Storefronts change frequently in downtown East Lansing and it isn’t uncommon to notice a new ice cream shop, restaurant or smoke shop popping up. Those strolling M.A.C., however, may notice a new face between the restaurants and bars.
Canterbury MSU began leasing the space at 225 M.A.C. in May 2022, sandwiched between The Riv and Koala Tea & Coffee. Now in the location that used to house the Excapse Smoke Shop and Vapor Lounge, Canterbury MSU is an Episcopal ministry to the Michigan State University campus. The Rev. Dr. Donna McNiel has served as the Episcopal Missioner to MSU since fall 2018.
Before the mission moved into the M.A.C. storefront, Canterbury students were meeting in the MSU Union food court, at Blue Owl Coffee or at All Saints Episcopal Church at 800 Abbot Road, where McNiel is a quarter-time rector. During the pandemic, the group met on Zoom, seeing participation and participants dwindle.
“That year online sucked big time,” McNiel said.
The pandemic also made it possible for Canterbury MSU to find its own home closer to campus, one that is more accessible and more frequently used.
“Having a space we can use for 90 minutes a week is great. But it limits what we can do,” McNiel said. “The silver lining of the pandemic is that rentals went down a little bit and places opened up.”
With the support of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lansing, McNiel signed a three- to five-year lease for the storefront. In the 1880s, that institution was instrumental in establishing a ministry at the then State Agricultural College, sending a priest to work with students on campus.
“It’s a risk,” McNiel said. “Outreach to students deserves this kind of risk taking and imagination. That’s our obligation to the gospel, the students and the church. We’re learning from trial and error.”
Canterbury MSU’s programming depends on the needs of the students who show up, but it has so far held regular Wednesday 7:30 p.m. meetings to watch “Ted Lasso,” de-stress with crafts and more. Sunday afternoons at 5 p.m. sees a vespers program and simple supper that is co-hosted by All Saints. Vespers features a short homily, prayers and communion.
McNiel isn’t daunted by data showing a continued decline in America’s church attendance and overall Christianity.
“Life is hard,” she said. “It’s hard to be a person. This is not an easy journey, even in the best of circumstances. I think faith is helpful for the challenge. I think the kinds of questions that faith raises about who we are, and what we’re for, and how we’re supposed to connect with one another and support and care for one another, these questions are really important. And our society certainly isn’t getting any less complex. And I think faith is a useful framework for dealing with those complexities.”
Maren Nicolaysen is a junior at MSU with a double major in economics and international relations. She’s been a member of Canterbury MSU since summer 2021.
“It’s a good, safe space where I feel comfortable discussing different perspectives of faith,” Nicolaysen said. “We can share our doubts and help each other through different stages of faith”
Sophomore Maggie Stoving appreciates the ownership she can feel with the new space.
“Last week we had a coloring and artsy relaxing time that was so important amidst a lot of exams,” said the applied engineering sciences major about an event earlier this fall. “The new space is nice because everything is just there. It feels like our space where we don’t have to move everything back when we’re done. It’s ours.”
McNiel is grateful for the opportunity to work with college students.
“They’re changing and growing and exploring intellectually and socially,” she said. “They’re asking big questions about who they are in the world and their role in the world. And those are questions faith can help answer.”