" I love the students. I love them right where they are.

" — Corinne Lopez, veteran campus minister at the University of Oregon
EUGENE — An irrepressible twinkle in the eye reflects the essence of Corinne Lopez’s service to the church of western Oregon.

For more than 20 years Lopez has touched lives, inviting others into the presence of the risen Christ.

Over coffee, she recalls how in 2000 she was doing intensive care and oncology social work in Eugene’s Sacred Heart Hospital. It was emotionally hard and brought her into close contact with people whose lives were upended by disease.

Father Mark Bachmeier, then pastor of St. Mary Church in downtown Eugene, suggested she give youth ministry a try. Together they launched Life Teen, and over the next five-plus years a vibrant ministry to youth evolved.

Good reviews got around. In 2006 Betty Goeckel, then development director at St. Thomas More University Parish, home to the Newman Center, called Lopez to see if she might consider the position of campus minister.

The Newman ministry, started in Eugene around 1968, was not new to Lopez. She attended the University of Oregon in the mid 1980s and recalls the legendary Dominican priests who grew the Newman tradition of serving local campuses.

Lopez took the campus minister position and has never looked back. “I love the students,” she says. “I love them right where they are. They need somebody there for them.” Especially for incoming students, she explains, having “somebody there for them” is a lifesaver in a sea of unknowns.

Lopez appreciates the male-female balance on the Dominican parish’s Newman campus ministry team.

The Order of Preachers was founded in the early 1200s by St. Dominic with a special mission to spread the word of God at universities. A real plus of Dominican-staffed Newman Centers, Lopez points out, is access to Dominican preachers who lecture on campuses to faculty and students across the United States through the Thomistic Institute in Washington, D.C.

“Those lectures appeal to Catholic young adults who come from a strong faith background,” Lopes says. “We balance that with Newman Nights, Wednesday evenings where community forms around the desire to grow in relationship with Jesus and with others.”

An ability to gather and nurture individuals and groups seems to be what keeps Lopez’s service to the church so vibrant.

“We draw a lot of non-Catholic students, too,” she adds. “Spring retreats, daily Mass, RCIA. There’s a place for them. They feel included.”

The Newman Center’s RCIA — Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults — has grown in recent years. “This past year we had seven males and one female enter fully into the church.” Lopez notes the unusual influx of young men making such a deep spiritual commitment as they enter into adult life.

Lopez holds a firm hope for the future of the church. “I stay in touch with students who graduated and moved on five years ago. They are involved as young adults in their own parish.”

“We have a prayer team of twelve former students,” Lopez says. “We stay in touch regularly. It’s a form of pastoral follow-up. And this team has become community,” she adds, recalling a time when she needed strong prayer support. “They were there for me.”

The pastoral follow-up is the fruit of real relationships centered around Jesus and woven together in strong bonds, which likely will last a lifetime.

Word has gotten out about the consistent and amazing work Lopez is doing with young adults in campus ministry in western Oregon. “I got a call recently saying that I had been chosen for the Forsythe Award,” a national award of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association. “I said, ‘I think you have the wrong person,’” feeling both confused and amazed.

Lopez won a grant for a Martin de Porres ministry project from the Stagnaro Foundation, enabling her to hire a part-time student to engage fellow students in corporal works of mercy. St. Martin de Porres, a 16th-century Dominican lay brother, had a special ministry among the poor. This initiative “has to come from the students,” Lopez says. “Leadership, ownership. It uncorks students’ imagination.”

What gives Lopez joy? “Working with Dominicans, side by side, in campus ministries all over the West Coast, and networking to exchange ideas.”

Her saddest day at the center was one Sunday evening before the student Mass. “A young student stood outside. His hair was a mess, he had body piercings, a skateboard. I invited him to join us for Mass. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m not welcome.’ As though saying: Look at me. I wouldn’t fit in.”

Lopez adds: “Someone who looks different, or off, they feel not welcome. Many young adults don’t feel welcome or accepted by the church.”

The link probably won’t be parents, Corinne notes. “But grandparents have such an influence on grandchildren. The faith of grandparents is so important.” As young people mature into early adulthood, she adds, grandparents can “hold open a space for them to mature and not feel awkward.”

Campus ministry at Eugene’s St. Thomas More University Parish is finding new directions with two young Dominican friars, Father Pius Youn, pastor, and Father Josh Gatus. They are fortunate to have Lopez on the Newman campus ministry team — well seasoned and recognized in calling forth next generations of church in western Oregon.

Moore is author of “Dare to Believe, Rise Up to Act: Equipping Laity to Be the Public Face of Christ” available at marysharonmoore.com.