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College chaplain on protests: 'These people are looking for meaning'

Pillar subscribers can listen to this interview here: The Pillar TL;DR

Across the U.S., college campuses have made headlines as students and protesters have set up encampments in prominent locations, urging universities to divest from investments connected to Israel, or to disassociate from Israeli connections, in protest of the ongoing Israeli military action in Gaza.

As protests unfold, and some universities seem uncertain how to respond, The Pillar has reached out to local priests, chaplains at Newman Centers or Catholic students centers. Some have said the protests are not drawing much attention on campus, or that the protesters are mostly not students. 

But at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Fr. Eric Sternberg has a unique view of the protests, as a pro-Palestine encampment is set up very near to St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center, where Sternberg is the pastor.

St. Paul Catholic Student Center, Madison, Wisconsin. Courtesy photo.

On May 6, the encampment had swelled to some 50 tents, and faculty at the university were planning a walkout in solidarity with protesters.

For his part, Sternberg spoke with The Pillar May 2 about what he had seen at the protests, what protesters are looking for, and what evangelization looks like at UW-Madison.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Father, what have you seen as protests play out across the UW-Madison campus? What have you observed about what’s going on?

We have the proverbial front door view because the protest site is [very close] to our doors.

When they first arrived, it was maybe about 100, and 24 hours later, they had a big rally, with about 150 or 175 people there, And then they started camping out, and that was about 15 or 20 tents. And then on Wednesday [May 1], the police came through and took all the tents down, and some people were arrested.

On May 2, there were fewer than 10 tents up, maybe 50 people for most of the day.  

In my observation, everybody has been, frankly, very quiet. They have been very peaceful — It’s honestly very Midwest; they’re having a cookout. They go into the library looking for bathrooms, they drink beer. 

It’s a combination of students and local activists, like aging hippie types, really.

I was at a local Catholic high school earlier today, which has teachers who were at the university in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and they said they were protesting with thousands, with riot cops and tear gas, and this is much smaller than that. There’s not a lot of people here.

But, of course, I have received in the last 24 hours probably a dozen phone calls from concerned parents. We have student housing, students who live in our building, so parents want to know if the girls are ok and things like that.

And of course, some of those girls have been out having lunch and trying to chat with the protesters, so, yeah, they’re ok.

Faculty at UW-Madison are planning a May 6 walkout in support of a protest encampment on campus.

With the protesters so close to your building, does that mean you’ve engaged in some hospitality with them? How does that work?

Well we’ve been advised by the university to have no formal outreach from the students. And we’ve had to say no to using the bathroom, because in just some cases that would not be a good thing. But we’ve got a little coffee bar in the first level of our building, and there are students here doing what they usually do.

If there are students outside on the Library Mall, our students go chat ‘em up. I mean, we’ve got FOCUS missionaries here, and we have a really tremendous evangelical spirit. Student leaders here learn real quick that their pastor wants them out there meeting people.

Myself, and my vicar, and my staff teach formation courses and make the sacraments available. But the students go out there and meet other students. And this protest really hasn’t changed that. But that’s nothing formal, it’s just us being us.

Now it’s true that most of the protesters — I’ll be perfectly honest — are not interested. I’ve walked over there, and no one has been nasty to me, but they’re not interested in talking to a priest. The news [people] are not, and the protesters are not.

So has the protest raised questions among your students? Do they want to talk through some of these issues?

When October 7th happened, we taught our students what I see as the standard Catholic narrative: That was a terrorist attack. States have a legitimate right to defend themselves. The situation in the Palestinian territories is not good, it’s very difficult. I have been there personally, my vicar has been there personally, we have had six students do summer programs with the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. And so they can affirm that things are not good in these Palestinian territories. But we tell the student, do not get sucked into a reductive view, that there are a lot of reasons it’s not good. 

But then here — running around and yelling and getting drunk is not good. And that’s what these protests here are: they sing and chant at seven or eight in the night, and then half of them leave to get drunk. Many of the rest get drunk there, then sleep in the morning until nine. 

Earlier today, there was supposed to be a Muslim-organized march, and about nine people participated.

You spend a lot of time with college students in your assignment. What do you observe about the students who are participating in the protest at UW-Madison?

My observation about the people who are out there is that these are people who are looking for meaning in their lives. These are not religious people — I’ve walked out there twice, and there are not practicing Muslims out there, not one. In fact, I’ve talked to two local imams, and they’re saying that their people have nothing to do with this at all — none of their people are out there.

In my estimation, these are people who are looking for meaning in their lives, they are looking to give their lives to something. And for whatever reason, they have rejected religion, and for the most part, God.  

And for them, the Palestinian cause has been kind of lumped in with this secular humanist view of things. And I don’t want to be reductive of the protests. I think a lot of people out there really do believe it. I don’t perceive that they’ve given it a great deal of thought, but they hold their view with an almost religious zeal. They really do.

One element of these protests has been the allegation of anti-semitism or the harassment of Jewish students. Do you see that at UW-Madison and among the protesters?

UW-Madison has a sizable Jewish population.

The only time in these four days of protests that I have seen anyone say anything derogatory about Jews or Muslims or Palestinians is when the TV cameras are here. It’s the one-off guy who is stuck on his computer, who yells  “F the Jews” when there’s a TV camera on him. 

When the TV cameras go away, everybody goes home. Nobody shouts or yells then, truly. So much of it is for show.

Now, I think the people who are organizing it really believe in what they’re organizing. But all these other hangers-on with their signs and their yelling — they come with the TV people, when the TV people leave, they leave.

You talk about the protesters looking for meaning in their lives, and holding their views with religious zeal. Does that make the protest a fertile ground for evangelization? 

The connection point is hard.

This past Easter, we confirmed 77 people, and we’ll confirm four more on Sunday. So that’s 81 people, and 64 of them converted from some other religion or were some other Christians.

We had three people who were Muslims, they came from somewhat practicing families, but kind of abjured the religiosity of Islam, while they got kind of brought into the free Palestine movement, found it empty, and then just connected with our students when they met them in class.     

And there were another six people who were active in some of the more aggressive LGBTQ movements, or were part of the BLM movement, which arose here in Madison but kind of petered out, as BLM nationally wasn’t investing in it. And so many of those people were still looking for meaning, and they came into the Church because they met students at class, at work, at the gym.

Everything we preach deeply here is for the students to do their ordinary things, to live their ordinary lives, and that’s where they meet people, they bring them here to a class, a dinner, a lecture, and introduce them to their friends. That’s 95% of the people who come in. 

It’s beautiful what they’re doing. 

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