Bess Alston helps Catholic students who are far from home

ORANGEBURG — Bess Alston had just retired from a teaching career in 2002 when she took on a new role helping an entirely different group of students.
She is now the director of Catholic campus ministry at S.C. State University and Claflin University, two historically black schools in Orangeburg.
Alston is a member of Holy Trinity Church in Orangeburg and attends Mass weekly with students. Twice a month, the group meets after Mass at the parish hall or at her home nearby in the small town of St. Matthews. They share a meal, fellowship and discussions about faith.
“I was asked by our pastor six years ago to assist a member of the Brothers of St. Francis Xavier who was working with the students, and then assigned to do this after he left,” Alston said. “I just found it very exciting to be asked to work with this community of students.”
She is assisted by two student leaders who help organize a Catholic group at each school, and receives financial assistance and other support from the Diocese of Charleston’s Office of Campus Ministry.
Alston meets four times a year with members of the Religious Life Council at both universities, which organizes ecumenical activities in an effort to bring students of different faiths together.
The council consists of Muslims; Baha’is, whose  religion was founded in 1863 in Persia and emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind; and several Protestant denominations, including Presbyterians, United Method ists, Episcopalians, Baptists and members of the African Meth­odist Episcopal Church.
Sometimes it’s difficult for Catholic students at the two universities because they are in the minority as a faith group, and their fellow students don’t understand Catholicism, Alston said. Also, most of the students come from Protestant or non-denominational churches with exuberant styles of worship that are unfamiliar to many Catholics, she added.
Alston grew up in Orangeburg and attended S.C. State, where she met Samuel Alston, her future husband, during her freshman year.  
She was raised a Baptist, but occasionally attended Mass with Catholic friends as a child. Her husband, who is a native of Charleston and a cradle Catholic, gave her a deeper understanding of the faith and she converted after they were married.
Alston raised her three children in the church. She has served as a catechist, extraordinary minister of holy Communion, prison ministry volunteer and RCIA teacher at Holy Trinity.
She works mostly with international students who come from Caribbean nations, Africa and sometimes Asia.
At their regular meetings, Alston or the students will lead discussions on faith or moral issues that come up throughout college life. Sometimes they discuss Scripture or other aspects of Catholic worship and prayer, such as how to pray the rosary correctly, she said.
One of her goals each year is to have students actively involved in parish life at Holy Trinity. They often serve as lectors, volunteer at activities and sing in the choir.
“She’s doing a great job,” said Father Michael Okere, administrator at Holy Trinity. “Even though we face some obstacles, she knows how to maneuver to get things done, and the parish gives her enough support to carry on with the job. She’s ministering to these students in every way, and encouraging them not to lose their faith.”
Parishioners at Holy Trinity have been taking an active role in the campus ministry program for the past few years by providing students with food for their meetings, rides to Mass, and a place to share holiday meals.
Maurissa Charles, a senior majoring in environmental sciences, is a leader of the Catholic students at Claflin. She said the campus ministry program has been helpful to her over the past four years as she deals with the challenges of living far from her home in Trinidad-Tobago.
“Bess has been a very good leader. She’s always there for us in terms of our spirituality and our faith,” Charles said. “She’s been a big help in getting students together to go to retreats and attend meetings. It’s a challenge sometimes to get people out to other activities because some Catholic students think that coming to church for fellowship is enough. It’s a challenge because everyone is so busy.”
Alston said her work is important because many of the international students “tend to isolate themselves from the rest of the student population.” Many don’t have their own cars and can’t get around off campus easily.
“These are very serious students. They work, study and go to church,” she said. “They tend to be more serious-minded about their faith than some American Catholics their age. When their parents call them during the week, they will ask the students whether or not they went to Mass.
“I think it’s so important to befriend them and help them feel they’re part of a faith community, that they have a church home here,” Alston said.