Avid runner Beth Whitten, Oregon State University sophomore, tries to run in deep snow with snowshoes on for the first time.

Defeating Loneliness Through Lifelines in the Snow


As snowflakes fall from gunmetal-gray skies late on a Saturday morning, Oregon State University sophomore Bethany Whitten, or Beth for short, straps on snowshoes and hefts her 30-pound pack onto her shoulders. Just above Santiam Pass in the Cascade Mountains, she and 11 other students prepare to snowshoe a mile and a half up and build a snow camp with Lifelines, Cru®’s outdoor and experiential learning network.

What do I do if I get separated from the group? Beth thinks. This is cold. This might end up being miserable.

But she’s ready to start the adventure. As the sun breaks through the clouds, she and her friends laugh. OK, maybe we won’t freeze to death, she thinks.

Making their way 1½ miles up the mountain, Cru® Lifelines staff member Sam Lampe, Beth and senior Anna Fledderjohann (left to right) get a good snowshoe workout.

Further up and further in

As they snowshoe up a winding mountain road, Beth works to breathe while talking with senior Anna Fledderjohann, her friend and co-leader. Beth had had doubts about coming, feeling guilty that she wasn’t studying. But now she’s glad Anna encouraged her to come. Having enjoyed similar Cru activities in the past, along with small groups and social events, they both joined this adventure to build deeper relationships with the newer students.

The mountain pasture, under 4 feet of snow, awaits the group’s arrival.

After a mile, they turn left into the evergreen trees and trek up a steep path to a beautiful mountain clearing, covered with 4 feet of snow. Here, Lifelines staff members will teach the students how to improve Cru’s OSU community to combat the loneliness and anxiety that runs rampant on campus.

Memorial Union is OSU’s centrally located student activity center, where Cru® holds weekly meetings.

A majestic coastal redwood tree stands on the Oregon State campus.

Like many college students today, Beth arrived on campus her freshman year feeling lonely and isolated. Her high school of 500 in La Center, Washington — a town she describes as “too small for even one stoplight” — was a far cry from OSU’s 30,296 students. She wasn’t alone in feeling alone. In a nationwide 2017 survey, the year before Beth entered college, 63% of college students said they had felt “very lonely” in the previous 12 months. Students also reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” (61%) or “very sad” (67%) and that “things were hopeless” (52%). Notably, 12% of students said they had seriously considered suicide.

Between classes, Beth waits for a friend on the staircase inside Oregon State’s Memorial Union.

OSU Delta Tau Delta fraternity raises funds for charity, inviting passers-by to buy and throw water balloons at fraternity members.

Justin Oster, a Cru co-team leader at OSU, has observed this among the students. “I get so sad when I hear a freshman, in a class of 5,000 freshmen, say they’re lonely, while living in a dorm of 350 people,” he says. “I want to let them know we’re here and that we want to care for them and create community for them.”

Justin Oster, Cru®’s campus co-team leader, speaks on the importance of accountability at OSU Cru’s weekly meeting.

Beth’s search for community

Beth wanted to find and join just such a community at OSU, one similar to the church she’d left back home. Growing up, church was not a priority for her family, but she’d always yearned to know more about God. At 16, when she could finally drive herself, she found a local church. There, she began a relationship with Jesus and experienced spiritual growth and nurturing like never before.

Beth and Stephanie Sauter (far right), a Cru® staff member and mentor, catch up en route to the student union for Cru’s weekly meeting.

Before freshman classes started at OSU, Beth filled out a survey at Cru’s welcome table. Justin invited her to that night’s weekly meeting where she met Anna, then a junior, who then asked Beth over to her house for a “Flapjacks and Flannel” dinner later that week. Over the campfire and pancakes, Beth met a few people, but being new, she didn’t stick around very long.

“I was kind of timid, but it was definitely very fun, seeing a community that not only has content and draws each other closer to God, but also has a good time,” Beth remembers.

Anna recognized Beth’s desire for community. Whenever Anna heard the 10 freshman women in her small group say, “I’m so lonely. I don’t have any friends,” it broke her heart.

“Why don’t you become friends with each other?” she asked. They did just that, joining with three other freshman small groups for games or movie nights, becoming a tight-knit group of over 20, who now regularly encourage each other through time together.

“Freshmen come to college with holes in their hearts that they look to fill with different things — acceptance, friendships, clubs or academic success — things that make them feel validated,” Anna says. Beth had sought to fill that “hole in her heart” through athletics and dating relationships, but they weren’t enough.

Beth joined Anna’s freshman women’s Bible study and eagerly anticipated their weekly time together. “Knowing I had a group of girls I could be honest with, that were going through the same things, was a blessing for me,” recalls Beth.

