Burning Cookies, Building Character

August 24, 2004

The sweetly charred aroma of burned cookies drifts down a hallway in Penland. Inside one of the few apartment units in the men's residence hall, two students sit in a small kitchen, checking out its "wallpaper" -- 100 CD covers from classic 1980s and more recent rock bands. One student turns to greet the apartment's tenant as he enters from the bedroom:
They laugh. "Dude equals Bro equals Hey man," explains Mark Charbonneau, a red-haired graduate student who chooses to live among 550 freshman guys and speak their language. 
He is a part of Baylor's resident chaplain program and is a second-year Truett student pursuing an MDiv in theology. Mark says he has readjusted to life in a freshman dorm -- complete with "guys running down the hall slapping each other with towels." 
"Nobody is on time," Mark says, as he shoves another pan of chocolate chip cookies into the oven in his kitchen. He is preparing snacks for his weekly Bible study, nicknamed MOPS for Men of Penland. He offers such spiritual formation opportunities so the residents have a place to develop character and belief, even if they shy away from more traditional religious settings. "The hope for this Bible study is to be outreach oriented," he says. "Church has come to them in a dorm room."
Three more residents, engaged in a critique of local rap artists, walk in Mark's open door as he pulls a pan out of the oven, the cookies on it still soft and doughy. "That's the way these guys like 'em," he says. Some of the cookies require two hands just to pull them off the sheet -- a factor that doesn't slow down his guests.
Once the young men are settled, Mark eases into a massive brown armchair and begins to pray. Then, using stories, Scripture and a DVD clip, he guides the men in an exploration of Exodus. He gestures excitedly and his eyes sparkle as he challenges his listeners with the Bible passages.
Mark shares about his struggle to be authentic at Baylor, fighting the "pressure to have things perfect." The men lean forward in their chairs; Mark has their full attention. He ends by lowering the lights and playing some worship music softly as the group sits quietly together. Then, Mark wipes his eyes and says, "God, thank you that you came to set the captives free." He turns the lights back on, but the guys remain still -- perhaps unwilling to leave this unusual sanctuary. Then someone burps. MOPS is over.
"He's very transparent, letting people know he's not perfect," says Jason Lewkowicz, director of Penland Residence Hall. "He brings his humility to the job. He doesn't carry an 'I'm a chaplain' attitude; he's Mark."
Sharing his life honestly with undergraduates and helping them mature spiritually is a perfect fusion of Mark's passions. "True ministry is not jumping in for a Wednesday night and a Sunday morning, giving three hours of your week to someone. It is actually sharing your life with them," he says. "It's vulnerable, it's uncomfortable." 
Mark graduated from Texas A&M in 2002 and came to Truett planning to continue his ministry with undergraduates. He spent most of his first year studying, finding little time for involvement in students' lives -- a situation that made him miserable, he says. Some friends told him about Baylor's resident chaplain program, and he jumped at the chance to live out his convictions.
"God has used this past year to open up my eyes," says Mark, who returned as a resident chaplain this fall. "This is what I want to do for the next part of my life, be a part of students' lives."
Mark's Bible study is finished, but his evenings rarely are. Along with keeping up with seminary studies, he often hangs out with residents in late-night games of football, basketball or Ultimate Frisbee. Some nights last even later. A young man dealing with a family crisis once knocked at Mark's door at 1:30 a.m. Mark admits a part of him wanted to ignore the knock, knowing he had a full day ahead. But he got up and answered the door. Much of the RC program's purpose is to be there for a student so he or she doesn't feel "shut off and not have anyone" during times of trouble, Mark says. 
The morning after MOPS, the hallways are silent. At 9 a.m., most Penland residents are not in the mood for noise. Mark runs a hand through his hair, wet from the shower, and begins to walk slowly down the hall, stopping momentarily at each door. He is praying. Although he was up late working on a paper, he believes prayer is one of the greatest tools of ministry, and he does this prayer walk at least weekly. 
The faint sound of an alarm clock comes from the end of the hall. Mark passes a study room occupied by a student asleep on the couch. The alarm grows louder as he approaches, steadily emitting its morning beep. Whatever else may occur throughout the day in the lives of these freshmen, they've been prayed for. He reaches the end of the hall just as the owner of the alarm clock swats it into silence.
Later, Mark goes over last-minute details with fellow resident chaplains Lisa Williams from North Russell and Christy Scarborough-Edwards from South Russell. The campus worship they've planned together for their residents is about to begin. Its purpose is to attract people who "aren't willing to go to a church for a worship experience, but would be willing to do that with people that they live with and know," Mark says. 
Bright flames from torches placed in the SUB Bowl flicker in the cool breeze. Several students wander around the picnic area setting up drums, strumming guitars and testing microphones. Each RC has assigned leadership roles in the service to some of their hall residents. "One of the best parts of the chaplain's position is having each other," he says of the other RCs. "We all have these different experiences from dorm to dorm, but we share in the same struggles overall." After a quick conference, they scatter and greet the students who are arriving.
"Bro," Mark greets one. 
"Dude," comes the response. 
Open, caring relationships are the key to reaching the world around him, he believes, and Mark lives this out with his guys, joking with them and communicating on their terms, late into the night.

Davis, BA '04, graduated in May with a degree in professional writing. He interned during the spring semester with Baylor Magazine.