By RANDLE CHRISTIAN
COLUMBIA It’s Fat Tuesday, and the University of South Carolina’s Newman Club has gathered for its weekly meeting at the St. Thomas More Center.
In the spacious living room about 40 students fill several comfortably worn sofas, a tapestry-covered pew, and all available chairs and floor space.
As is customary, the meeting begins with a student offering a prayer. This week, Sharon Rachel reads Psalm 150.
AAfter prayer, students take turns giving their names, hometowns and majors for the benefit of newcomers. Eventually, they get to a young man in a Wofford sweatshirt and navy shorts sitting cross-legged on the floor. “I’m Father Tim Lijewski of Ladson,” he says. Without that information, one would be hard pressed to distinguish the 35-year-old priest from the crowd of students surrounding him.
Father Tim’s ability to blend in seamlessly with his students is one of the reasons the Newman Club has become so popular during his year-and-a-half tenure as pastor of St. Thomas More Center and chaplain for Catholic students at USC.
“He’s young at heart,” said Newman Club President Chris Odell. “He’s not above anyone. He gets down to their level.”
When Father Tim came to St. Thomas More, he inherited a parish with lots of potential. “Father (Michael) McCafferty had done an excellent job of establishing community and a good core group of student leadership, making this a place students, faculty, and the community wanted to come and worship,” Father Tim said.
Father Tim built on that foundation, and the center has become a haven for Catholic students at the university. “It’s not just a Tuesday night thing,” Odell said. “You can come here anytime of the day.”
It is also the most well-attended student religious center on campus, said Gaurav Shroff, a graduate student in religious studies who serves as the club’s treasurer. Meetings usually attract from 40 to 60 people, and empty seats are scarce at weekend Masses, with over 300 people attending services at St. Thomas More Chapel.
Meetings alternate between social functions and those that concentrate on educational or spiritual topics. This night’s meeting is mainly a social affair, but before the festivities begin, Meghan Elkins offers an inspirational account of her recent battle with thyroid cancer and how it led her to a renewed faith in God.
Such testimonials are a new addition to the meetings, and like many activities at the center, are a result of student input. Sister Julienne Guy, director of spiritual formation at the center, says she and Father Tim encourage the students to suggest activities. Last semester, with exams looming large, Sister Julienne said the students requested that she do something calming to help them prepare. She led them in a guided meditation that had an Advent theme which seemed to have the desired effect. “When I said ‘Amen,'” Sister Julienne said, “they just sat there in silence. When someone suggested turning on the lights, they shouted ‘No!'”
At this meeting, the students are more in the mood for fellowship than contemplation. After Meghan’s testimonial, they gather around a large dining table where an assortment of snacks awaits. Laughter mingles with quiet conversation; a card game starts at one of the coffee tables. Latecomers bring in the warm night air as they join their friends in the hallway. The affable Molly, a golden retriever who was an ordination gift to Father Tim five and a half years ago, makes the rounds of students, checking back with her master every so often.
It’s this relaxed atmosphere that first drew James Frank, a sophomore from Huntington, N.Y., to the group. “Everyone seems to have a positive attitude towards life. They’re very accepting and understanding about differences,” he said.
Sarah Mrozek, a sophomore from Vienna, Va., has been coming to “The House” as the students have nicknamed the center, since her freshman year. “It’s the best thing that’s happened to me in school. It’s where I met all my friends,” she said. “When I first came here, I had totally stopped coming to church.” Now she attends regularly with friends.
Being with supportive friends is important for maintaining one’s beliefs, said Kurt Brandstaetter, a sophomore from Rock Hill. “There’s not a lot of faith on college campuses. If you’re around people who don’t have faith in Christ, you’ll lose your faith yourself it’s happened to me before.”
Questions about the faith and morals are freely discussed with Father Tim and Sister Julienne. One favorite meeting activity is to put Father Tim or Sister Julienne in the “hot seat” where they answer anonymous questions that students submit ahead of time. Questions range from sex to exorcism to what it’s like to be celibate, Sister Julienne said.
The students participate in monthly community service projects such as visiting an elder care facility, trick or treating for canned goods for Harvest Hope, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, and working for the Carolina chapter of Oxfam International, an organization that raises awareness about world hunger. The club participated in prayer vigils for the last six prisoners executed by the state of South Carolina and took part in the statewide pro-life march in January. In April, the students will visit Mepkin Abbey and will hold meetings on the pro-life ethic.
The group participates in many social activities, including bowling with the Baptist student group and laser tag with the Presbyterians. They host dance parties, campus scavenger hunts, and play sports together. A less energetic man might find it hard to keep up with all this, but Father Tim takes it all in stride. “It does make me feel young. I enjoy going out dancing with them, playing sports with them, getting to know them,” he said.
The students welcome his presence. “It’s a good way to become close to a priest. We see what his life is like. It’s wonderful for promoting vocations,” said Odell.
Father Tim’s work doesn’t stop with the Newman Club. He is the parish priest for St. Theresa in Winnsboro and pastor to nearly 70 families at St. Thomas More Center, where he lives. He also does counseling.
Father Tim, amid his many duties, and Sister Julienne, have made “The House” a place an ever-growing number of USC students want to be. “This place has become a home away from home,” Shroff said.
Anyone interested in learning more about the USC Newman Club or the St. Thomas More Center can visit the Web site: www.geocities.com/athens/parthenon/4325.