Faith, hope and student life converge at Newman Center

Father Jim Greenfield, a Catholic chaplain at GW’s Newman Center, was playing Bingo with about 225 students at J Street last week to help kick off GW’s Religion Week.

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At stake: tickets for Tuesday’s lecture by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, donated by the Newman Center.

Greenfield said the gesture is indicative of the changes sweeping the Catholic Church.

“We’ve come a long way,” Greenfield said as he rushed out of J Street on his way to see the Tibetan leader.

He said his tenure at GW has given him a greater understanding and appreciation of other faiths because GW students come from an array of ethnic and religious groups.

Greenfield said students of all different faiths seek spirituality, especially in college.

“People are looking for value and meaning in the post-modern world,” he said. “As a result, students are turning to religion.”

Part of Greenfield’s job is helping students find faith in Catholicism. He said nearly 25 percent of GW’s student body identify themselves as Catholic.

“I think being there for students during some of the most difficult times – deaths of parents or relatives, the first two or three months of homesickness for freshmen – is the most rewarding for me.”

Students said Greenfield serves as a role model and a leader for Catholics on campus.

Student Association President Carrie Potter said she has known Greenfield since her freshman year at GW. She said she has never encountered such a dynamic priest and credits him with the Newman Center’s growth in recent years.

But Greenfield is at his best during Mass, Potter said.

“He has the ability to turn scriptures into real life with his homilies,” she said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t leave Mass saying, `Oh wow.’ “

Junior Veena Raj said Greenfield’s greatest strength is his ability to relate to students. She said his enthusiasm inspired her to ask her parents to donate a cross to the Newman Center.

“You talk about him, and you can’t help but smile,” Raj said.

Perhaps Greenfield understands the tribulations students face because he recently completed his own education. He finished his undergraduate studies at Allentown College, which is where he said he got a “gut feeling” that he was destined for the priesthood. Greenfield then earned his master’s degree in counseling and his doctoral degree in human development at GW.

When GW students seek Catholicism, the Newman Center is the place to go, Greenfield said.

“It’s a place where you bring your faith, your student life and your hope for the future, and they all converge there,” he said. “Faith focuses you. Living in a fragmented society, the Newman Center can ground you.”

Many non-denominational schools have a Newman Center. The organizations are named after a priest who worked at Oxford University in the late 19th century and espoused the notion that students should take action and try to formulate a better society using the power of faith, Greenfield said.

At GW, the Newman Center, at 2210 F St., is more than a spiritual center for Greenfield. The little orange rowhouse is also his home. He said living at the center is “a trip.”

“I have loved living there and hated it, all at the same time,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like the proverbial Mr. Wilson.”

He said his neighbors, the Kappa Sigma fraternity, are great guys, which is why he refrains from acting like “Mr. Wilson” when they are loud. Instead, he turns on a fan in his room to drown out the outside noise, Greenfield said.

He said he can relate to his neighbors and other GW students, and said he hopes to empower students by helping them find faith.

He said Catholics must find innovative ways to disseminate their message because they are competing with “nanosecond sound bites on MTV.” He said young people will remain apathetic if the Catholic Church does not take action soon.

He said the church has other problems at the local level. Greenfield said he has loved every moment at GW so far, but he would make one change.

“My dream would be to have a place as big as the Smith Center for the Newman Center, and we’d use every inch of it,” he said.

In addition to the Newman Center, Masses are held in Western Presbyterian Church and St. Stephen-Martyr Church because of space restrictions.

Despite the small quarters, the Newman Center hosts a dinner every Monday night for about 100 students. About 400 students attend Mass every week.

For Greenfield, Monday night dinners and Sunday Masses are small details in the greater picture.

“Religion can tell people to slow down and stop worrying where their next internship will be,” he said. “We’re positing all of our success on the future, and we forget to live in the present moment.”

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