“I want to tell you, seeing the TARDIS every day this semester has been what keeps me going.” ~ student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
Since September, there has a been a big blue box on the front steps of Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, which is located in the heart of Ohio University. Fans of the long-running BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who are quick to recognize it as a replica of the TARDIS, the vehicle The Doctor uses to travel through space and time. Our intended purpose for creating this replica was to advertise our fall ‘Gospel According to Doctor Who’ series. And while that purpose has been accomplished, we have been pleasantly surprised by the powerful and unexpected interactions we’ve had with our neighbors, the OU community, because of the TARDIS.
Joy and Excitement: The TARDIS is noticed and the most popular reaction from passersby has been positive.
Inviting: We observed people of all ages taking pictures of themselves with the TARDIS. Student groups who meet with the priest or use the church space ask about it and we found a conversational way to answer that introduced them to the Episcopal Church. A few students even attended church services because they saw the TARDIS in front of the church.
Iconic: People of all ages recognize it, even people who are not fans of the television show. While visiting Athens during Homecoming weekend, alumni who own a business in Dayton saw the TARDIS, took a picture with it, posted the picture with a description of the church and promoted the Gospel According to Doctor Who program on their business’s Facebook page.
Welcoming: The TARDIS has been the viewed as welcoming by parishioners and people who do not attend church. During the parish book sale, a young woman stopped by and bought two books because when she saw the TARDIS, she said it felt like a sign she would be welcomed. She also said she doesn’t think very highly about churches because of the stories you see in the news about predator priests, but the presence of the TARDIS made her realize not all churches are bad.
Fun Way to Interact: One day we found a quarter in the call box part of the TARDIS (where the phone is). It is a playful way of engaging with us by saying they “paid” to use the phone.
Community building: OU’s Music Department borrowed the TARDIS for this year’s Hallowpalooza music program for area school children.
Connection: When we took the TARDIS across the street for Hallowpalooza, passersby expressed concern that the TARDIS was leaving. When it returned, several students applauded as we reassembled it on the church steps.
Conversation: Our Senior Warden was stopped by a colleague who asked about the TARDIS, which turned into a positive way to talk about the parish and learn more about a colleague. There have been many times passersby have stopped to talk to the priest or a parishioner about why we have a TARDIS outside our church.
Commonality: It has been a wonderful opportunity to explain that when the Church is at its best, it is very much like the TARDIS: symbolizing hope, a place for help, and bigger on the inside, which means it shows us something larger than ourselves and has room for all people.
Discovery: Several parishioners who did not know about Doctor Who have been delighted to learn something new, and appreciate learning to look for the sacred in the secular. And we have discovered a way to make a positive connection, be authentically present to our neighbors, and send a message of hope using just this one symbol.
The TARDIS has given us at Church of the Good Shepherd a new and surprisingly effective way to engage in campus ministry. We have been reminded that interacting with the Holy Spirit can be playful and joyful and still be holy. And we have discovered anew what former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey wrote: “This truth is that God is to be found within the secular world, and it is the task of the Christian Church not only to bring the Gospel of Christ to the secular world as from beyond it but also to be learning from the secular world about the presence and activity of God within it.”
The Rev. Deborah Woolsey serves as rector at Church of the Good Shepherd, Athens, and as convener of the Campus Ministry Collaborative in the Diocese of Southern Ohio.