MADISON, Wis. (RNS) — Emma Brown didn’t know Pres House was a church when she walked in.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman had seen a sign for free ice cream at the Gothic Revival building at the heart of the university’s campus and decided to check it out.
Inside, she met one of its two pastors and found herself surprisingly emotional when the topic of homesickness came up.
That initial conversation led Brown, who came to Madison from Chicago, first to a Sunday worship service at Pres House, the campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), and later to Freshman Connection, a weekly opportunity for first-year students to connect and talk about faith.
Now she’s at Pres House five days a week.
“I kept showing up,” she said.
Pres House sits at the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus between the St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center and a monument dedicated to innovation and tolerance.
On a recent unseasonably warm February day, students zipped past on bikes and skateboards and blasted music in front of the library just across the street. They took their chances wandering out on the still-frozen Lake Mendota, visible from the mall in front of the Pres House building.
“Find yourself among friends,” read one sign in the Pres House windows.
The Presbyterian campus ministry started in 1907 and grew leaps and bounds during the “heyday of religion” in the first half of the 20th century, according to the Rev. Erica Liu, who leads Pres House with her husband, the Rev. Mark Elsdon.
The ministry was innovative for its time, holding several services every Sunday and empowering students to lead as its elders and deacons.
But by 2000, Pres House had fallen on hard times.
The Presbyterian student ministry was shuttered and had been replaced by an ecumenical ministry that met in its building. The Synod of Lakes and Prairies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was considering selling off the property.
But the Pres House board wasn’t ready to give up. So the board called Liu and Elsdon to revive the campus ministry.
“As we got to know the opportunity, it was like, wow, you know, this could be really quite an adventure,” Liu said.
They started out by going back to basics and focusing on the core of the ministry — helping people connect with one another.
They couple brought back the Sunday night dinners after services and revived activities throughout the week — the kinds of things Pres House had hosted in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s. (Queerly Beloved, its gatherings for LGBTQ students, may be an exception, the co-pastors pointed out.)
And they listened to students.
Most of Pres House’s programming is developed and led by students, always changing as new students arrive at the university every year and others graduate and leave.
“That’s just been the spirit of it — of having to innovate all the time because if you don’t, then it’s not relevant anymore,” Liu said.
Today Pres House is a bustling hub of activity, creating a sense of instant belonging within its stone walls and creating community not just across campus, but also across the city of Madison.
In recent years, Pres House has spun off additional programs: Pres House Apartments, built on Pres House’s former parking lot, which supports the ministry with the rent it brings in; GatherX, aimed at Pres House alumni and other young professionals in the city; Candid, which promotes student wellness across campus.
The common theme that runs through those programs is the same: community.
That’s a theme that runs through Christianity, according to Elsdon.
“It’s not a faith thought. It’s a faith lived, and that means doing it with people, doing it together, doing stuff together, being around each other,” said Elsdon.
He pointed to a group called Prayer3 — which brings students together weekly to pray through the news and discuss how to act on it — as an example of how Pres House helps students connect faith to everyday life.
Elsdon said that students at the university are looking for community, though not always within the context of a worship service. They’re looking for values and purpose and the kind of meaningful conversations they don’t get to have in class or anywhere else, he said.
Pres House’s ministry is rooted in the Christian practice of hospitality, Liu said, even when its programming — like Pres House Apartments, GatherX, Candid or just opening up its clubhouse lounge for students to study — isn’t explicitly religious.
Sometimes it’s about helping people connect with each other — especially with “people who are different than you, because we seem to have lost that ability, and that seems pretty fundamental to the gospel,” she said.
Liu describes Pres House as “unashamedly Christian but unapologetically open.” That means it welcomes people of non-Christian faiths and no faith into the community.
An Orthodox Jew has made its Communion bread for years, she said. An atheist has led worship. A Muslim has faithfully attended services.
The ability to remain distinctly Christian and still make everyone feel welcome “embodies what is the best about this community,” Liu said.
On Super Bowl Sunday, about 40 people filled the chapel at Pres House, with its arched ceilings and stained glass windows.
The service included a reading of the parable of the good Samaritan and a moment for worshippers to turn to their neighbors and discuss a time when someone did something unexpectedly kind for them. Students shared reflections from a trip to Panama City Beach, Florida, where they helped residents who are still rebuilding their lives after 2018’s Hurricane Michael.
The next day, about eight students gathered for a group called Knitting Together in one of Pres House’s Hogwarts-style lounges, all comfy couches and stone.
They chatted about classes and the pets they’d had growing up, while sharing occasional instructions for knitting or crochet and eating cookies left over from the Super Bowl party the night before.
Among them was Brown, the freshman from Chicago.
With all the time she’s spent at Pres House this year, Brown — who until recently called herself an atheist — said she’s become more open to faith.
She’d grown up Catholic but had dropped out of the church: “I’m queer, and Catholics ain’t really all about that,” she said.
Brown said she’s still getting used to actively attending Sunday services but she likes that the pastors at Pres House tackle uncomfortable subjects. She finds herself wanting to pay attention during their sermons.
She feels like she belongs and can relate to everybody there. And there’s something comforting about having a place to go.
“I just like having a scheduled time where you catch up with people and then eating with them afterwards and talking to people again. It’s just kinda nice,” Brown said.
“This place is like home away from home.”