Keeping the faith


Chronicling changes in our religious beliefs

Most of the congregation filtered in over the last 10 minutes, and a majority of them brought their children in winter coats, avoiding them from the chill frosting the grass on their front lawns and windshields.

Soft, acoustic guitar music plays through the sanctuary’s speakers, and at 10:25 a.m. on Dec. 4, those sitting in First Lutheran Church in Brookings at the confluence of 8th Street and Main Avenue are in dialogue with a collective emotion

sounding equal parts jovial and civil.

They take part in a “contemporary service” at the church, popularly known as Touchdown Jesus after the tall, painted mural of Jesus Christ standing elevated facing toward downtown.

On that morning, the early clouds break and illuminate the mural so brightly it appears computer-generated.

On the inside, Pastor Dave Schoeld walks up the stage in a beige sweater and says “Good Morning,” to which most below, especially the kids, shout “Good Morning!” in reply. Some laugh at the exuberance.

The sun begins to align itself with the building’s east windows, and by the time Schoeld begins his sermon its light gives the sanctuary’s large, metal-plated cross a shadowy glimmer and highlights the subtle contours of the symbol. The gold-colored edges look like it could cut flesh.

The congregation shakes hands, sings along with live music, takes communion and passes an offering plate in a choreographically determined way that seems to imply a routine and unanimous lack of confusion.

In this crowd, third and fourth-year SDSU students Betsy Hansen and Jace Harwood, Minnesota natives, sit in the fifth-to-last row. They walk in just after the service starts, but in fairness, it started a few minutes early.

Hansen and Harwood say they periodically attend church in Brookings, apart from their hometowns of Marshall and Jackson, Minn., but it isn’t routine. Hansen prefers her home church and admits that regular church attendance overall has seemed to take a hit during college.

“We’re college kids,” she says.

They represent evidence in a grander case study of the habits, beliefs and practices associated with college life. In a crowd dominated by husbands, wives, sons, daughters and even the elderly, a casual observer at Touchdown Jesus on that morning would conclusively find the least represented age bracket as 18 to 22-year-olds.

But like Hansen and Harwood, students at SDSU and all colleges are forced to take their faith on the road with them. The result can drastically reshape the complexion of a student’s entire religious conventions.

Some find a church or join an on-campus religious group and consider their faith stronger than it was years ago, or they find themselves back home for the same Sunday morning church proceeding they’ve had since childhood.

Others may find themselves caught up in a preponderance of social activities unearthed by individual freedom of choice associated with higher education. Away from home and away from Mom and Dad, those who used to attend church weekly may go months before attending again.

Others’ beliefs might completely change. Some may stop any beliefs for good.

Shoeld’s pacing the front of the aisles now, polling the members by a show of hands on the progress of their Holiday shopping and Christmas plans. It all circles around the preparation of life’s big events. How they just happen, he’ll describe.

“When do you know that you’re finally, fully ready?” Schoeld asks.

“When the day comes,” a child says.

“Great answer.”


The math of students’ religion

The SDSU student body is constituted from a majority of in-state students, with most other out-of-state students in neighboring states. Together, its collective childhood was largely based on Christian values – baptism, Sunday School, catechism, church youth group, confirmation and a belief in a son of God.

A survey conducted by The Collegian has revealed trends in the beliefs and the overall importance of faith and religion in an SDSU student’s life, from the time before they turned 18 to the moment they started attending college.

The results may surprise you.

Of the 235 respondents to the 10-question poll, almost 56 percent said they went to a church function on a weekly basis before they started in college.

After moving to Brookings, that weekly frequency dipped nearly in half to 29 percent, while nearly all other less-frequent options increased. To that end, those answering with “almost never,” “never,” or “only on religious holidays” more than doubled.

Right now, more than one-third of all SDSU students surveyed have almost completely abandoned their previous religious habits since starting college. And 18 percent overall said they’ve stopped going to church altogether.

That trend doesn’t particularly baffle sociologists, who are quick to allude to the time spent in college as being a transient moment in early adulthood.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says sociology professor Ronald Stover. “But I think the interesting thing is to see if they start going back once they’ve completed school. I think what you’ll see is that some will start going back. You see a reflection of those results (of the survey) in going to class. In high school, kids had pressure to go to class or had outside pressure in going to class. They get here and all of a sudden Mommy and Daddy aren’t over their shoulder.”

