LOUISVILLE -- About 2,100 college students gathered here for five days for a meeting that organizers said could symbolize the rebirth of the student ecumenical movement in the United States.
The event that ended Tuesday was the first large-scale gathering of students to take place in two decades under joint sponsorship of Protestant denominations, including the United Methodist Church.
For the most part, the gathering included joint worship services, denominational meetings and numerous workshops on topics ranging from feminist spirituality to the social impact of rock-and-roll.
The Rev. Donald G. Shockley, chaplain at Emory University in Atlanta and a workshop leader, said the meeting and other recent student convocations sponsored by individual denominations suggest the possibility of a resurgent ecumenical Christian student movement in the United States.
"We believe the spirit is moving in the lives of the mainline churches. We believe the student conferences are evidence of that," Shockley said.
"There are many pitfalls along the way," he warned. "But we see the embers beginning to glow."
Unified action by youth in the nation's mainline denominations virtually disappeared in the 1960s with the crumbling of the short-lived University Christian Movement, according to the Rev. James Carr, director for campus ministries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a member of the planning committee for the Louisville gathering.
Carr noted that some formerly independent student ministry programs joined the University Christian Movement but then went out of existence when the movement -- racked by the turmoil and divisive issues of the 1960s -- fell apart.
Shockley, author of the book "Campus Ministry: The Church Beyond Itself," said, "We put our eggs in that basket, and then the basket was gone, and nobody had any eggs."
But in 1987 a few Christian leaders, including Carr, began to push for a renewal of the student movement, and a new organization called the Council for Ecumenical Student Christian Ministry was formed to help build student Christian leadership. At the same time, planning began for a national student gathering to be convened by the newly formed council.
Carr said the emphasis now is on maintaining denominational roots. The Louisville gathering reflected that thinking: Each denomination promoted the meeting to its own churches, and denominational meetings were an essential element of the meeting's agenda.
While the University Christian Movement was viewed as highly politicized, the Louisville meeting was planned to be as non-political as possible, Carr said.
However, politics was not avoided altogether. Some of the students circulated a petition opposing U.S. military action in the Middle East. But they were acting as individuals, not as an official part of the meeting, according to Tim Dean, a graduate of Northwestern University and student spokesman for the event. In addition, some students voiced concerns that the State Department had denied a visa to a prominent leftist Roman Catholic priest from the Philippines, the Rev. Edicio de la Torre, who was to have led Bible studies at the gathering.
Although the gathering here was a watershed for the so-called "ecumenical" churches, the "evangelical" community has held large student conferences in recent years. At the same time that 2,100 students were in Louisville, more than 18,000 evangelical students were attending the triennial gathering of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship missions conference in Urbana, Ill.
Dean and Carr said they did not view the Urbana event as "competition."
Sponsors of the Louisville event were the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, American Baptist Churches (U.S.A.), Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal Church/Episcopal Student Planning Committee, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America/Lutheran Student Movement-U.S.A., Moravian Church in America, National Student YWCA, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)/Presbyterian Student Strategy Team, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church.