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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Just Say Yes?

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

Starting a campus ministry from scratch was not something I had given much consideration to until I learned about the creation of 3rd Way Collective. Being hired as the first campus minister allowed me to jump into this consideration with both feet – baptism by fire if you will. One of the easiest ways to immerse myself in the early years was to try and spread myself as broadly as I could across our campus and community. I did this by showing up in many different places, but also by saying “yes” whenever I could.

At times I’m guilty of operating under the self-inflicted pressure of “FOMO” – a Fear Of Missing Out. I say yes because I don’t want to experience missing out on something I could have been a part of. I still have a memory of a moment during my high school years when I took too long trying to decide whether to join a group of friends for a concert of one of our favorite bands. By the time I said yes the show was sold out and I had to spend the next few weeks hearing my friends talk about how great the concert was and wishing I had been there with them.

Being guided by FOMO as a new campus minister occasionally worked out to my benefit. When I was asked if I would participate or help plan, prepare, or lead an activity or event in those early years, my only parameters were whether it fit under the broad umbrella of peace, justice, or faith, and if my calendar had free space available (sometimes even that parameter was stretched beyond its limits). I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be present in the community in some kind of meaningful way, so I just said yes to everything in hopes that I wouldn’t miss those early chances.

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Above, a street scene in State College, PA. 

This aggressive willingness to say yes allowed me to build many different kinds of relationships and connections. My network continued to expand as I found myself in many different kinds of spaces – participating in community organizations, campus panels, collaborating with other clubs and groups, leading workshops, mentoring, counseling, and many other different things. I discovered and became an active part in many movements in our area built around racial justice, LGBTQ advocacy, environmental justice, poverty, interfaith collaboration, peace, and so much more.

At a community meeting during one of my first years I bumped into the Mayor of State College. She greeted me by name and congratulated me on showing up. “You know Ben, I think you are present in more spaces than I am!” she remarked with surprise. I don’t think she knows just how much that sentence has stayed with me. I took her words as the ultimate praise, that I was doing my job to the best of my capacity.

Unfortunately my FOMO also became a crutch. I realized early on that if I was ever scrutinized over whether 3rd Way Collective was “working”, I could at the very least point to my robust calendar and all that I had been a part of. I didn’t want to ever be accused of not trying hard enough, so overcommitting and overworking became my standard operating practice.

Since our first event I’ve tracked each event and activity in a spreadsheet. Our second school year at Penn State (2015-16) 3rd Way Collective created or collaborated on 138 different projects during those two semesters. I also showed up to numerous community meetings/committees/panels/boards not included on that list – at times as many as four or five additional meetings per week. The Penn State school year has 30 weeks of classes, and during that year I somehow averaged out to more than four events per week, plus other meetings. There were a few weeks where I was away from my family four or five evenings each week. There was a moment near the end of that year when my wife Meredith looked at me and said, we can’t keep this pace up. Something needs to change.

Saying yes to everything was a difficult thing to correct. The more I did, the more positive affirmation I received from my community and supporters. My value and affirmation was all tied up in an unsustainable process. It was like a boulder that had been pushed down a hill. Once I got going, I had set up a precedent that came with momentum. The more connected I was, the harder it was to say no, and the more aware I became of all the different ways I could be involved.

One of the major weaknesses of this system was that my over committed pace made it very difficult to react and respond when unexpected things came up in our community. I remember having to say no to an impromptu community vigil because I had already committed to some kind of scheduled event. I remember having to say no to a last-minute request from a student who wanted to get coffee because I was supposed to be a part of a panel discussion.

But perhaps the biggest weakness was that I wasn’t able to offer adequate time to my family or myself. My partner was a solo-parent far too often, and my kids missed out on more time with me than they should have. My over-committed-FOMO-mentality also meant that I had less time for my own quiet time to reflect or do the things that I love to do on my own – riding my bike, taking a hike, or playing disc golf.

Marv Friesen was the pastor at University Mennonite Church when I began this work. His presence in my life was a real gift as I was getting started with this process. During one of our conversations he asked what would be different if I cut back on some of my commitments. I told him that I felt anxious just thinking about doing less, but that it also sounded wonderful to slow down a little more. He wondered where the anxiety was coming from – was I afraid of letting someone down? I realized that a significant part of the pressure I was putting on myself was self-inflicted. I was the one who was not willing to let myself slow down. The imaginary crutch of a robust calendar was not necessary because the church who hired me and the board who guided me were very supportive of the work that I was doing. We realized in these conversations that a core part of the work of 3rd Way Collective was being a community presence. My hunch was that this was only possible by being busy, but the reality was that I needed to be less busy in order to be more responsive to the needs that came up in our context. By putting less on my calendar, I could be more adaptive when students needed me to be there for them. I could show up in places and spaces that ministers rarely went because I’d have less programming and planning that I had to do.

