A common problem for Catholic students away at college is trying to stay connected to their faith.

One perceptive student at Auburn University, however, found that sometimes coming home for the summer could be just as disruptive. Together with some like-minded Catholics, they created On the Deck, a program to keep Catholic students connected to their faith and to other young Catholics while home from school.

Mike Judge started On the Deck five years ago after running focus groups on the needs of Catholic college students. The name comes from its casual beginnings. Judge’s house has a large outside deck, and “since that’s where we’d always meet, I decided to call it ‘On the Deck,’” he said.

“We kind of talked through the kind of things they were looking for. They wanted free food, good talks and music by college students. We put them all together and came up with the concept. We serve them a family-style meal; we get about 40 to 50 college students sitting together; we give them a talk mediated by a college student and music by college students.”

Judge, 32, is co-founder and President of Spirit & Truth, a ministry targeting college-aged Catholics. He worked at a Marietta, Ga., parish as a LifeTeen core member after graduating from college and he has worked for the Archdiocese of Atlanta for the last 10 years. In spite of his experience, he downplays his role with On the Deck: “I’m just one of the facilitators,” he said. “We use my home.”

But Judge’s own experience helped him identify a need that most students share.

“I really got lost in college. I felt disconnected. Nobody reached out to help me, except a Christian (non-Catholic) organization at college. … I was appreciative, but I would have liked for my Catholic roots to reach out and say, ‘You know, you’re not on the right path,’” he said.

“I actually got into drinking because of the people I knew at the Catholic student center. I found it to be a very hypocritical place. It built a wall between me and the Church. Another Christian organization reached out to me and showed me that I wasn’t living the right life and I started to really examine that. Once I graduated, I got my feet on the ground and I knew that I really couldn’t complain if I wasn’t willing to do something.”

Experience and know-how also helped Judge recognize a need in returning college students, who he describes as living in a transient state. Many of these students were regulars at the college Newman Center and summer vacation takes that connection away.

He said parishes aren’t “really set up to welcome them back in the summer or involve them or engage them. Our goal is to plug them back in during summer and revitalize them. We want them to be better leaders in their community.”

Campus Protestant Groups

Co-founder Lisa Epperson, 29, is blunter about what students face.

“When I was the youth minister at St. Ann parish in Marietta, Ga., a group of former high school students came home from college and told me, ‘We’re dying. We’re dying for community and we’re dying for people to get together to pray with,” she said. “You’ve got to do something for us.’ But for me it was, ‘Hey! I’m not your youth minister anymore.’ But really, my heart just broke for that need. They came out of a very strong youth ministry and they were struggling to find their place in the Church.”

On the Deck provides grounding to the transience of college life. Although Atlanta is home to several colleges and universities, 70% of On the Deck’s participants attend college outside of Atlanta, some from as far away as California and Minnesota, most of which are secular institutions.

One benefit of On the Deck is its cost: Free. The last thing a student needs — bogged down with expenses and impending loans coming due — is to pay for a summer evening of fun and learning. Judge credits the archdiocese.

“They have been very generous with grants,” he said. “After the first two years, it was financed entirely by Spirit & Truth, which is a 501(c)(3) (a non-profit organization).”

Martha Gaynoe, who runs the financial side of On the Deck and trains its interns, jokingly refers to Spirit and Truth as the “parent company.” Like all of On the Deck’s staff, she believes in its mission. “I’ve been aware of it for several years and a part of it for two. People often come from vibrant parish youth programs, then they go off to college and there’s often no strong Catholic presence. Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding of how to maintain their Catholic identity. I think we help fill that need,”

The fruits of On the Deck are beginning to show. Many of its “graduates” find themselves getting more involved in parish life and becoming a part of the Church rather than observers. At least three couples who met at On the Deck have gone on to marriage. Judge says he is not yet aware of any religious vocations — yet.

Protestant college groups are effective in luring away Catholic students, a fact that is not lost on Judge.

“They’re getting the job done,” he said. “They know how to reach college students. They call them with the media that reaches college students. They’re very good.”

He doesn’t see the Catholic Church as being so media-savvy, but that doesn’t trouble Judge.

“The Catholic Church really struggles with keeping up with the culture and that is a good and a bad thing — I don’t know that the Church should keep up with the culture,” he said. “The Church is fine the way it is. … But we need to know how to attract college students and keep their interest. Sadly, it’s the way that the college generation is.

“They’re not ADD, but they’re bombarded with five different things all at one time and they’re able to take it all in and process it. My generation is not equipped to do that. We take one thing in at a time.”

Ultimately, Judge thinks that On the Deck’s alumnae stay in the Church because of their faith. He believes that he is just one of its arms.

“It’s the Church’s responsibility — my responsibility to reach out to these college students and use my creativity,” he said. “We show them the traditional Church, which is beautiful in all its glory. It has been laid out perfectly just for you. We help them understand it and when they get involved and find that it is, they no longer need the barrage of all this loud music and media stuff. It might attract them, but eventually it gets in the way. If I can use my influence to bring them to a greater understanding of what the Church is, then I will do that.”

Robert Kumpel writes from

Valdosta, Georgia.