Losing My Religion

Losing something can provide us with a broad range of emotions. Losing your fear of riding roller coasters can feel extremely joyful. Losing your wallet or keys can be infuriating. Losing a loved one can be deeply painful, and also perhaps with some relief if that person is now released from the pain and suffering of a lengthy illness. Losing sleep makes you tired. Losing directions makes you lost. 

Losing your religion… well that’s an entirely other thing. 

It dawned on me as an epiphany the other day. As I was walking through our campus I bumped into some street preachers and decided to talk to them. Since that moment I have been processing that indeed, I have lost my religion… at least I’ve lost a very specific kind of religion. 

To explain this story I have to go back to my high school self. You see, even though I grew up at a wonderful little Mennonite church in southern Ontario that taught me incredible values like the importance of belonging to a community, of working for peace, and of serving those in need, I also found some branches of a much more conservative theology during high school because of the way I experienced the world, and some interaction I had with friends from faith outside my own. I found a large youth group during high school where I felt like I belonged, but it was also a space that nudged me toward a faith that included some things that at the time I felt very excited by, including evangelizing in public spaces, young earth creationism, and a stronger emphasis on memorizing scripture. Even though I have no clear sense of who taught me this, I also picked up beliefs that marriage was only between one man and one woman, and that salvation and entry into heaven only belonged to those of us who fit a narrow definition of what it meant to be born again. 

But something shifted for me as I went off to college, moved away from home, had my worldview expanded dramatically, and gained a deeper understanding of who I was and was being called to be. During college at Eastern Mennonite University I found professors who re-introduced me to a biblical narrative that called for freedom from oppression, advocacy for the marginalized, righteous anger toward injustice, and a deeper kind of love for humanity. Slowly, and sometimes without fully realizing it, I became more convinced that religion was hurting itself with its exclusionary and isolating practices. I met friends and peers who shared stories about how the kind of exclusive Christian faith of my teenage years had been damaging enough to entirely push them away from church and eventually from a belief or relationship with God. Two study abroad trips – first to South Africa, then to Israel/Palestine – changed my understanding of how religion can be manipulated to make people feel like outsiders or worse. 

My choice to go to seminary in southern California was another pivotal moment that expanded my worldview and understanding of the spectrum and complexity of Christian faith. One of my very first classes was Intro to Christian Ethics with Dr. Glen Stassen. In the class we worked our way through ethical dilemmas facing the church and culture, and it was eye opening to see the many different ways my classmates disagreed with each other – sometimes to the point of storming out of class in anger. Those moments showed me just how vast a claim of Christian faith can be – even within the American context. 

It shouldn’t be surprising to me, eight years after graduating from seminary, with two different pastoral callings and all the angry discourse about the mixing of politics with American religion that I feel that I’ve lost something along the way. 

Those street preachers on our campus were shouting at the top of their lungs, three of them taking turns, literally pounding their Bibles with aggressive pointer fingers, demanding that the students who moved past them turned from their evil ways and turn to God. I walked up to one of them and was offered a religious pamphlet. After turning it down, I casually asked them if this approach to the Christian faith was working for them. I wondered if students were being drawn to God because of their angry shouting. While one of them continued his loud call to God, a second replied that Jesus probably shouted his sermon on the mount. I pointed out that; A) Jesus was preaching to people who wanted to hear his voice rather than people walking to class, and that B) He probably needed to shout given that it was in an era without modern sound amplification technology. Street Preacher #2 suggested that if students turned away from the Gospel message after hearing their shouting, they were making their own decision in rejecting God and embracing a future in Hell. 

Still, I was concerned about the way the message was being delivered, so I pushed on. I was curious if shouting was the best way to communicate with this generation of students. 

“Well, Jesus shouted at the Pharisees.”

I revealed at this point that I was a theologically trained campus pastor who did not believe that current college students were the same thing as Pharisees, and that I found their shouting to be incredibly problematic for those of us who work in faith spaces on campus. I told them that many of the students I work with are deeply bitter toward street preaching an aggressive faith, often seeing this posture as lacking love, empathy, and grace. It was at this point that the third came over, offering a second voice to validate their posture. He insisted that I needed to go home and read my Bible, and that I was the one in need of being born again. 