But among SDSU students there is still a legion of young adults still invested in faith and active in a religion-oriented lifestyle. The most common answer to how frequently students attend church-related functions was still “weekly.”

In contrast, the second largest group of students said they no longer attend church — ever. It is as if students decide to attend church regularly, or not at all.

The answers contain no verifiable circumstance — it seems as though no wrong or absolute right reason exists. And how complex are the reasons for why or why not?

“For some people church is not just a connection with God, it’s a connection with people,” says 23-year SDSU religion professor Ann Marie Bahr. “Maybe they feel bereft of their community and they haven’t formed a new one of that sort — maybe other communities.”

Evidence in the survey may point to that. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents said they were not a part of a religious group on campus — and several exist. That percentage also shows little variance from 18-year-olds on up to fifth-year seniors.

Moreover, 83 percent categorized themselves as Christian, and a majority of those labeling themselves under Christianity stated the importance of religion in their lives to at least an 8 on a 1-to-10 scale.

Another 75 percent believe in an afterlife while 15 percent said they were “unsure.”

It appears – at least – students stand active on a spiritual level, but appear in limbo when it comes to a functional religious lifestyle.

“I think it’s the fact that they’ve moved away, and I don’t think we’d see the same trend if the same people were still back home — we wouldn’t see the same religious behaviors,” Stover says.

The male and female variances in beliefs show some decisive differences. A resounding 64 percent of females said they attended a church service weekly, and 75 percent of them overally claimed to attend church at least once a month before college. After high school, that weekly group drops nearly in half to 29 percent, with about one-fourth of all females claiming to attend seldom or not at all.

Females also seem to have a higher value of their religion. About 65 percent listed their faith a seven or higher on a scale of one to 10.

Males were less likely to attend church weekly growing up, with just 48 percent claiming to do so. The drop-off after college is less drastic than with females, with about 28 percent saying they go to church weekly.

But there are more males, overall, missing church than attending it regularly. The change of habits between genders is subject to hypothesis, but a faction of those familiar with the traits of students entering college say that females tend to like forming groups. That sentiment may extend to feeling like a member of a church, or church organization.

“From what I’ve observed, females may like the feeling of being a part of a community,” Bahr says. “There’s a connection there that attracts them.”

Bahr says she sees the spiritual curiosity throughout her time teaching religious courses at SDSU. Students routinely ask for the details of her religious beliefs, but that discussion in recent years on the topic of Christianity and other religions may be less volatile than ever before.

“Students seem to be maybe a bit more open to those different beliefs,” Bahr says.

With a change in scenery comes a change in behavior, says Stover. The impact of campus living, of thousands of kids in the age group away from home for the first time in their lives, can mean a strong reformation of habits, social activities and beliefs.

“There’s all sorts of experimenting going on,” Stover says. “Kids are beginning to think about relationships, kids will start drinking, deciding whether they get in to drugs, the kinds of ways they present themselves. And I think [religion] is just part of the same thing.”


Faith on the road

It’s like a full-time job.

Most hear that sentiment when mentioning the workload of a student athlete. And there’s a case for that, with practices, weight training, film study, walkthroughs, traveling, away games, home games, weekend series at Oral Roberts, eight-game road trips, 24-game road trips, the weekend conference championships in Michigan, long tossing, batting practice, conditioning at sunrise at Larson Hill, and on.

Pick a sport, then list demands. They all have them.

Then factor in a regular school schedule of quizzes, tests, papers, discussion posts, practicals, studios, readings, lectures, midterms and finals.

That load comes to a head in-season. In football, it means morning workouts and afternoon practices. Men’s basketball spent a portion of their Thanksgiving break on the road for eight-straight away games in a span of 19 days. For the women,

they were more than 2,500 miles away from home in Cancun, Mexico, on Thanksgiving Day for the Caribbean Challenge.

Next year, the baseball team will spend eight weekends traveling to states like Arkansas, Illinois and Colorado to begin their season.

“Some Sundays we’re on the road, and obviously we can’t come to church,” says women’s guard Jill Young, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, along with several others on the women’s basketball team. “We’ll have a service or a devotion in someone’s room, but it’s not mandatory or anything.”

It’s an alternative way of living for four months during the season. The Jacks women’s basketball team in particular has, in a little more than month, been to four states and Mexico. By the end of the season, they’ll have traveled to a dozen states. During the conference season, that means a Saturday night, Monday night pairing of games in different states.