It was an epiphany that I deeply grateful to have been blessed by, and a posture shift that has allowed this work to be far more sustainable than the path I had originally taken.

I still have FOMO, and I still occasionally fall into the trap of overcommitment, but in the three years that followed the 2015-16 school year I have lowered the number of 3rd Way Collective events and activities in each consecutive year, while also being more adaptive and flexible. Each year I still feel some anxiety that less on the calendar will result in less impact in the community, but the reverse continues to be true. This past year was our lowest event total since our first year at Penn State, yet we connected with more people than ever before, and I personally found my work to be far more fulfilling than any previous year. 

I still struggle to honor my time and my family by first considering those two things before saying yes, however this practice has been live-giving – more than I could have imagined.

I know this will continue to be a part of the challenge of creating something new, but I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to figure this out as I go. The surprising realization for someone who began thinking that it was best to always say yes is that there is more balance and fulfillment – perhaps even more worth – in saying no from time to time.

Time for a Parade

Contributor Ben Wideman is campus pastor with 3rd Way Collective in State College, PA.

President Donald Trump won’t get his parade (at least not this year). However,  the Fourth of July celebrations in DC this year will have tanks and military vehicles on display.

Admittedly, my first reaction upon hearing this news was some relief because rumblings about a military parade through the Capitol have been present since Trump’s election. But the more I consider this possibility, the more I welcome a military parade.

Here are five reasons why…

  1. Citizenship – A military parade reminds those of us from a peace tradition to consider our citizenship in a country which prides itself on military might. A parade can encourage us to ask where our loyalties lie and challenge us to consider how we participate or benefit from our warfare driven culture.
  2. Action – A military parade can call us to action. Many of us who claim to follow the nonviolent way of Jesus live our daily lives in a country that is currently planning a parade showcasing its military might and do little about it. The public spectacle of a military parade can encourage us in turn to make a public declaration of our commitment to active nonviolence and peace. It challenges us as individuals and as congregations to be speaking Christ’s peace into whatever context we find ourselves.
  3. Priorities – A military parade reminds us of our national priorities and how our government has chosen to spend federal funds. Increased military spending seems to be an annual part of our national budget (regardless of party), and in the past few years have coincided with cutbacks to social services and environmental programs. A parade reminds us of the increasing need to stand up and for the most marginalized in our midst, in a time when our government has chosen to cut back from many programs that help vulnerable people.
  4. Cost – The USA already significantly outspends the rest of the world on military expenses. A military parade would require significant cost to plan and implement, and the political opposition to the proposed parade are already asking for the sticker price and expressing concern about shifting funding away from combat. Perhaps as peace people we can take some solace in the fact that a military parade would shift resources to an event which would not claim any lives. It also reminds us of the overwhelming price we pay for our military power.
  5. Fear – The best reason to hold a military parade is to illuminate how much our country depends on fear and insecurity. A parade is a way to show off our nationalism and strength, and to affirm again our American exceptionalism over other nations. It provides the perfect setting for us to engage our neighbors and friends about why Christ’s people are called to reject those things. It serves as a reminder that as people of faith we reject our culture of fear and see all the earth’s citizens as children of the living God.

Peace church people like the Mennonites like to think of ourselves as “People of God’s Peace” (In fact, some of us occasionally sing a hymn with this title and refrain), and perhaps a parade would force us to consider again what it means to live more fully and boldly into that title. Perhaps we can see the pending military parade as an opportunity to once again lift up an alternative way of living against the violent history of this country. May we continue to boldly and prophetically strive to join God’s peaceful Spirit as it moves throughout our world.

 

Cultivating a Culture to Combat Redemptive Violence

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

This summer my sabbatical time is including a family road trip through New England and Eastern Canada. Today we spent some time in Boston, visiting the downtown science center and walking a little bit of the “Freedom Trail.” I was struck with the reminder that violence is a part of the birth of the American experience. Boston’s harbor is next to Christopher Columbus Park, key in sparking violence against indigenous peoples. The Freedom Trail highlights the Boston Massacre, another seminal story with violence at its center. Bunker Hill, Boston Harbor, and the Paul Revere House are just a handful of other key stories in the birth of a nation narrative that have violent attributes here in Boston. We all know the narratives maintain their violence in other corners of this land (albeit with a few sprinkles of peace sprinkled in here and there), but the fact remains that for many Americans, violence is justifiable if it leads to the formation of a better life.