Sensing this was a losing battle, I again told them that I thought what they were doing was damaging the spread of God’s love on our campus, and that their angry street preaching was actually pushing people away from a spiritual relationship with God rather than inviting them toward one. I explained that our campus has 40 Christian organizations, who all dwell and walk with students, and though we struggle to agree theologically, at least we agree that shouting is not the way to connect with students. I got on my bicycle to ride away, as they shouted that they would be praying for my soul, and urging me to find Jesus. 

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Each pedal stroke away from there brought up a different kind of memory: of the struggle I had as a high school student to make sense of why a loving God would affirm aggressive tactics to spread a Gospel of peace; of the recent conversations with college students who experienced Christians who rejected them because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or understanding of God; about the ongoing insistence of so many Christians to prioritize righteousness over grace, humility, or kindness. 

Earlier this year I started a podcast with a friend in which we review an album from Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Recently we tackled U2’s The Joshua Tree, an album which contains the powerful ballad, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I’ve known and loved that song for most of my life. While I’m no longer in Bono’s headspace of endless searching, I do spend my days walking with students who are doing just that. I’ve never been uncomfortable being around people who are asking the big questions of their faith, and I believe in a God who is big enough to allow for questioning, doubt, and searching to be an active part of any healthy faith. 

I know that I still struggle with many aspects of what it means to authentically follow Jesus, and as far as I can see, that’s okay. I don’t need to turn toward any aggressive religious sales pitch to provide me with answers, because I believe that we are all walking a life-long journey of learning. I’m also deeply grateful I no longer strive for an aggressive faith that insists on always being aggressively right. I used to feel adamantly certain that faith was less about relationships and more about determining who is in and who is out, and I’m grateful that I have lost that kind of religion. It is a loss that I am better for, and my hope is that my conversation with those street preachers may introduce some thoughts that will allow them to feel just a bit of the freedom I found when I lost my religion.

Mental Health and Generosity

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

This is my sixth school year at Penn State​, and already the second time that a graduating class has chosen Penn State Counseling & Psychological Services​ as their class gift. 

I feel a mixture of emotions upon hearing this announcement. The first thought is one of deep appreciation for a shifting cultural value among young adults that places more importance on mental health care than generations that may have come before them. It is encouraging to me that the class of 2020 imagined a class gift that was different than so many past gifts which have so often been about beautifying a campus space rather than addressing a practical need within the student experience. 

The next thought is a sense of sadness. Incorporated in this is the reality that mental health issues seem to continually be on the rise, especially among young adults. 

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More awareness of mental health needs, as well as a decrease in negative stigma about mental health are both good things. Providing more services is a necessary step, but I also cannot help but wonder if there are aspects of the current college experience that contribute to a number of causes of mental health fatigue. Increased student debt and pressure to financially succeed in this competitive world continues to add a weight that is visibly more apparent in each successive graduating class. Loneliness and lack of community, especially at large campuses like Penn State, seems to continue to be a very real part of many students’ lives. Social media lures young adults into a false sense that they are deeply connected when in reality those connections are often superficial and built on social pressures to measure up to unrealistic standards. 

The class of 2016 also named CAPS as their class gift benefactor. A Daily Collegian article from the next fall reminded our community that even with the increased capacity for the CAPS office, many students were still facing long wait times for individual counseling. Anecdotally the students I interact with talk about the limitations of the campus support systems, and the unfortunate reality that our local psychological support networks are also operating beyond their capacity. 

I remember feeling some similar thoughts when the 2017 graduating class named our local campus food bank, Lion’s Pantry, as the class gift recipient. On the one hand it was an incredible gesture of solidarity with the needs of our community, and on the other hand I found myself asking, how screwed up is our context if some students are going hungry and are in need of a campus food pantry? Likewise with the 2020 gift to CAPS, I appreciate this desire to be honoring the needs of our community, and also, how are we still so unable to meet the mental health needs of our student population? 

We still have so much work to do to increase the capacity of spaces like these to respond to the ever-present psychological needs on college campuses. Today I want to express my gratitude to the soon-to-be class of 2020, may you carry this spirit of compassion for mental health services wherever you may go, and may we all strive to live in a world which works to eliminate the causes of mental health fatigue, as well as provides no shortage of resources for those who are in need of mental health needs. 

BENGAY and NCOD

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

In my middle school years, someone in my class noticed a funny connection between my name and a certain pain relief cream. It didn’t take long for that student and a small group of others to realize how much of a reaction they could get out of me by teasing with this new nickname.

