Meet Karen Soos: the Edgy Campus Minister

After hearing a great many things about Karen Soos, not knowing how her name was spelled, and wondering if she was at all related to Dr. Seuss, I decided it was time to get to clear up the issue and get know her myself.

I sat down with Karen at a wobbly table in Nummit on a Thursday afternoon. I was only mildly disappointed to find there was no relation. The two last names were merely homonyms, and besides, Dr. Seuss was pseudonym. With that out of the way, I could ask the other burning questions I’d had on my mind for the last few days. I was about to launch into the tough stuff, seeking deep spiritual insight and tough-love criticism of Davidson College, but then I thought, “Hold up! Maybe I should ease into this.” So I started with the basics.

Her Campus: What’s something in the town of Davidson or surrounding area that more students should know about?

Karen Soos: Fisher Farm. It’s a 9 minute drive from campus, but it’s a world away from Davidson stress. You can walk in the woods or mountain bike if you need to escape for a while. Ugh, that’s kind of boring. I’m the edgy campus minister, I have to come up with edgy answers! (She laughs). I guess I’ll have to give that one more thought.

HC: How did you become a campus minister, anyway?

KS: I had just come out of years of social work, and I was desperate for a narrative of hope, so I decided to go to seminary. When graduation time came, I realized I had to get a job. I had worked with young adults before, and my own campus ministers had encouraged me to go into campus ministry, so voila--here I am.

Karen with Catholic Campus Ministry students on a retreat

HC: What do you like about it?

KS: 18-25 is an amazing part of life. There are lots of possibilities, but also lots of anxiety. I really do believe young people can change the world. Our society is so youth-oriented, but we really don’t take youth very seriously. And yet young people can do so much.

HC: What is something that is said fairly frequently at Davidson or in current academic discourse that you completely disagree with?

KS: At Davidson, I think it’s the phrase “game-changers.” Oof. Every student wants to be president of such-and-such club, but who’s going to be the members? And after Davidson, there’s even more pressure to succeed. But are you a failure if you teach second grade? If you spend a year doing service after graduation? It’s hard to get students to do that--they (and their parents) want to get a return on investment. I understand that parental pressure, and that economic pressure. Still, I think the pressure can be too much. Jesus was a game-changer, but when you look at the people he valued, they weren’t game changers at all, at least not before they met him.  

I wish students and parents would wrestle with these questions more. And Christians in general. Especially when it comes to service vs. high-paying jobs. In Christianity, we can be really complicit with middle-class values.

HC: When’s the last time someone was upset with you?

KS: Generally my mother because I haven’t called her. If you think you outgrow getting in trouble with your parents when you’re an adult, you’re wrong.

HC: What, of the things Jesus did, do you consider to be most revolutionary?

KS: Turning over the tables in the temple. I grew up in a family where you weren’t allowed to be mad. In fact, girls were often brought up where you couldn’t be angry. But you can be angry at injustice. Jesus was.

Going off on that (girls not being allowed to be angry), in Catholicism there’s this conception of Mary as meek and mild. One time in the confessional booth, I was telling the priest about how I was really mad at my mother. He told me I should be more like Mary. I almost asked him, “So I should get pregnant out of wedlock at the age of 13?” Fortunately for me and my soul, I didn’t say that. So it was a revelation to discover how empowered and powerful Mary really was when she said yes to God. She was no pushover.

HC: What kind of books do you read for fun?

KS: I read pretty widely but I love mysteries. I also have this strict rule where I alternate between fiction and nonfiction. It’s good for me. But yes, I can stay up til 3:00 in the morning reading. I have no self-control.You know, story is the essence of Christianity. The Christian life of discipleship is all about living inside of a story.

HC: What’s the most underrated or the most needed spiritual gift?

KS: Silence and being still. This is highlighted to me because of how people at Davidson are, always running, always engaged, never quiet or still.

Daydreaming. Shutting off all the controlling parts of the mind and letting go. That’s when God has a chance to get a word in edgewise.

Mercy. People are so hard on themselves and on each other. Even when we disagree, we can still be merciful and compassionate towards one another.

Openness to the spirit in terms of your own life. Spiritual paths can be very wind-y and adventurous, and that’s not wrong or bad. It’s a journey of the spirit. Find good traveling companions and enter into it joyfully!

HC: If you could ask Pope Francis one question, what would you want to ask?

KS: How do you stay focused on hope and the good and not be pulled down by institutional nonsense? Well, you pray, but in your heart of hearts, how do you not get overwhelmed?

HC: Can you offer any advice to women who want to be in ministry or are considering it?

There are a lot more opportunities if you’re not Catholic or Orthodox. It can be frustrating for women who have felt a call to be ordained but can’t do that in their home church. Still, I think it’s important that there’s a gender balance in ministry, whether or not that’s ordained ministry because we bring different life experiences to the table. Also, it’s important for young women to have mentors and to see role models who look like them.

You know, it doesn’t have to be explicitly religious to be ministry. Mental health work can be ministry too if you seek to be the hands and heart of Christ to others.

Karen and Carlos Miranda Pereyra '18 after a service.

HC: What do you think Christians forget about Jesus?

KS: The first miracle he did was changing water into wine, and he did that so the party could go on. People forget that about Jesus. This miracle shows how Jesus celebrates the joy of life and wants there to be plentitude. Jesus says in John 10:10 “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

HC: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you while traveling?

KS: One time on the trip to the monastery in Taizé, France (through the Chaplain’s office), my roommate was from Portugal and neither of us spoke the other’s language very well. Still, we managed to get into a hysterical conversation about guns in the U.S. mostly through pantomime and simple English, and were laughing so loud that a priest came and yelled at us. The life lesson there was about the ability of human beings to connect beyond and in spite of language. It was profound.

Karen (white sweater) and her roommate (green jacket) and other seekers in Taizé, France.

HC: Is there a spiritual practice or ideology that’s part of another religious tradition that you admire/have tried/want to try?

KS: In 6th grade, I really wanted to be either an Orthodox Jew or a Buddhist...knowing very little about either beyond a book I read on world religions. I loved how Orthodox Jews put so much emphasis on prayer surrounding every moment of the day. In terms of Buddhism, I loved how the practice connected with every part of life and I liked the concept of “right work.”

In general, I really admire people and traditions who surround their day with prayer, who seek God in all things.

HC: What’s something you really dislike about Davidson?

KS: I think there’s a sense of entitlement. I don’t just mean that people come from rich white families (and many do), but once students are here they experience privilege and can act entitled, no matter their background. We really are a bubble here—it’s a big world out there, and most people aren’t like us, but we’re not intrinsically more worthy than they are.

HC: Is there anything you wish more students knew about you?

KS: I’m not judgemental about religion. Most of my family aren’t believers but I think they’re really good people, better than me in many ways. Anyone who wants to talk about meaning or purpose is welcome. Also, I won’t try to convert you… I’m no good at convincing people to believe in God because I myself was never “convinced”-- I just felt God in my innermost being from an early age.

Lastly, a lot of people ask me “If you don’t believe in everything the Church believes, how can you stay? Why don’t you leave?” Being Catholic is way bigger than the Church. Some of it is the amazing people I’ve met, the (religious) sisters I’ve worked with, the social justice tradition, the Eucharist.

Besides, all institutions are problematic—marriage, government—

HC: Davidson

KS: —the Church….You have to learn to live with the tensions and trust the Mystery.

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