Sunday often turns into travel day.

“You have to do some things a little differently, whether it’s walking through an airport, or before a game — whether it’s praying then or whatever you like to do,” says Young, a senior guard part of three SDSU teams that have experienced loads of on-court success via NCAA Tournament bids, and off-court success with team Grade Point Average.

Men’s basketball head coach Scott Nagy senses the spirituality that seems to come with his teams during his 15 years at SDSU. Nagy has headed Division II teams with perennial winning records, coached teams in the early days of Division I that lost up to 24 games one season and currently has his team in position for its second-straight winning season competing at the highest level.

And he notices the impact the schedule can have on his players. The Jacks just finished the longest road trip of his entire career.

“I don’t know if it’s any different from others’ circumstances; everyone’s challenged by circumstances,” Nagy said. “It can be tough, we get tired and are glad to be home.”

Forward Leah Dietel represents a minority in The Collegian’s student survey. The junior from Jordan, Minn., believes the tight-knit bond between athletes of her team has strengthened her religious beliefs.

“A lot of us are strong in our faith, and actually I’d say I’ve grown in my faith since I’ve come to college because of my teammates … we’ve become so close as friends that it’s just another aspect that we have.”

Then there’s pressure to perform. Some athletes make pre-season all-conference teams, or the hope to turn pro after their college career. Football players played their home games to an average crowd of more than 10,000 fans. The men’s basketball team played against power conference schools Minnesota, Georgia and Nebraska all on the road.

The women’s team has a chance to go its fourth-straight NCAA Tournament in just four years of eligibility at the Division I level. No other school has made the tournament in even its first two years of eligibility.

In moments where teams only have each other to fall back on, the willingness to rely on faith may increase for an athlete expected to perform.

“There’s a sense in sports, speaking in generalities, a sense of spirituality,” Nagy said “… To be on the spot like that, to have the pressure to fail, I think when you get put in those situations it generally makes you follow God … Just this sense of high intensity and nervousness to want to do well and trying to draw from an extra power.”



It’s the 13th Equip meeting of the school year at the Brookings First Baptist Church the night of Nov. 30, and right now Christa Juntenen stands on the sanctuary’s stage with a microphone in her hands. Her weight shifts to her left leg and then back to her right, and she’s sort of skipping in place like she’s slightly nervous.

At an even five-feet tall, she stands shoulder-level next to junior Caleb Nordquist, the Equip member to her right. She appears like a front-runner for shortest member of Equip.

Twenty-eight others sit in four rows of pews in conversations while others take the stage at the piano, drums and mic stand. The Equip attendees are about to sing, and Christa helps lead them.

O to grace how great a debtor

daily I’m constrained to be

Let thy goodness, like a fetter,

bind my wandering heart to thee.

The First Baptist Church has the atmosphere of every modest-sized place of worship constructed in the last century. Its floors creak; there’s the faint scent of wood lightly varnished faintly in the air. The doors take a full-body requirement

of braced foot planting, and an equal reliance of the shoulder muscles to adequately move the door ajar.

Like most buildings of its kind, the basement’s ceiling rests lower than most are used to, and the height of the floor seems to change depending on which area you walk.

On Wednesdays, the building hosts Equip, the church’s college ministry allowing anyone an opportunity for food, fellowship, singing and prayer. Its members are treated to dinner, play impromptu ping-pong and carpet ball with two-and-a-quarter inch regulation size balls, inquire about their Thanksgiving breaks and carry themselves with an aura that they want to be there. And it’s January.

Christa’s done eating at the front table, her boyfriend, Tyler, across from her.

“Eat some more,” he says.

“I’m full!” she says.

They talk more and at one point lock pinkies.

The night moves upstairs into the sanctuary. The light fixtures’ glow gives everyone inside the subtle pallor of greenish-yellow skin. The pews in rows of three contain holsters holding two Bibles and a book of hymnals. One after the other, from back to front.

There’s congestion in the stairway and the sound of children from inside tells Christa and her fellow Equip members to wait outside.

Some peer through the small, circular window into the sanctuary and see the kids jumping around. Eventually their lesson ends and a few run through the center aisle, rapidly past the pews, through the crowd, and down the stairs. The action brings some to laughter.

Up front now stands Ryan Buse, leading a prayer in a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt. He’s stammering, but the tone of his words indicates he knows what to say, but wants more than one word to come out at once.