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“But I’m a Christian!”, I would say, “it’s against my religion to be gay!”

I now realize that not only was this defense exactly the kind of thing that made them want to ratchet up the teasing to new levels, it also said something about the kind of religion I was devoted to – one that was exclusionary because of the way it defined who was in and who was out.

I left high school for Eastern Mennonite University because I was naively looking for an institution that could solidify certain values that I assumed made for a good and righteous Christian… things like a literal understanding of the Genesis creation narrative and the belief that the earth was only 6000 years old, an adamant opposition to other faith traditions as a path to the divine, and a clarity that as my middle school self knew without a shadow of a doubt – that a good Christian marriage was only meant to be between a man and a woman.

I have deep gratitude for many of the people at EMU who carefully walked with me and kindly demonstrated that God’s love was far more expansive and inclusive than I could have previously imagined. My life was touched there, and then during my time at Fuller Seminary, by LGBTQ+ people and their allies who boldly shared their coming out stories which went alongside their commitment to a deeper and more peace and justice-filled faith. I think about how much I owe to peers and friends like Matthew, Eddie, and Kimberly, and faculty like Ted, Kathleen, and the late Glen Stassen for their presence in my life.

It was this journey that allowed me to be a better and more inclusive minister in my first pastoral role at Salford Mennonite Church, walking with students and young adults who were navigating their own LGBTQ+ experience. It was this journey that allowed me to say yes when David, Eli, and Logan wanted help to launch Receiving With Thanksgiving at Penn State, and why I am humbled and honored to be one of the few inclusive campus pastors who share space with the Penn State Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity’s Chaplain Chats each month. It is this journey that provides me with such gratitude for my pastor colleagues like Jes, Theda, and Jamie, who live such courageous and prophetically bold lives despite the unfortunate ways that they are still occasionally treated by this world.

Today on National Coming Out Day I am moved by the ways that I have been blessed by the many incredible LGBTQ+ individuals who I have crossed paths with. I wish I could go back in time to offer some wisdom to that kid who felt like his world was falling apart because he was being called Bengay on the playground, but I also know that it can take time to change hearts and minds.

May we continue to walk with each other, working for a better world.

Truth and Sharpie Art

In early September, President Trump used a Sharpie-altered map to explain the oncoming path of Hurricane Dorian into the state of Alabama. When questioned about whether a permanent marker line was really a scientific part of the presentation, or a hasty addition to help correlate questionable information that had previously been provided, the President doubled down on the error and insisted that Alabama was in the path of the storm.

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Many words have been written with righteous anger about the President’s strange relationship with facts and truth. Even before arriving in the Oval Office, his campaign often referenced that their truth was the real truth, and that anything else was fake news, even when reality clearly demonstrated that not to be true. 

President Trump insists that he is always right. His public posture is one of absolute and unwavering certainty. It doesn’t seem to matter if this certainty comes at the expense of others, or even if it changes at some point. He will never admit that errors have been made, or that he or his administration are not in perfect control. 

His Sharpied version of truth is never in question. 

All of this has made me wonder whether I also carry a Sharpie with me in different aspects of my life. When are the times when I claim absolute truth certainty, even going so far as to edit the truth to benefit my cause? 

I know I do this with my children. I claim, without a shadow of doubt in my voice that bedtime is bedtime (sometimes because I’ve reached my capacity to parent them well, even if they aren’t actually that tired). I am firm on things like the appropriate amount of candy and desserts (even when I know it probably wouldn’t hurt them if they had a few more pieces of candy from their trick-or-treat bag). I pull out my Sharpie when it comes to school, insisting that they go, even when they don’t want to, because it is the right and correct path forward (even if internally I occasionally question whether our education systems are really the healthiest ways for them to learn). 

If I’m honest with myself, I probably use my metaphorical Sharpie with my friends and loved ones too, making up lines to explain the reasons why I don’t have enough time or energy, or defending decisions that I’ve made in my past retroactively to save face – especially when I’m embarrassed by the truth. 

The reason that I carry a Sharpie is that owning the actual truth is often far more difficult than trying to draw lines around my made up drawings. My Sharpie is also used to pass blame, and to avoid moments of vulnerability. It is easier to blame traffic or a prior commitment when I show up late to an appointment rather than owning up to the reality that I just lost track of time because I was binging YouTube videos. It is easier to use my children as an excuse for why I need to leave a meeting before it has concluded, rather than owning my truth that I’m just tired and need to rest. It is easier to pretend I’m busy on my phone rather than engage the stranger sitting next to me on the bus or in the coffee shop. 

