In a time when religious and cultural differences are causing fractures in communities and tearing nations apart, international students studying in America may feel isolated and alone. But not if Pastor Mark Couch can help it.
Couch has worked to make his Solid Grounds Campus Ministries open and welcoming to students of varying religions and cultures. Located at 1720 W. Michigan Ave., in a former farmhouse adjacent to Western Michigan University’s campus, Solid Grounds also serves as a meeting place for the Kalamazoo Refugee Council, a collective of various faith centers, organizations and concerned citizens dedicated to making Kalamazoo as welcoming to refugees as possible.
Couch, who is affiliated with Zion Lutheran Church in Kalamazoo, grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1985. He moved to St. Louis in 1987 “just to spend a year watching the Cardinals play baseball,” he says, and graduated from seminary there in 1995. He came to Kalamazoo in 2001 to serve as Solid Grounds’ pastor.
Why did you join the ministry?
Well, my dad was a pastor, my grandfather was a pastor, I had a couple uncles who were pastors, so it was kind of in the family. I had a sense that was the direction God was leading me. My dad spent most of his ministry as a campus minister, and I remember as a kid going into his office when he would perform services on campus and it was always a cool feeling.
What is most satisfying about your job?
Working with students and having opportunities for them to get involved, like our mentoring program for kids in the Edison neighborhood. And being able to interact and build relationships with the international students.
Why does Solid Grounds have such a strong connection to international students?
Four or five years ago we had a student each from Japan, China and Malaysia that got involved in Solid Grounds, and (they) were wonderful in terms of getting the word out about the church. That summer we did a cookout on July 4th, so I told them, “Your friends from Japan, Malaysia and China, why don’t you invite them?” There were about 25 students there (at the cookout), and what struck me was how comfortable everyone was. It was a great way to build connections with students from different backgrounds, religions and cultures.
So I told the students, “Let’s do this once a month as an outreach.” And it was just amazing — we had 40 to 60 students that came to our monthly dinners, usually on the last Friday of the month, and everybody just felt so comfortable with each other. People were getting to know and learn about each other — Christian students, Muslim students, students that were Buddhist, even atheist. It just developed very organically.
Why do you think people of different religions feel welcome at Solid Grounds?
I think it’s because we are intentional about it. I think the goal is to make them feel welcome. The Bible talks about practicing hospitality, and entertaining strangers is just a reflection of what God wants us to do.
Why did you get so involved with refugees?
In the summer of 2015, when the Syrian refugee crisis was front and center in the news, we were hearing stories every single day about refugees fleeing and how horrible that was. I just felt tugged to do something to help, but I wasn’t sure what to do and so I reached out to the campus community to start having meetings.
How did you go from those meetings to hosting the Kalamazoo Refugee Council?
In February 2016, Samaritas (called Lutheran Social Services of Michigan at the time) spoke at another local church, and one of the students in our group was at that meeting and he told them about what we were doing (at Solid Grounds). The consensus of that meeting was “Why don’t we all just work together?” So in March 2016 people from area congregations and the (Kalamazoo) Islamic Center, WMU faculty and staff, and just anybody in the community that was interested came together here. And so we meet every other Friday here at Solid Grounds, and we called it the Kalamazoo Refugee Council to discuss co-sponsoring families and other refugee services.
What drives you to do all of this outreach?
Serving people, like Jesus did, reaching out to the poor and the forgotten of society, the blind and the lame, and the ones that are ostracized. Just reaching out to the people that most of society has forgotten about — to me that’s what Jesus did. It gives students a chance to live out their faith. I think the other thing too is to live out your faith in the hope that others can see that this is the love of Jesus. Trying to share the love of Jesus with others in the community, including those that don’t believe, just so we can say this is an important part of our faith.
— Interviewed by Adam Rayes