There’s urgency in his voice. By the end, it’s nearly trembling.

“We’ve all hated God,” he’s saying. “We’ve all been angry at you, but we know how, how … awesome you are, God.”

The singing’s over, and now the members are embroiled in a week’s schedule that takes a vastly different approach from their usual night.

“It was a lot different this week,” Tyler says. “This was some heavy stuff.”

Equip’s staff member Brandon Pederson wants to raise money, in any way possible, to help fight against worldwide sex trafficking. No pressure, he says. It’s the holidays, and most members will unmistakably be with family back home.

“This is real,” Brandon says. “As Christians, we have to care and try and help these people.”

Christa is in the second row to the front, and Tyler has his left arm over her neck resting on her left shoulder. Her mind’s thinking she’s heard this somewhere.

This happens. A lot, she says. Thinking of one thing, then weeks later, she comes across that fleeting thought, or that prayer. Like deja vu. Echoes, she calls them.

“I was thinking about [sex trafficking] like three weeks ago,” Christa says. “I believe that God tells me something more than once in different situations intentionally.”

They break off into groups and now there are three sections of Equip members in various corners of the sanctuary. The fervor of the singing is a stark contrast to the quiet murmuring from the three groups immersed in prayer.

Christa’s in a metal folding chair by the back doors, elbows on her knees, face in her palms with the heels of her boots holding her feet on the horizontal rod near the floor. They take turns, one by one, in an undetermined cycle. Whoever wants to goes next.

“We just pray that we be captivated by your power,” Christa says.


Journey to faith

Christa cannot remember the point when her faith changed. It’s not like she drove to Walmart where she worked last summer

in South Carolina and had a revelation at a stoplight. She did not find God during one of her regular runs. She didn’t suddenly see something that previously wasn’t there. The moment didn’t happen in a surge of epiphanies.

She doesn’t know. It’s just always kind of been there. Sometimes weak, sometimes strong.

But that faith strengthened on a trip to Mississippi while rebuilding a house and volunteering at a nursing home. Something in the music she listened to, in the people she met, in the places she saw coalesced together. She formed a trust in God. It dug her out of what she thinks was depression.

Her friends describe her as goofy, spunky, bubbly, introspective, kind-of-private, wise, encouraging and compassionate. She likes compassionate. She agrees with compassionate. And she would also include introverted.

She remembers growing up through the church, in a way. Sometimes she would hide under the covers Sunday mornings, a thin attempt at having her parents forget she was in their own home.

She moved from Wisconsin where she was born, to

Darwin, Minn., a town of 300 whose hallmark rests as the home to the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. The parades are so

short, they say, that the floats make two circles around, not one.

Her and her brother Jason’s friends would go to movies or bowling or have bonfires together. When they were younger, they played Pokémon or they’d set up a dancing act with music demos and routines they’d practice because, after all, they charged a quarter admission.

They did water sports including tubing on lakes around Darwin. They would sling each other around, Jason says.

They drove to school then back home after drumline practice in Jason’s 1999 Chrysler Neon.

“We always got along well,” she says. “Always been close, we haven’t fought much.”

She worked for the family business as a side job. One day, their father had an idea to convert old family videotapes to DVD’s, and Electric Canvas was born and is still in business — growing, actually.

And she can still hold a rhythm, her refined skills at drumming in middle and high school now showcased as a better-than-average djembe player in the Equip worship team.

Her college education didn’t start at SDSU, though. Transferring from North Central College, she ended up closer to home.

She’s noticed a change in the people.

“It seems like there’s a little more open-mindedness (here),” she says. “I’ve met some Buddhist friends — it’s really been interesting to see the differences in how they think.”

She thinks she’s found a place she’ll stay.


The kid with the sharp mind

He lives in an apartment with four other guys, a one-level place over by the Brookings mall with bunk beds, a $200 monthly rent check and a room of four computer screens no larger than a regular bathroom known simply as the “game” room.

Inside the game room are empty cardboard boxes, a TV resting high on the southeast corner, empty Mountain Dew cans, an XBOX 360 and Jason Juntenen with his best friend Tyler Thielsen playing the latest Role Playing Genre computer game on their laptop computers — League of Legends, aptly named.

They grew up talking together in front of a computer screen, they admit. For fun, they currently match up four-against-five

in a battle sequence that lasts 40 minutes and ultimately leads to the two of them laughing about the outcome.

“We were mismatched,” Jason says. “And