My Sharpie comes out whenever I feel like the truth will be more difficult than I can handle. 

Recently our student organization cohosted the women from the incredible Harry Potter & the Sacred Text podcast. During their visit we discussed the ability of the various characters in that series to speak truth, or their impulse to avoid speaking truth. Often these two postures are done for the same reason. Truth may be spoken as a way to stand up to those abusing their power, truth may also be withheld in an effort to undermine those in power. 

This conversation illuminated that there may be times when momentarily suspending a truth may be more important than actually speaking truth – especially if there are vulnerable marginalized people who will suffer when the actual truth is spoken. My hunch is that this is why we tolerate certainty over truth in our politician’s words. It is because we believe (at least when we affirm specific politicians) that their certainty will bring us to a better and more truthful future even if it means a few Sharpie lines are necessary along the way. 

How do you use your Sharpie, and why? Is there a better way forward when it comes to speaking your truth?

May God bless us with discomfort

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

A new semester is beginning at colleges across our country. Here in State College, Penn State students are rolling through their first week. In honor of the occasion, I decided to take a familiar Franciscan blessing and edit a few words to fit our context. Perhaps it will be a blessing to you wherever you find yourself as you begin this fall…

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May God bless us with discomfort at shallow professor answers, partisan-truths, and superficial student relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at institutional injustice, higher Ed oppression, and exploitation of grad students and staff, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace at Penn State.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from mental health, body rejection, Lion Cash hunger, and marginalization, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference on our campus, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to Penn State, State College, and beyond.

A 2019 Penn State Franciscan Blessing

Epic Fail?

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

Creating a peace, justice, and faith campus ministry from scratch hasn’t been easy.

One of the most crucial experiences when starting something new is learning from mistakes. One of the most significant learning experiences for 3rd Way Collective was our attempt to create an intentional living community. 

For quite some time there have been people at University Mennonite Church dreaming about an intentional living community as an alternative to campus housing or to the fraternity-style housing in our community. The idea has been present since the closing of United Campus Ministry’s house (UCM was an ecumenical campus ministry supported by University Mennonite Church) as a way to be providing students with a living experience unique to this area. We hoped that our unique faith-based peace and justice focus would appeal to a small group of students who would like to live together, learning and creating community as they shared that space. 

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A view of the Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland.

One of the main hurdles was finding a space to begin this project. We had two couples at UMC who were interested in possibly buying a property as an investment that could be used by 3rd Way Collective as it continued to take shape. Unfortunately because of zoning and corporate control, it was almost impossible to find a reasonably priced property that could house more than two or three students. Instead we decided to rent from a larger company with the hope that we could continue to search for a permanent home in the future. 

Once we found a property, the next step was to find the students. Our publicity resulted in five students who did not know each other, but were willing to live together. This turned out to be a massive challenge that we weren’t quite prepared for. It was hard to find students who knew about 3rd Way Collective, and who had similar ideas for what the house could/should be. 

Our group of five students included one who backed out weeks before the semester began, one who basically spent the school year closed off in their room, one who was a local organizer and rarely home, and two who ended up with such a significant interpersonal conflict that they had moved out before the fall was finished. We had made the assumption that putting five students together would instantly and organically create community that we could program around. Our fall schedule that year included home cooked meals at this new 3rd Way House. I showed up for the first of these scheduled meals to a darkened home with no students present. Rather than a sense of community, this house felt cold and lacking community. 

We had also assumed that a hands-off approach would allow the residents to create their own community guidelines and parameters. Unfortunately this loose structure meant that when conflict arose their were not systems in place to handle the conflict. The tension that arise in the home was difficult to navigate because we didn’t have a process to move through this kind of conflict.

Before the end of our first year we had decided to end this experiment and close the house at the end of its first year. 

