The WKU Wesley Foundation gave away hot chocolate on a cold day.
I remember sitting in a room in Downing University Center on my orientation day at Western Kentucky University, gathered with other forlorn Western wanna-be’s. As high school seniors registering for our first college classes in the fall, we were attending a break-out group on getting involved in campus ministry led by a middle-aged guy from the Wesley Foundation, the Methodist campus ministry. I would love to say that this one contact made the difference in getting me connected to a faith community as soon as I entered college. But I can’t say that. I was too in love with a guy who really wasn’t into the whole campus ministry thing. In fact, he was already a student at Western, already involved in other student organizations, and already had plans for my future extra-curricular activities. Wesley didn’t stand a chance.
Until I broke up with my boyfriend. I knew I needed to reconnect with God. I had been a prodigal long enough. So when I began trying to find home, I sought out the Wesley Foundation, mostly because I had been raised United Methodist my whole life. As a second semester sophomore, I finally found what I was looking for. The Wesley Foundation became my faith home away from home, and that middle-aged guy who ran it became like a second dad to me as I navigated my way through the crazy twists and turns of college life. It was there that I discovered my passion for telling others about God’s love, heard the call to full-time ordained ministry, and met the love of my life. Today I am serving that very same Wesley Foundation as campus minister.
One of the biggest differences I’ve discovered between campus ministry today and what it had been is that students don’t seek out the ministry that’s connected to their childhood faith. Most students don’t even have a childhood faith to connect with, and even when they do, they do not have “brand loyalty” like older generations did. Just because one was raised United Methodist doesn’t mean one will remain United Methodist. And just because one was raised in church doesn’t guarantee that students will even have a faith connection in college. Sometimes our biggest mission field as a campus ministry belongs with those students who were raised in church but decide they have outgrown it; too many new opportunities await, and faith just gets in the way.
I discovered early on that to survive in campus ministry, I would have to make a huge paradigm shift. I used to think that we would just build a great ministry here at the Wesley Foundation for students to come to. What I found is that students really don’t care. The whole “Field of Dreams” theology only works in Hollywood, and only for Kevin Costner. If I wanted to be in ministry with students, I would have to go to them. I will never forget the day I was walking on campus having a screaming mee-mee with the Lord. We were working our tails off trying to become a bigger ministry, doing everything we could think of to reach out on campus as a way to attract new students. I screamed at Him, “Why won’t you help us grow?!” And in my spirit I sensed a still small voice say, “Because Sami, if I sent you people now, you would stop reaching out.” Oh.
Way down deep I discovered repentance that day. In my heart I finally understood that God wants us reaching out on campus, not to get more students involved in our campus ministry, but because there are hundreds of students who will never set foot in a campus ministry. He loves them too; He died to give them life too. Someone has to tell them that God hasn’t forgotten about them, even if they have forgotten about God. That someone is us.
Our goal is to be on campus sharing God’s love with every random college student who walks by at least two times a semester. Whatever we do has to be tangible, has to be invitational, has to be winsome, and has to be loving. It has to communicate in clear terms that God is breaking into that student’s ordinary day to do an extraordinary thing. During the first two weeks of school we deliver grab bags to each Methodist preference student we receive from the University that lives on campus, giving them encouragement and welcoming them to campus. The week of Halloween we provide over a 1000 pieces of chocolate candy with labels attached that say, “Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). When it is cold, we will stand outside on South Lawn or our own front porch and give away free hot chocolate. This Easter we filled 1000 plastic eggs with one of a dozen scripture verses and a piece of candy. Before three hours were up all of them were gone. At the end of the semester we participate in “Stresstivus,” sponsored by the university’s health services. We bring our prayer labyrinth and invite students to experience walking prayer and God’s peace as a way to deal with the craziness of the school year wrapping up. In all of it we are trying to be living sacrifices, visually representing the living Christ’s presence already at work on our college campus. We are living proof that God’s prevenient grace is still at work. And one never knows where that seed of hope may bloom. Someday I may just give a piece of candy to a future Wesley Foundation campus minister.
Sami Wilson, Campus Minister/Director, WKU Wesley Foundation