A faith crisis led Mark von Kampen to an eventual role as chaplain at the University of Manitoba, and he hopes to help university-aged Mennonites who may be in troubled circumstances.
Von Kampen is chaplain with the Inter-Mennonite Chaplaincy Association and works with students, including those from the Steinbach area, as they come to him with stress, questions of faith and various other concerns.
He also works with students of different faiths and backgrounds, and whoever else might have been interested in the Menno Office at the university’s Fort Garry campus.
"It is a privilege to journey alongside students in these challenging times," von Kampen said. "Some of the common challenges I’ve heard from students are feelings of isolation and yearning for connection and interaction."
2020 has been especially challenging for some at the university. In early March, offices at the University Office sustained extensive fire damage, including the Menno Office. The COVID-19 pandemic was declared shortly thereafter.
Von Kampen continues chaplaincy work and sees students online via E-Menno office on the Discord platform. The online experience allows for group and one-on-one chats in a similar format as the university office. Von Kampen also supports students via email, phone calls and texting.
A secular learning environment and exposure to a variety of different world views can lead to Mennonite students questioning their faith, von Kampen said. Some students want informed discussions of faith they don’t feel comfortable having with their parents or pastors. He encounters students with other inclinations too.
"I’ve had people come into my office who flat-out say to me ‘Look, I don’t believe in God, but I want to talk to someone who does,’" von Kampen said. In mainstream media, atheists are exposed to negative images and views of Christians, von Kampen said, but he said his hope is to give inquiring students a more nuanced view of Christians trying to live out their faith.
Some define their futures as a result of encounters with Menno Office.
"I’ve done weddings of people who met in that space," von Kampen said.
Von Kampen hopes to pay it forward, as he had his own faith crisis that led to his current path. Before earning a master of divinity degree, he studied architecture at the U of M, and he ended up writing a thesis concerning environmental ethics from a Biblical perspective.
"That whet my appetite for theological and biblical studies, because I had no formal background in that other than Sunday school," von Kampen said. A thesis reader encouraged him to pursue seminary studies.
These days, he hopes to create as much hospitality as he can for students online, despite the coffee not being on.