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.

Radical Discipleship

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

Discipleship is a word that gets tossed around a lot in campus ministry. It is at the core of many different organizations on our campus… we even have a campus ministry that was founded at Penn State and now present on more than a dozen campuses across the country called DiscipleMakers. Most of these organizations see discipleship as a sending call to embody a literal biblical call to make non-believers or non-practicing Christians into disciples of Christ (based on the Matthew 28 passage often referred to as the Great Commission).

At the core of my responsibility to the students at Penn State is a radical kind of relational discipleship that looks somewhat different than how my campus ministry colleagues and peers might understand the word. Much of this difference has to do with a posture adjustment in how I move in the world. The traditional understanding of discipleship is that Christians are sent out into a broken and fallen world to save the lost by turning them into disciples. Unfortunately, Christian history is filled with stories of people doing this poorly – perhaps with aggressive (sometimes militant) force, coercion, or manipulation of the people they engage. It is packaged with a black-and-white certainty about who is right and wrong. It also requires determining that Christians are the category of “in”, and everyone else is “out”. This insider mentality also comes with some unfortunate insider traits of being against LGBTQ+ inclusion, indifferent on environmental or racial justice, and intolerant of other faith traditions.

Rather than seeing our campus as a problematic fallen and broken space in need of conversion, I see an opportunity to present a different kind of Jesus follower. My role is to flip the script of what a Christian minister can be. My ministry has to be radically inclusive, welcoming and affirming students regardless of their gender or sexual identity, regardless of their faith tradition (or lack-thereof), and offering them a space to belong even if they have more questions than answers. I was fortunate to have mentors and professors who challenged me to see Christ’s example as a way that was radically inclusive of the outsider, and to challenge the notion that it was the church’s responsibility to be the gatekeeper of that inclusive love. It is with their voices in my head that I move in my work and context.

Recently someone asked me how many students I’ve converted to Christianity during my first five years of work with 3rd Way Collective. I paused for a minute, realizing that my focus has not been on creating new Christians. Quickly my mind went not to those who have converted but to the many people for whom we have helped redeem their faith tradition. Dozens of students came to mind who had been on the verge of giving up their faith because they thought the only way to be a Christian was a fundamentalist one, focused on who gets in to heaven and who will be sent to hell. They were close to rejecting their faith because they had seen church leaders reject their peers who were gay, Muslim, atheist, too liberal, divorced, or any of the other reasons that Christians have condemned the world.

I thought about Gary Cattell, a long-time street preacher, referred to on campus as the “Willard Preacher” for the building he stands in front of day after day. His message is one of condemnation and repentance, urging students to turn from their evil ways, and to reject the trappings of college parties, homosexuality, women’s rights, and substance abuse. Gary is a complicated character, because he has some grains of truth in his ramblings. It is true, after all, that Penn State’s party culture and substance abuse can be highly problematic. But with his scattershot street preaching approach he’s missing the point. He forgets that each person who walks by him is a beloved child of God, in need of love and support in their life regardless of the decisions that they have made. He forgets that being radical in our context is not preaching condemnation, but rather humbly sharing a Gospel message that is more wildly inclusive and welcoming than our minds can even comprehend. There is certainly a need to be reflective on how college students spend their time, but I think this happens best when we take the time to get to know each other and enter into meaningful dialog about our experience.

Rather than preaching, my vision for radical discipleship with college students is two-fold.

The first is to show up and speak up for students who feel marginalized or rejected. Right now on our campus that means getting to know students from underrepresented groups having to do with ethnicity, economic background, gender or sexual identity, or religious identity. We also see an increasing need to be providing spaces for those who feel like their political ideology is underrepresented. Being present with these groups is often met at first with skepticism. After all, Christians are often the ones who are leading the charge in condemning these various groups if they do not conform to a traditional Christian mold. Yet something incredibly transformative occurs when students realize we are not there to change or convert, but to speak up to use some of our privilege to empower and work for meaningful change in our context. These are the sacred spaces where students begin to see how they can thrive instead of simply surviving, and to be part of shaping a better future.

The second part is to create spaces for people to simply be and belong. In our early moments I assumed that 3rd Way Collective was present to preach about a faith-based peace and justice alternative. I realized very quickly that the most helpful way to do this was to create connecting points where anyone was welcome to be present and belong. Our regular events shifted from lecture-based times to unstructured meals around a table at a local restaurant or pub, family dinner table, or student living room. These spaces of belonging do not require students to share a set of beliefs or perspectives; however, they do strive to be accommodating first and foremost to those who are marginalized. In this way we radically shift the historic discipleship narrative from one in which people must first conform in order to connect to one in which people can connect first and decide which aspects of the tradition or community to embrace or reject in their own time.

We still have a lot of work to do. I don’t always know how to reach out to those who continue to feel marginalized, nor do I always fully understand how my own privileged identity (straight, white, middle-class, Christian, male, etc) places its own barriers of belonging. An increasing number of students from politically conservative perspectives are also feeling marginalized, and I’m not sure exactly what to do with that given that they often come from many of those same privileges that I do (cisgender, white, middle-class, Christian, etc). I am also acutely aware that I still hold fear about speaking up and speaking out. I can remember specific times when I did not have the courage to speak up in a public space for a person who was clearly being treated poorly. I decided that it wasn’t my space or time, forgetting that this is precisely how injustice continues on – when people remain silent.

