My taste in root beer is pretty bourgeoisie these days. Small-batch. Micro-brewed. Unbleached pure cane sugar for the win! Add softened organic vanilla ice cream and ta dah! Root beer floats have been my most consistent form of self-medication during the pandemic.
I still drink my root beer floats out of the same yellow plastic cup that I have had since my freshman year of college, twenty years ago (gulp). Lest anyone be persuaded that this is any ol’ plastic cup, au contraire. It has the name and address of St. Mark’s University Parish, my college Newman Center. Named after St. John Henry Newman (Oxford theologian and Anglican priest turned Catholic priest turned Catholic Cardinal turned canonized Catholic saint), Newman Centers are Catholic campus ministries based at non-Catholic colleges. There are more than 2,000 Newman Centers ministering across U.S. universities.
St. Mark’s is located in Isla Vista, an unincorporated section of Santa Barbara County situated between the coast line on one side and the UC Santa Barbara campus on the other. Like Isla Vista, St. Mark’s is a unique community. When I attended, the parish was equally divided between college students, neighborhood Latino families who were often service employees at the university and the predominantly white, suburban parishioners who were drawn from surrounding areas by the inclusive community. In the early 2000s, The Paulists, ministered at the parish. Known as the missionaries to main street, I have never met a Paulist who didn’t exude warmth and good humor. They were such amazing pastoral companions for college students. I want to send a special shout-out to Fr. Joe Scott, whose words at an ecumenical Ash Wednesday event on campus still resonate as one of the best homilies I have ever heard.
Encouraged by the warm welcome of those first Sunday masses during my freshman year, I attended a student retreat that October. After that, I was hooked. By the beginning of my sophomore year, I was a lector, Eucharistic minister, retreat facilitator and parish council member with an incredible group of friends. One of the best aspects of being a student at St. Mark’s is that I met undergrads and graduate students from other majors and backgrounds whom I might not have ever encountered otherwise. The Paulists truly empowered the student leaders, which is how I found myself leading Evangelization & Outreach initiatives.
We had a particularly memorable one. Root beer floats on Del Playa.
“Is that beer in the root beer float?” If I had a dollar for every time another student said that to me, I probably would have been able to pay my annual tuition. I simply smiled kindly for the umpteenth time that night and noted that it was a tasty way to start sobering up.
Friday nights on the street called Del Playa were always chaotic. Known as the location for most of the UCSB parties, it was a seemingly odd place for a bunch of Catholic students to be pushing root beer floats. Many assumed that it was a crusade against alcohol. In truth, it was my St. Mark’s friends who sparked my initial appreciation for homemade sangria and most of us drank together with regularity. Occasionally, we referred to the root beer nights as a fundraiser but the $1 that we charged per float barely covered the expenses.
Ultimately, those nights were a ministry of presence.
The combination of alcohol-induced oversharing and the cheerful group of sober strangers lent itself to some memorable interactions. That being said, my friends and I frequently met designated drivers relieved to find a non-alcoholic option. On more than one occasion, someone would tell me the vulnerable details of his or her love life. There was also at least one time where we escorted a female student back to her apartment when it became clear she was very intoxicated and had become separated from her friends.
The vast proportion St. Mark’s cups given out as root beer floats were probably subsequently used in a beer pong game or two. To the best of my memory, no one ever wandered into mass having heard the Holy Spirit’s siren song from a plastic cup.
Ministry is in the planting of seeds. Sometimes they grow. Sometimes they don’t. But there is always an invitation to meet God where one might least expect.
Classic Root Beer Float Recipe
1. Get a nice tall glass or St. Mark’s plastic cup.
2. Drop one scoop of vanilla ice cream, preferably softened, into the bottom.
3. Pour root beer over the scoop until it fills up about halfway.
4. Drop another scoop of vanilla ice cream.
5. Fill to the top and enjoy!