“The first thing I did when I came to the U.S. was buy gum. That was the first thing I did. I think I bought like four or five different flavors,” says Charissa Qiu, Mount St. Joseph University’s new Campus Ministry Coordinator.
Qiu (pronounced CHEW) grew up in Singapore, an eternally hot and humid country just south of Malaysia that has a highly unusual law: no chewing gum is allowed. This came about in response to a problem with Singaporeans sticking gum just about everywhere but the trashcan. As a result, it became a real novelty; whenever she visited Malaysia with her family, Qiu would buy some and sneak it to her classmates back home.
Another thing unique to Singapore is Racial Harmony Day, a time for celebrating the country’s great confluence of cultures. “Everybody’s kids would dress up in the ethnic wear of a different race, so Chinese would wear a sari—which is the Indian dress—and then the Indians might wear a kebaya, which is Malay,” Qiu says.
Singapore is also a society primarily driven by science and math. As a devotee of the humanities, Qiu felt a little left out by this, and wondered where exactly she fit in. But at the end of high school, she performed very highly on her A-level exams, and was offered a scholarship to the University of Dayton. There, she found her niche in psychology and communication, and left after four years with a degree in each.
Following her undergraduate years, Qiu completed a year of service with the Vincentian Volunteers, during which time she worked for a few months in Appalachian Kentucky. In need of a central location between the University of Dayton and Kentucky so that she could maintain contact with both, she chose Cincinnati. When she later moved to Chicago in order to obtain her master’s degree in pastoral studies at Loyola University, as much as she loved the Windy City, she felt the Queen City calling more strongly to her. For one, she had friends and loved ones there, but also she had found in its West End the church that she now calls home.
Growing up, Qiu had always gone to Mass, but at that time felt disconnected from it. She had not really experienced that essential sense of community. But at St. Joseph Church on Ezzard Charles Drive the atmosphere was inviting, filled with a sense community spirit. “I really for the first time felt like I really wanted to wake up and go there every Sunday, which was a new thing for me,” Qiu says.
When the position of Campus Ministry Coordinator opened up at Mount St. Joseph University last spring, Qiu interviewed for it, and got the job. Since, she has really appreciated having the “freedom to be creative and collaborative,” which she feels is sometimes lacking at larger institutions.
Qiu has many duties as Coordinator. She plans retreats, organizes faith-sharing groups called Caminos, assists Sister Nancy Bramlage (Director of Mission and Ministry at the Mount) with “Pizza & Ponder” events (students get to hear invited speakers present on a variety of spiritual subjects while enjoying lunch), and helps out with Mass. She also serves as adviser to Campus Ministry Club, which concerns itself with the spiritual life of the campus. Many of its students have been members since they came to the Mount, and have not been disappointed with their new leader. The club’s vice president Thomas Szoradi calls collaborating with Qiu so far “a blast. I love (Qiu’s) energy and that she has an active presence on campus with the students.”
Secretary of Campus Ministry Club Sara Croswell says, “Working with Charissa has been great. She really pushes us as a club to reach outside our comfort zones and has presented the club with some new collaborative opportunities such as new retreats to get involved in.”
One upcoming opportunity involves Impact Cincinnati (a community service club), Social Justice Club, and a new social justice retreat. Over spring break students can stay at the headquarters of Cincinnati Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul, learn more about poverty in the city, and what is being done to address it.
When Qiu presented her idea for the trip to the Mission committee, they were impressed. Dr. John Trokan, director and professor of religious studies at the Mount, was particularly enthusiastic about the idea. “I think that one of the things that really struck me about Charissa’s developing this is giving students an opportunity to look at poverty from a systemic perspective. It’s also a critical connection point in terms of looking at our Justice and the Common Good curriculum and looking at the heart of social theory.” He calls Qiu “a bright, creative, and student-centered minister who has excellent communication and listening skills.”
Campus Ministry Club president Sarah Gravunder agrees. “She has been very helpful to Campus Ministry Club, always there to give advice and offer her help. We love her sense of humor and hard work ethic.”
One weekend in October of last year, several Mount St. Joseph University students went on what is known as a Kairos Retreat. “The idea of Kairos,” Dr. Jim Bodle explains, “is that it is exploring a student’s faith journey.”
A professor of psychology at the Mount, Bodle was invited by Qiu—the retreat’s facilitator and leader—to lead an hour-long session on religious doubt, which he himself experienced while in his twenties. Staff and faculty participants were encouraged to pair a meaningful piece of art or music with his presentation, so he played “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” on the piano, a hymn which emphasizes the immutable faith of God in humanity.
What ended up dominating most of the session, though, was the Q&A. Bodle found that students really related to what he said, and in the spirit of Kairos, divulged their own doubts. “I thought that Charissa organized it beautifully. She gave good directions, the timing seemed very good, the students seemed like they had had good preparation, and so they were in good mindset to be really receptive. It was a really nice time.”
In order to better assess the spiritual needs of the campus, Qiu plans on communicating with them by means of a survey and focus group. She is already aware of certain perceptions that surround the Campus Ministry Department, such as the worry that its mission is to “convert,” or that one has to be deeply religious to take part. But Campus Ministry is for both devout Catholics and staunch atheists alike, and is, above all, a forum for discussion, community, and personal growth.
“I think there’s a great beauty in the coming together of different beliefs, and backgrounds, and having discussions, and getting to know each other, and just exploring the meaning of life,” Qiu says. “And I think that’s fundamentally what religion helps us to do, and what our faith is.”