This redemptive violence provides this country with a rationale to continue its violence in more and less overt ways up to our present moment. Violence continues to be perpetrated against the poor, racially/religiously/sexual/gender underrepresented, both here and abroad, often in the name of freedom or to maintain the status quo.

Today’s reminder makes me wonder how I found myself working against this narrative. I found myself thinking of relatives from generations ago who were conscientious objectors, refusing to bear arms because of their religious identity. It reminded me of my grandfather, choosing alternative service instead of fighting in World War 2. I thought about those who have died because of their insistence of working for peace through non-violent means… people like Tom Fox, a Quaker serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams who lost his life in Iraq, my high school friend Adam who lost his life to school gun violence while serving as a teacher in an impoverished community in northern Canada, or my college friend MJ who died while on a peacemaking endeavor to the Congo with his work with the UN. I thought about Foxdale Retirement Community folks who have shared around dinners this past year about the ways they served in peaceful ways around the world, in the midst of military action and service.

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I realized I have the privilege of a history in which I have been presented with a “third way” in a context that often says there are only two choices – righteous violence, or submissive passivity.

I realized that my formation has been rooted deeply in a tradition of peace built on storytelling and creative tradition. I also realized that for this kind of tradition to overtake the American myth of redemptive violence it must be cultured and nurtured, and encouraged to spread. It must be shown to the generations that will follow, lifted up with global examples to demonstrate that peace can be spread without the need for aggressive violence. It is certainly far from easy, nor is it something that can be forced by people of privilege on those who do not have power. But if we are to continue to dream of a more peaceful future we must intentionally be cultivating a culture of peace wherever we go.

Speak Up

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

Hindsight is 20/20, or so the saying goes, and I believe this to be especially true in justice work. How many times has history shown us that the good intentions of justice-minded people have been misconstrued, misguided, or even made things worse than before. Awakening to this historical awareness can lead to paralysis. If allies keep messing up the cause (whatever that cause may be) with their good intentions, perhaps it would be best if we all just did nothing.

Yet we also know that without privileged people joining the fight against injustice, systemic problems have a tendency to remain.

There are a number of moments in the first five years of 3rd Way Collective where we’ve tried something and it didn’t work. There have been times when we should have slowed down and done a better job of letting the marginalized individuals take the lead – especially when we assumed we had the best ideas or solutions.

There are also moments where we’ve missed our opportunity to meaningfully engage. There is one moment where I felt that personally, and while it was a small moment, it is one that I continue to feel shame for not speaking up.

The story goes like this…

I was at a local coffee shop, working from my laptop and hanging fliers for a future event. I began to overhear a conversation between two individuals – one of whom was clearly more aggressive in their tone of voice. It didn’t take long, given the volume of their conversation, to learn that they had some kind of date experience, and that their memories of that moment were quite different. The more-aggressive individual felt entitled to another date, perhaps even a relationship, and the other individual was clearly saying no. Rather than hearing that no and moving on, the aggressor continued to push and ask for more time together, clarification on why they didn’t want to enter into a relationship, and pressure them for continue to connect. It was uncomfortable to overhear, and I had a meeting to get to, so I quietly removed myself from that space.

But ever since that moment I’ve felt worse about my passive reaction to that time. It didn’t seem like a healthy interaction. In fact, the one person was giving off body language that made it clear that they were uncomfortable and wanting to get away. I could have said something, or figured out a way to insert myself between those two individuals, perhaps offering my presence as a way to create a disconnect. I could have called over a staff person from the coffee shop, or asked the aggressor a question about a totally unrelated thing to try and steer their attention elsewhere.

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I could have done something, but I chose not to do so. In that space I was a person of privilege, and perhaps because of my lack of willingness, injustice continued on. I don’t know what happened to those two individuals. My hope is that the aggressive individual moved on, realizing that they were not entitled to a relationship with this other person. My hope is that the person suffering from that aggression was able to let go of that experience, and find safety in other spaces. But I don’t know if that was the case.

I do know that memories like these will challenge me from accepting the status quo and remaining silent. My prayer is that I have been granted grace from that mistake, and that I will be empowered to speak out the next time I experience something like this in my life.