I know for certain that my vision is not perfect, but I think I would rather focus on standing up for those who feel marginalized, and creating spaces for people to belong, than continuing a campus ministry tradition of building spaces for the insiders and rejecting those who already feel like outsiders. It is my hope that our example with 3rd Way Collective can continue to challenge other faith groups to transform how they see their call to discipleship within our student body.  

Measuring Up

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

One of the biggest challenges to starting a brand new movement is measuring whether or not that movement is thriving. This is particularly true with movements with a faith element. Faith leaders have long understood that their work is hard to quantify. They intuitively understand that the number of participants may be a helpful indicator that a movement may be doing well; however participation is definitely not the only factor. In fact, there are many examples of unhealthy movements with many participants. The inverse may also be true. A pastor may preach to a large congregation on Sunday but find more meaning, life, and pastoral value in the hours she spends sitting with a family or individual in need on a weekday.

Societal change may be used by some as a marker of whether a movement is thriving. The challenge with this marker for success is that societal change happens slowly, involves many different people and influences, and is typically not attributed to one movement or person.

Over-working may be used by others to demonstrate that a movement is thriving. When there is endless work to be done, perhaps this points to how much of a need there is to be creating a movement. This creates an unhealthy reliance on being busy to show success (something that I have fallen victim to during my first five years with 3rd Way Collective).

As I began my work with 3rd Way Collective, I asked how the church and faith community would be measuring the success of this new campus and community student organization. My Advisory Team suggested that measurements were going to be challenging but that they hoped they would be able to feel if it was working.

Living in to that ambiguous reality has been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I know that I am not being judged based on how many students or community members connect with this organization, nor am I being asked to change society with this endeavor. Generally speaking, our first five years have come with a significant amount of affirmation. People have been outspoken in how much of a difference this movement is making in our community and how valuable it is to have a campus pastor committed to faith-based peace and social justice. Even though there have been moments where it doesn’t feel like we have a critical mass of students, we have been affirmed for the network of connections we are building and have built in our first five years.

But I also know that not everyone who supports this work feels the same way. Some folks at University Mennonite Church (our main supporting congregation) wish we spent more time focusing on Christian faith formation. Others wonder if it might be better if we operated and looked more like a traditional campus ministry (such as CRU, InterVarsity, Navigators, Disciplemakers, etc). Some think we are being too overtly peace-focused, while others wish we would focus more on the specific Mennonite denominational identity.

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It is clear that we will never please every supporter, nor will we meet the expectations of every student or community member. Given that reality, I have found that I need to come up with my own measures to feel as if this movement is thriving.

One of my Advisory Team members suggested several months ago that the challenge we face is that when justice work is being done in our community, we hear fewer stories of hurting students and individuals. Put frankly, the fruit of our work ends up being that less people are in pain, which is very hard to assess or measure. But while this is challenging on a macro level, we have been blessed with many personal stories of the ways we’ve made a difference in student’s lives.

A few years ago an African American student thanked me for being willing to show up at #BlackLivesMatter events and other events focusing on racial justice. He admitted that while he had only been a Penn State student for a few years, he was noticing an increase in collaboration around justice issues and thought it had something to do with my willingness to simply show up in many different places. I lamented to him that we still had a long way to go to achieve racial justice in our community, but he pushed back and said that simply hearing a privileged community member (myself) say that was a sign that things were moving in the right direction.

Around the same time a student reached out to me to thank me for being a presence on our campus. She admitted that she had spent the first few years as a student on our campus pretending that she was not a Christian. She had noticed that the Christian organizations were generally more fundamentalist and conservative, and her passion for environmental justice and LGBTQ+ inclusion meant that she hid her faith identity from her classmates. Having 3rd Way Collective around allowed her to see that there were other people who were both people of faith and people who cared about justice issues. She had decided to re-embrace her faith identity because of watching our organization move about our community. (Also see my blog post about the unexpected ripples in our work with the LGBTQ+ community)

A student from the Jewish tradition met me for coffee a few months later to thank me for our presence. She had been frustrated with the way that the Jewish community was standing for justice in our community – especially around Israel/Palestine, and gender identity. She felt like 3rd Way Collective was making it possible for Jewish organizations to see an alternative to the way that they had always been doing campus ministry, and within a few years her Jewish organization had created a social justice position to specifically work at being a better justice-minded presence on our campus.

A few years later I had the honor of hearing a student share that our organization was one of the reasons that they had chosen not to complete suicide as a closeted LGBTQ+ person. They saw our presence as one of the factors that allowed them to more fully embrace their own identity, and move about the campus.  

More recently we helped Muslim students continue their Free Pizza Friday initiative – a way of breaking down Islamaphobia by handing out free pizza once a month. They had run out of money to continue this powerful witness on our campus, but connecting with 3rd Way Collective gave them a different kind of network of support. Their student leaders have thanked us for standing in solidarity with them during this time of increased religious tension and offering them an example of Christians who are willing to work with Muslim students rather than belittle or try and convert them.

A recent student officer shared with me that she had basically given up on organized religion. She had decided that her church was the outdoors and to find God she simply went on a hike. She had started to wonder if perhaps she was not a Christian because of how differently she understood her faith and what was important to her. It was only in connecting to 3rd Way Collective that she realized that her faith identity did not have to be tied to a particular traditional experience of faith.

These stories are all bright moments of light when I become discouraged that we are not making enough impact on campus, don’t have a big enough group of active students, or aren’t making enough of a difference in our community. They provide me with real-life stories where our presence is changing the lives of individuals in a real and meaningful way. In the absence of a clear metric for success, these personal stories become the way that I know that this work is important and valuable, and must be continued.