Office earlier this month.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Young adults in the Diocese of Davenport say interest in social action is strong on college campuses, even among those who are not Catholic.

“There are a lot of students on campus who are willing to contribute and who want to contribute to justice for all,” said Allie Lauer, a St. Ambrose University-Davenport student and Catholic Campaign for Human Development intern.

Grant Hemphill, a senior at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and a member of the Newman Catholic Student Center on campus, observes the same trend. “There are quite a few students who are not Catholic that have been interested,” he said.


Students and adults involved with social action ministries at St. Ambrose University and the University of Iowa shared their experiences during a virtual Lunch and Learn on Nov. 4, sponsored by the diocesan Office of Social Action.

Nicky Gant, coordinator of service and justice at St. Ambrose, works with students and connects them with service opportunities. Though her position is new this year, she noted that the university has a long history of promoting social justice initiatives. “There’s a lot of passion and interest for social justice here and also busy schedules to work with.”

Mental health has been a hot-button issue on campus because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The students “see how our campus has been impacted,” she said. Students in the Ambrosians for Peace and Justice (APJ) group recently hosted a suicide and mental health advocacy event. They are also focusing on juvenile justice and sustainability issues. “The kids are looking around to see the needs of their peers, but they’re also looking beyond that.”

Gant and student leaders on campus are making sure all students feel welcome to participate, regardless of their personal faith. Lauer reached out to a dozen clubs on campus to offer personal invitations to the recent APJ suicide and mental health advocacy event. Gant works with students from all backgrounds. “Sometimes you’ll have students show up to participate who aren’t Christian,” she said.

One student, who is skeptical about organized religion, came to Gant’s office seeking food assistance and now volunteers serving meals to individuals in need. She has gotten to know Father Ross Epping, the university’s chaplain, with whom she has had positive discussions. She still has doubts about the faith but “has some good feelings” about Catholicism that she didn’t have before, Gant said. “Bridges like that can be built through social justice.”

St. Ambrose hopes to increase service and learning opportunities in the future by establishing a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) University chapter on campus. The Newman Center on the University of Iowa campus established the first CRS University chapter in Iowa a few months ago.
Deacon Joe Welter, a supporter of the CRS University chapter at the Newman Center, said he sees a lot of interest from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. “Young people have so much passion for social action and social justice. They have a lot of energy; they get passionate and really dig in.” Interactions between Catholics and non-Catholics who share similar passions and goals can lead to evangelization opportunities or at least opportunities for greater understanding. “(Catholic) students can evangelize and show why Catholic Social Teaching is important to us, and we get to learn about people who share a value system but who aren’t necessarily coming to Mass or Newman Center events. I think that’s a powerful thing that’s going to keep happening.”

Hemphill, a member of the CRS University chapter, believes the ecumenical interactions “are really good for us to better understand ourselves as Catholics in that context and to better understand where people who don’t have the experience of being Catholic are coming from… It helps us build our understanding of ourselves and other people.”

To watch the Lunch and Learn, go to

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