(Posted October 11, 2004)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- When heading off for their first semester, college students leave friends and family behind, but not their faith. However, they do leave their local church behind, but a group of Juniata College students are working to help incoming students find congregations away from home.

Every Sunday at 10 a.m. a group of Juniata students gather in the lobby of Ellis College Center to participate in "Church Search," a program run by college upperclassmen to help freshman students find a church in the area. "It's a great way to give freshmen an opportunity to see what local churches have to offer and also to find a place to worship," says Jon Hoey, a sophomore from Shippensburg, Pa. studying international politics.

"I believe there is a definite national trend that college students today have an increasing interest in spirituality and spiritual matters," says David Witkovsky, chaplain at Juniata. "I've seen it even during the enrollment process, when prospective students and parents ask specifically about local churches and religious activities."

The program, now in its second year, attracted about 40 to 45 freshmen this year, according to Jennifer Jones, a sophomore from Shippensburg studying health communication and Spanish who co-leads the group with Hoey. "I wanted to find a church that I liked that would inspire me to go every Sunday," she explains. Jones attended several churches last year before settling in at the Stone Church of the Brethren in Huntingdon.

According to Hoey, the group meets every Sunday for a bagel-and-juice breakfast before dividing into cars to go to various Huntingdon churches. Hoey who attended Church Search last year, found the Presbyterian Church on Mifflin Street in Huntingdon was the right fit for him.

Hoey points out that many students who attend church do not participate in Church Search. For example, there is a Catholic mass celebrated on campus every Sunday and many Catholic students attend a Catholic church in the area. The college also offers Muslim students rides to worship at a mosque in State College, and offers programs for Jewish students to worship at temples in Altoona and State College.

The program was started last year by Lucinda Megill, a 2004 graduate who had seen a similar program while studying abroad at St. John College in York, England. Hoey has every local church that the program has visited has been very welcoming. "Everybody is very friendly and comes right up to you to shake hands and welcome you to the congregation," says Jones. "Some of the churches are more traditional and some are more contemporary, but for students the main thing is to find a church service you like."

Hoey says students can becomes as involved as they like in whatever church they have chosen. Hoey has become very involved at his church, leading a Bible study class every Sunday attended by about 12 to 15 students. The church also sponsored a college student-led service. "I wanted to find a church that provided fellowship and a place where I could grow," Hoey explains. The program is active during fall semester, eventually evolving into a carpool program as students find churches that fit their needs over the semester.

"There is a definite increase in interest in finding a local church," Witkovsky says. "I don't think it's necessarily finding the denominational church they attended back home that appeals to them. There's more interest in going with their friends and finding a service that appeals to them."

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.