By: Eleanor Samuels, South Jacksonville Presbyterian 

For college students, Christmas break always seems to come at exactly the right time. After a few too many all-nighters studying for finals and consuming foods made only in a microwave, returning home is a much-needed escape from the wonders of college.

For many of us, that means balancing an enormous amount of sleep and also spending time with family, but for some of us it also means attending College Conference at Montreat.

Many of us in the St. Augustine Presbytery had the fortunate opportunity of attending Youth Conferences at Montreat throughout high school; so returning to this escape in the mountains is full of fond memories and even old friends. For others, this was their first time experiencing what we call a “thin place,” or a place where heaven and earth seem to touch. Regardless of whether you have been one or one hundred times, Montreat offers an experience that rejuvenates and revises our faith. 

Eleanor Samuels and Rachel Hart at Montreat
Eleanor Samuels and Rachel Hart at Montreat

This was my third year attending College Conference and much like Christmas break, it always seems to come at just the right time. Campus Ministries can be a great resource for students, but most of us that keep getting on church vans to take a nine hour drive to Montreat do it because we grew up in the community of a Presbyterian church, where questions are encouraged and life long friendships are formed. Around this time of year, the mountains start calling.

Conferences at Montreat include keynotes, worship services, small groups and workshops. This year the focus was on the verse John 3:16, a well-known but often overlooked statement of the Christian faith. It was impressive enough that Carla Pratt Keys was able to deliver four sermons on just one verse, but she went above and beyond in the way her words really resonated with the hectic and stressful lives of college students.

While encouraging us to remember that we are more than a test score or a job promotion and that God’s love is not something that we can lose, she also challenged us to “give ourselves time to let God’s love sink in.” Carla Pratt Keys’ sermons were exactly what college students like myself need to hear after another semester searching for God’s call. Her words about understanding that faith is a journey and not an end goal were both inspiring and motivating.

The first keynote was delivered by Jason Brown, a former NFL player who turned down offers from the Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, and the San Francisco 49ers in order to farm land for food pantries and churches in his area. Jason’s story showed his unfailing trust in God and willingness to give up one dream for one that he believes will benefit others and his relationship with God.

His message was a little unexpected for many of us. While Carla spoke about God’s undying love for us and encouraged us to believe that we could do nothing to deserve, James drew our attention to the importance of working towards a stronger relationship with God.

This keynote stirred some controversy in the Anderson Auditorium that morning. Some were unfamiliar and a bit taken aback by his personification of Satan or passionate approach about right and wrong choices we make as Christians. As conversation grew throughout the afternoon, I found myself struggling more and more with his message. The more I recalled disagreements, the more I wanted to discuss them with my peers. I eventually realized that James Brown delivered exactly the kind of message I needed, a message that may be hard to swallow but would lead me and my peers to truly discuss our faith. Instead of simply letting a keynote wash over us, we were ignited with the desire to talk about it.

I have always known Montreat to be a place that offers comfort along with a challenge to think and believe differently. This year that challenge came in the form of an inspiring and original Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber.

It has always been tradition to wait outside the doors of Anderson and race to our “designated” pews as well trained Presbyterians, but never before have I seen so many young men and women wait in such anticipation for a worship service. Fortunately, us Floridians were early enough to wait indoors but many people braced the cold for a chance to hear what Nadia had to say about John 3:16.  

Nadia’s message was unfiltered and direct, exactly what we came to hear. She had many quotable moments and I wish I could have written them as fast as she could talk, but one that really stayed with me was when she said, “faith is a team sport, sometimes we have to believe for each other.”

I looked around that auditorium that I have worshipped in since I was fifteen and realized that is exactly what we are doing. From familiar faces like our fearless leaders Wilson Kennedy and Breanna Sooter, to new friends and strangers, we create a community of believers.

There were undoubtedly people that squirmed in their seats when Nadia criticized the effectiveness of committees or when she asked church leaders to give up some control and predictability, but overall she got us thinking. It was invigorating to see that the church is alive and well and that we, the college students, are prepared to give our time and energy to serve and better our congregations.

Each time I leave Montreat it is with a rediscovered sense of peace, a sense of energy from new discoveries and a solemn goodbye. I am incredibly thankful for the Presbytery of St. Augustine and the leaders that make this trip possible each year. I would personally like to encourage anyone who has not gone to make the drive and anyone that has been to return. The mountains are calling.