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.

The Church and Baseball

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

The other day someone remarked to me that they admired how justice-minded I was as a person. I was humbled to be thought of in that way, but admitted I have many areas I still need to be working with. These include some subtle things that could be adjusted in small ways, like the environmental impact of the food that I eat, the amount of fossil fuel I burn for various reasons, or the ways I grudgingly participate in our capitalism-driven society. Then there are other things that I know I am complicit in yet I feel trapped within a system too big to change like our country’s prison- and military-industrial complex, ongoing white supremacy, or the frustration of our political climate. But perhaps the two things that stand out to me the most are large systems that I continue to stay connected and committed to, despite my reservations.

Major League Baseball (MLB), and the American (and Canadian) Christian Church.

Both of these are organizations that I deeply love, have passion for, and have benefitted from. Both have provided me with joy I cannot easily put into words. I’ve been connected to both for most of my life – certainly all of my conscious adult life. They both contain sub-classifications that I feel even more deeply connected to (baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and Mennonite Church USA), as well as leading individuals who I am both proud to align myself with, and inspired on a regular basis by their presence in the world. I’m energized and excited by both, despite them sharing a reputation of being boring, out of touch, irrelevant to a growing number of young people, and resistant to change.

They are also both extremely problematic, unjust, and deeply set in their ways. They both have a tendency to internally police themselves, often to their own detriment and demise. Both could be easily categorized as homophobic, oppressive, power-hungry, male-dominated, environmentally irreverent, and fiscally manipulative. They are both guilty of holding and wielding power, wealth, and social influence. My friends and family members include both the individuals who are passionately loyal to these organizations, and others who have systematically rejected one or the other. At various moments in my life, I too have wondered whether I’d be better off without being connected to either one of them.

Both also have the capacity to hold multiple truths in the same space. They have a historic precedent to lag behind progress being made in society, yet individuals from both spaces have led movements for social change. Despite Major League Baseball’s racist past, Jackie Robinson and other players like Larry Doby, Bill White, and Roberto Clemente rose to prominence as people who were not afraid to push back against racial injustice. Others have pushed for labor rights, gender inclusion, and better economic policies. Likewise, though the Church has also been a place of power abuse, there have been many courageous voices who has spoken out against racism, classism, gender bias, wealth, environmental injustice, and so much more. Many current voices within the church have worked tirelessly to create a better future, and reform a heavy past. Austen Hartke, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Austin Channing Brown, Mark Van Steenwyk, Drew Hart, as well as the late Rachel Held Evans quickly come to mind.

The Church and MLB contain their own origin stories that contain questions about their historical fact. Participants in both groups make sense of the origin stories in their own way, choosing which elements of the history to reject, which elements to hold dear, and which elements to simply hold in faith that despite layers of complexity there is something important about remembering and returning to those stories. Legend, myth, and the supernatural are found in both spaces, and generations that follow have chosen different ways to tell these stories, and which stories to hold up as “true”. The experience of participating in both a baseball game and a church service feels familiar changes little over time, however different generations would probably find the technology present in both spaces to be unfamiliar and surprising.

The Church and Major League Baseball have been a safe-haven for those in need of a space or identity to belong, yet they have also been quick to reject those who do not conform to certain standards. They have provided employment and community for many, and have also been quick to dismiss people from these spaces and roles. They have both added to the fabric and vibrancy of neighborhoods, and have crushed and wiped out others in their wake. They share a capacity to make people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and also to alienate and isolate. Each contains the same wealth inequality that much of the world suffers from – those at the top are exponentially more wealthy than those at the bottom.

Being a fan of baseball, or a part of a local church, provides the participant to experience a wide range of emotions – both positive and negative. The both provide ways to experience familiarity, liturgy, and structure, and to also be surprised by the unexpected. Participants describe both as mystical or spiritual experiences, while also admitting that there are times where they do not experience that but are left drained and fatigued. Both encourage positive and negative aspects of tribalism, and those groups include people pushing and resistant to change.

I see both as microcosms for the broader human experience. Both are large enough to contain many positive and negative qualities and their collective value is determined by the the people who exist within their members. Their potential for good is not guaranteed, but instead depends on individuals choosing to make just decisions from within, and raising their voices when this does not occur.

At this point of my life I have committed to being a member of the larger Christian Church through my denomination (Mennonite) and local church here in State College at University Mennonite (as a minister this commitment is one that is somewhat deeper than a typical member). I have also chosen to remain committed to the experience of being a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Major League Baseball. I have reservations with both of those commitments, but I recognize that at this moment in time I have some (perhaps more) capacity to push these organizations toward change when I am inside them than if I was on the outside looking in. I am also deeply aware that we need outsiders who are also pushing toward justice and change from outside the membership parameters. I know that this is especially true of those who have been marginalized and pushed out of these groups. As an insider I must recognize the privilege I have to belong to both, and allow that to influence my decisions as I move about these two worlds.

There may be a time of my life where I step away from one or both of these organizations. I may also spend the rest of my life holding this commitment I have at this moment. But my choice to belong helps me take stock in other aspects of my life where I am in, or outside of, an organization. I also hope that this awareness of being part of just/unjust organizations can offer me some humility that I am not perfect and empathy toward others before judging them because of unjust behaviors I may not approve of.

Major League Baseball and The Church. Both will continue to shape and influence how I interact and move about the world, whether I am inside or outside looking in.