Using the dining tent’s framing hoop as a guide, Beth, other students and Lifelines staff members pack down snow around what will become a snow cave.

Building the snow village

Today, after a quick break for snacks and water, the group removes their snowshoes and sets up camp. The students team up to dig seven large circular trenches and pile tall mounds of snow inside the circles for snow caves. Lifelines staff members form a table and encircling bench of snow for 20, covered with a large round tent, where the whole group will share meals and conversation. They put up their individual sleeping tents while supervising the students building their snow caves.

Cru® Lifelines Director Mark Lovejoy shows Beth how to “stake” a tent-line, preparing to drive an attached stick down into the snow.

Beth and others pile up a large mound of snow inside the circle, which they’ll make into a snow cave.

The snow caves take several hours to finish, and Beth and Anna fall behind the others. As the sun drops toward the horizon, they grow increasingly discouraged and frustrated that they might not finish before sundown. But two Lifelines staff members jump in to help, enabling everyone to gather for dinner by the time darkness falls.

Racing against the setting sun, Beth removes a block of snow as she and Anna dig out their snow cave.

Lifelines staff member Justin Crawford helps Beth and Anna dig an entrance two feet down so their snow cave will retain their body heat.

“To have other people beside you, who will help you carry the burden, is really encouraging,” Anna says. “You can’t do it alone.”

During dinner, a student’s headlamp creates a streak of light behind the “yurtini,” the camp’s large dining tent and gathering place.

Each camper receives a foil package with a freeze-dried meal, such as chicken and pasta, or beef and rice, requiring only boiling water to reconstitute. Lifelines staff member Justin Crawford leads a devotional from John 17:20-23, when Jesus prays for His followers’ loving unity so the world will know God sent Him. Drawing on their snow caves teamwork, Justin challenges them to show Jesus’ love back on campus through building deeper community within Cru. This evening, the campers continue to get to know each other, bonding over snacks and hot tea, coffee or hot chocolate — soaking in a bit more warmth before retreating to their snow caves or tents to brave the night’s 18-degree low.

Getting more involved

At OSU, although Beth had become part of Anna’s freshman small group, she wasn’t yet part of the larger Cru group. She didn’t really know most of the other Cru students until OSU Cru’s spring retreat.

Beth and Anna’s freshman women’s small group enjoys dinner and fellowship with a freshman men’s small group at a campus dining facility.

“That was the first place I was put in a position to pray aloud, be vulnerable and honest about where I was at, and see community. And get into some uncomfortable growing positions,” Beth recalls, laughing about the memories.

After the spring retreat, because of Beth’s leadership qualities, and her love for others, Anna encouraged her to join Cru’s student leadership team. Beth eagerly jumped in. “She was always initiating relationships with the other girls in the small group, really desiring to get to know them, which I don't always see as common in freshmen,” Anna says.

Beth, Anna and other friends welcome a newcomer at OSU Cru®’s weekly meeting.

Justin agrees, “If there’s anybody I want to be engaging with freshmen, it’s Beth. She loves them, pursues them, and does a fantastic job of creating community for them.”

On an uncharacteristically sunny day, Beth mentors freshman Emma Leudemann outside the student union.

Beth teaches from 1 John during the freshman women’s Bible study.

Anna observes Beth leading their freshman women’s small group Bible study after dinner.

Now co-leading the freshman small group with Anna, Beth also mentors Emma Luedemann just as Anna had done with her. They relate to each other in many ways, including their freshman-year experiences. “It’s good to talk to her and be able to go through stuff with her,” Emma says. “She’s such a good teacher, she’s so sweet, and she doesn’t make you feel stupid.”

Beth listens intently to Lifelines staff member Amy Fahringer while eating string cheese, crackers and fruit for lunch.

Snowball fights and free-throws

At the snow camp bright and early the next morning, everyone emerges to beautiful blue skies and dazzling sunlight bouncing off the snow. Beth springs from her warmer sleeping bag while Anna, who shivered all night, crawls out stiff and groggy. They all huddle together in the central tent, boiling water over small camp burners to make oatmeal and hot chocolate. Lifelines staff member Amy Fahringer leads a short devotional from Acts 2:42-47, discussing how the early church’s community compares to what Cru has at OSU.

By mid-morning, the temperature rises enough for the campers to shed their overcoats, and Amy gathers them for a special snowball fight.

Lifelines staff member Amy Fahringer orients the group to the upcoming Boundaries snowball fight.

“You can only throw snowballs by asking others to make them, and you have to ask your target’s permission to throw a snowball,” Amy tells the group. Secretly, some are told to say “yes” to every question, others to say “no,” and others to ignore any “no” and do what they want. Confusion and chaos erupt. The no-sayers do nothing on the sides, the yes-sayers can’t make snowballs fast enough, and the rebels make and throw snowballs at will.

