For the 2020-21 school year, Rosedale Bible College in Irwin, Ohio, invited students to enter its sanctuary bubble of learning and spiritual formation — without leaving campus for a full semester.
“We weren’t exactly a monastery, but maybe you could call us a co-ed COVID cloister,” said Ken Miller, music professor.
“We spent all our time together, even weekends and holidays,” said Courtney Kuepfer, women’s residence director.
Nurses COVID-tested students on arrival. Everyone masked and social-distanced for the first two weeks. Then, as the perimeters were secured, internal barriers came down and close Christian community thrived.
“There was no escape,” said Jessenia Feliciano, a first-year student from Reading, Pa. “We were forced to be around people, even those we didn’t particularly like or agree with.”
“At first it was intimidating to think of being stuck for a whole semester,” said Ellen Byler of Killbuck, Ohio. “But I found myself enjoying the bubble. I was forced to work on past issues and learned who I am in new ways.”
Students led Sunday morning teaching and worship times. They gathered to worship and share testimonies and life stories each Sunday evening, followed by popcorn, ice cream and volleyball. They met Monday through Friday for 8 a.m. campus prayers, communion, anointing, foot washing. They joined weekly faculty and staff-led discipleship groups.
Librarian and professor Reuben Sairs said teaching behind Plexiglas and masking during informal conversations sure beat teaching online. He missed the usual field trips his World Religions class took to mosques and temples.
While she missed sharing meals and other close interactions with staff and faculty, Kuepfer got to know her fellow students faster and better. Most showed up for weekend activities planned by the student council and rec teams.
Megan McGaffey, a third-year student and certified nursing assistant from Kalona, Iowa, got pulled into COVID testing and other nursing duties on campus.
“There was a depth of community on campus we’d not experienced before,” she said.
“We moved from feeling trapped to feeling blessed,” said Rick Griest, who leads the Rosedale School of Business and Leadership.
Men’s residence director Morgan Coblentz served on the committee that planned the Sunday morning campus worship services. While he missed being able to visit other churches, he came to see the value of the student-led worship times.
“I think we should consider moving to a pattern of on-campus Sunday worship services, maybe once a month,” he said. “It’s good for us to speak and hear from each other. I think the additional pressure we all felt contributed to our spiritual growth.”
Dean of students and designated “COVID czar” Matt Showalter was happy to see students step safely out of the sanctuary at year’s end. They’d committed themselves to the shelter and disciplines of the Rosedale sanctuary, but they’d not taken life-long vows. He was glad to be just the dean of students, not the prior of a monastery.