Like it or not, Athens, Ohio, has earned the reputation as a metropolis of bars, parties and good times.
Nineteen bars, to be exact, can be found within walking distance of Ohio University’s campus, but 47 different places of worship and religious organizations are located within 20 minutes of campus.
However, it’s safe to say that thousands of Ohio alumni do not return to Athens on homecoming to relive old memories from their favorite places of prayer and repentance.
Yet, keeping the faith carries on, even in the midst of an environment of free-thinking and a natural tendency to deviate from one’s embedded ideals. Spreading the word of God requires a new approach when playing to a college crowd.
First Presbyterian Church, located smack-dab in the middle of Uptown Athens at the corner of Court and Washington, reaches out to students from their first days on campus through handing out literature at the university’s involvement fair. The church also offers complimentary lunches to students each Wednesday afternoon.
Being located within such a close proximity to campus allows the church’s administration to reach out to a new crop of freshmen every year. Its location, however, also comes with some disadvantages.
“When I try to describe where we’re located, (people) immediately think we’re the Pita Pit or a bar,” FPC Pastor Rob Martin said.
It hasn’t always been that way. As a matter of fact, the church predates any Athens watering hole or gyro hub by several decades.
The church first opened its doors in 1809 and played a “vital role in the development of the city and university,” according to the church’s website. Seems likely, considering the university’s first president, Jacob Lindley, also served as the church’s pastor. Three of Lindley’s four presidential successors also assumed the role of FPC pastor.
The widely beloved town and university were built upon religious ideals. The marker near the university’s Alumni Gateway reads, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, school and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
[metaslider id=785]Two Latin phrases are engraved on the 99-year old arches of the gateway. They read, “So enter that daily thou mayest grow in knowledge wisdom and love,” and “So depart that daily thou mayest better serve thy fellowmen thy country and thy God.”
The university’s motto “Religio, Doctrina, Civilitas, Prae, Ombinius, Virtus” translates to “Religion, Learning, Civility, and above all, virtue.”
Though religion has its roots in Ohio University lore, Martin admitted that a shift towards secularism means the church no longer assumes a central role in society, even if his church is in the middle of the action.
Martin’s assertion is not necessarily supported by statistics. The Pew Research center conducted a study in 2012 in which over 2,500 censuses from more than 230 countries were analyzed. The results: 84 percent of the world associated themselves with a religion, with 31.5% of the world following Christianity. Any shift Martin may have noticed could stem from how deeply involved people are in religious activities. The study did not address how frequently people attended religious services.
To combat a lessening demand for the religious part of the church, Martin placed an emphasis on serving the community, especially with the economic hardships faced by many residents of Southeastern Ohio. The church works hand-in-hand with other churches and religious organizations to assist the community, despite a popular trend of churches slipping into survival mode and rationing resources with regard to community support.
“They had a saying here: ‘A heart for the heart of the city,’” Martin said with a chuckle.
That heart shows affection for a diverse community, regardless of background.
The Presbyterian Church has been open to homosexuals since the mid-’80s, Martin estimated, and it is evidenced by a small gay pride decal on the glass of the building’s welcome sign.
“It’s nice to not have that be an issue,” Martin said. “We keep a flag there as a signal to anybody that if you feel, if you have an alternative lifestyle and you want to be part of a church, this would certainly be a church that would welcome you and not judge you.”
The Presbyterian Church is right at home in what senior video production major Joel Hafner described as a progressive community.
“A lot of churches are afraid to discuss the issue or talk about it because they don’t want to be ridiculed,” he said. “It’s really following the Bible. Jesus says that the greatest commandment of all is to love your neighbor and to love each other.”
The sexual orientation of a potential church-goer should play no role in deciding an individual’s acceptance into a church, in Hafner’s opinion. Well, his opinion is based off of what he read in the Bible, a piece of literature by which he has led his entire life.
The word of God knows no discrimination: If somebody wants to hear it, the church should open its doors and guide whoever strolls in the nearest pew, in Hafner’s eyes. For him, getting an individual to want to listen to the good word is victory enough.
Hafner does not identify himself as a Presbyterian. He attends Central Avenue United Methodist Church, but his beliefs line up with the motto of the Presbyterian Church: Seffer Reformanda – always reforming. Tradition is important, but so is maintaining a connection to the modern world.
It’s what do we have to say for the time that we’re in right now, because it’s the only time we’re given,” Martin said.
Holding on to tradition can prove to be difficult within a world of “sinful” actions. The church sits only 20 yards from the bank wall where two intoxicated students engaged in sexual acts, eventually resulting in a sexual assault investigation. Martin wouldn’t support something of this nature, but he understands the nature of the town’s most colorful street.
“I’m all for a good time,” Martin said, followed by a grin.”Within limits.”
Within the Bible, there is nothing that strictly forbids Christians from consuming, but as Martin stated, there are limits.
Ephesians 5:18 reads, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with spirit.”
The problem with a college town: many drink to get blasted, inebriated, drunk, whatever the choice word may be. Martin can’t condone drunkenness, but accepts that students will drink. He just prays for their safety.
“That’s what it means to be a student,” he said. “A chance to get your mistakes out of the way.”
Before attending Ohio, Hafner knew he wanted to maintain his faith, but acknowledged the difficulty of staying on that path with an environment which encourages self-discovery and change. To do so, he sought out a Christian community, joining Campus Crusaders right away.
“If you’re a big video game person, you’ll seek out a community of gamers who you can relate to,” Hafner said. “I think it takes a certain mindset to pursue it yourself.”
That community is continuously looking to expand. Campus Crusaders for Christ, commonly known as “CRU,” continues to recruit new students and will send out student representatives to talk religion, school and life with anybody who shows interest. The organization seeks to build faith through weekly Bible studies and extracurricular community gatherings, such as camp-outs, intramural sports and attending concerts.
For Hafner, the best way to spread the word of God is associating with people who do not share similar beliefs. Christians should love chronic party-goers just as much as they would love somebody in their Bible study group, according to Hafner.
“Through that, if you’re interested in getting to know what you believe and hear more, I’d love to tell them about it,” he stated,” I’m not going to avoid people who are Christians because they go party. That’s not right.”
It’s a good thing that the partying is tolerated because it’s safe to say Athens’ bar culture is here to stay. Martin and Hafner agree that everyone is a child of God, regardless of how many church services they have attended or their blood-alcohol concentration levels.
It’s about rising above differences and “loving thy neighbor,” just as the Ten Commandments states. As for Hafner’s favorite Bible verse, Proverbs 28:1. It lines up perfectly with what he believes.
“The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”
Brad Friedman is a junior studying journalism at Ohio University. He is a student employee with the Ohio University athletics department, working in video production and media relations, in addition to writing about the Blue Jackets for “The Hockey Writers.” In this past, Brad has worked with WOUB Public Media and the Columbus Blue Jackets digital media team.