This experience is easily one of the things I’m least proud of during the first five years of 3rd Way Collective, but that does not mean we didn’t learn some valuable things along the way. Here are a few of the things that we learned:

  1. Intentional community is not easy. 
  2. Intentional community must be intentionally cared for and nurtured.
  3. Intentional living communities rarely happen organically. They need some kind of structure in order to function well and flourish. 
  4. Intentional community cannot be forced. Full buy-in needs to happen from all participants. 
  5. It is very difficult for a random group of people to cohabitate without conflict, and systems need to be in place to navigate that when it happens. 
  6. College students tend to avoid conflict, and use communication techniques that are not face-to-face. Assuming that 20-somethings will sit down and talk with people they don’t know well about their needs, wants, and struggles is probably not going to happen.
  7. Property management is risky and expensive. Our supporters took on a lot of the lost rent when students moved out prematurely. 
  8. Having a house parent, or house mediator with regular connection to the house and a relationship with the students would have been an important thing to have from the beginning.

In the end I wish we had waited a few years before taking on this challenge, or perhaps putting more resources into making sure it started off on the right foot. I wish we had waited for students to come forward telling us that they wanted an intentional community, rather than assuming this was something the community needs (I still believe our community needs more alternatives to campus and fraternity housing, I just think the vision and expectations needs to be led by the students rather than people like me). Perhaps it would have been beneficial for my campus pastor role to be more intentionally present in the early moments of the house, helping the students to find ways to live well with each other.

 

Belonging?

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

I took a few days out of my summer sabbatical time to venture to Kansas City, Missouri to participate in the 2019 Mennonite Church USA Convention. It was a unique experience for a number of reasons. 

For starters, it was the first time in a number of years that I was present at a summer gathering without week-long responsibilities. The last convention I attended was four years ago, also in Kansas City, and I was present as a delegate and seminar presenter. The convention before that I was present as a youth pastor with my youth group in tow, and it was at that gathering in Phoenix, Arizona in which I learned that University Mennonite Church was creating a campus ministry that would eventually become 3rd Way Collective and hire me as its first Campus Minister. 

I’ve been at Convention as a high school youth (three times), an Eastern Mennonite University Admissions Counselor, a youth pastor, a delegate, and even with no affiliation during seminary as I was building connections about possible job offers. I’ve experienced conferences where I’ve felt pure youthful excitement, spiritual highs and lows, anger at the direction of our denomination, and many more feelings. 

This year’s gathering reminded me that for better or worse, these are my people. I don’t agree with everyone present, nor do I anticipate that this will be the case in the years to come. But as I walked those long convention halls I was continually reminded that this is the place in the world where I feel more connected and grounded to the participants than anywhere else. I connected with old classmates and colleagues from my time at EMU as well as Fuller Theological Seminary. I connected with fellow pastors from the conferences (and adjacent conferences) where I’ve been in ministry. I saw family members and friends who I haven’t seen for many years, and a significant number of people who have taught and influenced me throughout my life.

The theme song for the long-running TV sitcom Cheers provides the familiar refrain, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” I know this is not literally true – there are many people among this year’s attendees that I have never met (and perhaps a small number of the people I know were not happy for my presence because of disagreements on the future of this denomination or moments where we’ve not seen eye to eye) – yet each day came with many warm greetings and reunions that gave me a strong sense of belonging. 

This year’s gathering was also a humbling reminder that I benefit from a lot of Menno-priviledge. Many aspects of who I am have never been called into question in the church. I’ve never felt alienated or scrutinized for being both a Canadian and American citizen. I’ve never felt like I don’t fully belong in MCUSA for identifying or being straight, white, male, cisgendered, middle class, or English-speaking. My theology has moved in a progressive direction during my life, but rarely have I ever felt as if my voice was not an active part of the ongoing conversation of who we are as a church body. 

This year I was reminded of participants in this year’s gathering who did not come from the privileges I carry – both those who continue to show up although they don’t always know how they fit with the larger denominational system, as well as those who have stopped showing up because they have felt too much hurt and pain after years of exclusion and systemic violence directed their way. 

I belong, but I also recognize that I belong to a flawed system that does not always feel safe or like a place of belonging for everyone who desires this to be a home. 

I did feel like this year marked a small step in the right direction. I met more colleagues who were newer to the tradition than in past years. I found more willingness among attendees to be working on justice issues as far ranging as gender diversity, to Israel/Palestine, to racial justice, to LGBTQ inclusion. We even heard denominational leaders point us toward a path forward that is focused on love and diversity rather than religious or historical purity. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. 

My hope is that each future MCUSA summer conference gathering will move us in a direction that looks less like our old exclusionary selves, and looks more like a place where all participants feel as if they have a place to be included and fully present. 

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