McKendree students receive ‘radical hospitality’ at Joseph House

Bishop Michael McGovern visits with students at Joseph House in Lebanon.

Contributing writer

McKendree students receive ‘radical hospitality’ at Joseph House

The term “radical hospitality” can be defined as a practice of putting extraordinary effort and emphasis on making people feel welcome.

By practicing radical hospitality with McKendree University students from around the world – Argentina, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Ghana, Italy, Japan and Zimbabwe, as well as throughout the U.S. – both students and parishioners benefit.

That is what is happening with the Joseph House Mission Project at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lebanon, a partnership project with Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Shiloh, and students from McKendree University and other local college students.

“The program is designed to give college students a safe place to enjoy a meal, gather and openly search for answers to their questions of faith,” says Deb Kuth, pastoral associate at St. Joseph. “We offer a ‘Newman Center’ atmosphere on Monday evenings in the rectory at St. Joseph.”

Newman Centers are Catholic ministries at secular universities throughout the world. Because McKendree University didn’t have a Newman Center, in 2019, Msgr. James Margason had the vision of an outreach program to McKendree students, where more than half of the student body identifies as Catholic. McKendree is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

They began the 2019 school year with 8 to 10 students meeting at Joseph House. Currently, they gather with 28 to 30 students.

“This is a safe place for college students of all faith backgrounds to come to the table, ask questions and search for answers,” Kuth says.

In 2022, the Joseph House Mission Project received its second $1,000 grant from the Catholic Service and Ministry Appeal’s (CSMA) Fund for Ministry.

“Our Joseph House program has more than doubled this year, thanks to many people making this a priority, and we have developed a very dynamic relationship with the university,” Kuth says.

“McKendree President Dan Dobbins and their new chaplain, Rev. Dr. Beverly Wilkes-Null, are big supporters of what we are doing at Joseph House,” she adds. “They not only encourage attendance, but they are also regular attendees who come to the table and make connections with the students.”

She says the students are also grateful that Bishop Michael McGovern from the Diocese of Belleville and Father Paul Wienhoff from St. Joseph and Corpus Christi have joined them and visited with the students.

“When people like the president of the university or the bishop of the diocese attend these meals, it shows that they are invested in the students,” Wilkes-Null says. “And the students respond. It goes a long way with them.”

“We have built trust and gained the respect of these students,” Kuth says. “Whenever there is a need for volunteers, we can always count on our Joseph House students to rise to the challenge.”

Several students have entered the church or are exploring converting to Christianity, Kuth says.

On Monday evenings during the school year, even if a holiday falls on a Monday, the doors of Joseph House are open for students. They gather for a home-cooked meal and conversation. The church is located within walking distance from the McKendree campus.

Sharon Sullivan from Corpus Christi and Donna Weil from St. Joseph coordinate with volunteers who sign up to provide dinner, including entrée, veggies, sides, dessert and more, every Monday, from 5 to 7 p.m., during the school year.

“The students help themselves to the food and gather around a large table, squeezing in to fit as many as possible,” Kuth says. “Some are meeting other students for the first time, or they are getting to know others from different sports.”

After the meal, they clean up and take out the trash, like they would do at home, Kuth adds. Leftovers, when they have them, are frozen as reserved meals for future dinners or sent home with the students.

And sometimes the students cook the meals, preparing dishes from their home countries.

“With so many students from other countries, this meal gives them the opportunity to talk about home and share their customs,” Wilkes-Null says.

She adds, “During the meal, we feed them spiritually as well. We have a weekly spiritual question from a holy book to talk about around the table.”

The chaplain interns at McKendree participate each week and help to lead these discussions. Most are recipients of Bothwell Scholarships or the Clarence O. Wagner Endowed Loan Fund and must perform community service hours.

The rectory also offers a quiet, meditative place where the students can study, use Wi-Fi and visit. In the future, they want to offer more ways to connect, for those interested, such as adoration, bible studies and other faith sharing opportunities.

Kuth shares that many of the volunteers who prepare and attend the meals can’t wait to come back and volunteer again, because of what they get from the students. Some are parents of college-aged students attending other universities, and they want a connection with students.

“Offering the safe place for college students is touching, especially for a mom like myself,” Kuth says.

Everything offered at Joseph House is possible because of donations. They are especially grateful for the CSMA Fund for Ministry grant.