OSU student Thomas St. George recovers from the Boundaries snowball fight.

Amy asks what they learned about the importance of boundaries in community. Those whose boundaries were too rigid didn’t get to participate. Those with no boundaries were taken advantage of.

Sophie Unks needs a hand up from Beth and a friend after putting on her snowshoes.

The group then snowshoes nearby to the ruins of Lifelines’ previous snow village from a few months before. Lifelines staff member Justin Crawford calls everyone together for the final activity: tennis-ball free-throws. Each student tries unsuccessfully to throw tennis balls into a small bucket — first from a long distance, then left-handed, then with their eyes closed.

The student groups simultaneously pursue three different objectives of the Tennis Balls of Grace activity.

Finally, Justin brings the bucket to each person, asking them to simply drop their tennis ball in the bucket. Beth, always very competitive, really wants to “make the shots” from a distance and is frustrated by simply dropping her ball into the bucket.

“In reaching for eternal life, no one’s effort is enough,” Justin tells the group. “Jesus Christ has done all the work for us through His sacrificial death on the cross to pay for our sins. All we have to do is let go of the snowball of our sins and self-effort and give it to Him.”

On the raised sleeping platform in their snow cave, Beth and Anna discuss what they’ve learned about community.

In the final message and send-off, Lifelines staff/trip leader Sam Lampe reviews all they’d learned and has them discuss applying it all back on campus. The group breaks camp, taking down the tents. Some students repeatedly jump on their snow cave to collapse the roof. Hoisting their backpacks, everyone snowshoes back down to the highway.

Thomas St. George relishes the sunshine after trying to collapse his snow cave.

Bringing up the rear, Beth looks over the descending group. “Seeing everyone out in front was nice, like a family walking. That’s what it felt like to me,” she says.

Enjoying the snow she hadn’t seen for years, Anna reflects on her experience: “There were students there I hadn’t really known, so this was good to get to know them better.”

Reaching the bottom of the trail, the exhausted but happy students turn over the shared gear, leftover food and trash to the Lifelines staff members. The students load up in their carpooled vehicles and start the 1½-hour drive back to OSU, recalling the final challenge to implement what they’d learned about Christian community back on campus.

Beth and Anna enjoy a final slide before snowshoeing back down the mountain.

This group of Christian students had not only shared an exciting adventure, they’d also become better friends. The freshmen especially experienced a sense of community, family and strong bonds. Because that kind of deep Christian community is an antidote for loneliness on campus, Beth recommended “community” as the spring focus to the other student leaders, suggesting ideas for games and activities to draw the whole Cru movement closer, and invite others in.

A change of plans, but a God still at work

Unfortunately, COVID-19 changed their plans. All classes moved online in March, with some students staying in the dorms through the spring, but many going home. To keep students connected, Beth and other student leaders hosted weekly Cru meetings online through the spring and summer.

In August, the CDC conducted a nationwide survey from June 24 to June 30 related to mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. The report said that, in the 30 days leading up to the survey, 25.5% of Americans age 18 to 24 seriously considered suicide. Depression, anxiety, isolation and loneliness have increased since the start of the pandemic, making relationships and community all the more vital.

Now that the new school year has started, 2,500 new and returning students, 10% of the total enrollment, are back on campus. Because they can’t hand out fliers, Beth and other Cru students are doing their traditional “connect” surveys online via QR codes on sandwich boards for students to scan. They’re hosting outdoor games based on student interest from the survey and promoting Cru heavily on social media.

To develop relationships, each student is assigned to a “pod” of fewer than 10 for the entire term, and within university guidelines, meeting face-to-face every other week for Bible study and prayer, with a remote option, if desired. Although COVID-19 altered their original plans, Beth and Cru’s other student leaders are excited about how God will use these revised efforts to build a deeper community in this time of pandemic.

Reach out

How does your church or Christian group build the kind of community Jesus prayed for? How might you help them improve?

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Michael Chapman
Words by

Michael Chapman

Born in Colorado, Mike majored in acting/radio, TV and film at Kansas University. Since 1983, he’s served with the campus, Hollywood and military ministries of Cru® and now works at Cru’s World Headquarters at Lake Hart in Orlando, Florida. He and his wife, Michelle, have two children, Angel and Eric.

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Guy Gerrard
Photos by

Guy Gerrard

Guy isn’t much of a city person. Paddling down the Wda river in northern Poland with participants of a Cru® summer mission project describes a great place for him to photograph. He likes being outside, doing anything with water, and he enjoys making things with his hands. Guy serves as a photographer for Cru.

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Read more from the November 2020 issue


God’s Work Never Locks Down

Hear from Cru® staff members around the world, who continue to make disciples and share the gospel in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has touched every country.

November 2020

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