Starting a faith-based, peace and justice-centered campus ministry from scratch had to start somewhere. As far as we are aware, 3rd Way Collective was the first Mennonite campus ministry at a non-Mennonite college, university, or graduate school. We did not have a road map for how things should look or work, just some energy to try and see how things would unfold.
In June of 2014, after being selected by the search committee at University Mennonite Church as their first choice for a new Anabaptist Campus Pastor position at Penn State, I had my candidating weekend with the congregation. In the Mennonite Church, a pastoral candidate for a job opening is often brought in after being selected by the search committee for one final weekend in which the hiring congregation is introduced to this individual in a more face-to-face way. This is an opportunity for the candidate to be seen by the congregation, and for their questions to be asked and hopefully answered by the candidate in ways that confirm they are the right fit for the job. The weekend went really smoothly, and both my family and the congregation felt like this was in fact the right fit for me.
In July I began sharing this news with my colleagues, coworkers, mentors, youth, and youth sponsors at Salford Mennonite Church. In August of that same year I made an announcement in front of the congregation that I had accepted this new position and would be moving on to this new role later in the fall. Before officially moving to State College, I made the three-hour journey to State College to participate in on-campus events welcoming new students, and trying to spread the word about this new organization called 3rd Way Collective, even though we did not have any clear sense of who we were or what we would evolve into.
Early in October my family and I moved into our new home, and that month I began serving as the campus minister for 3rd Way Collective. I spent the first month meeting with students, faculty, and community members, and decided together with my advisory team that our first official event would be something we called “3rd Way Conversations”, an evening in which we would discuss a relevant peace, justice, or faith issue, inviting members of the community to be present as a way to connect students with older adults with more life experience.
Getting to this moment in time took several official steps. First we had to find students willing to be listed as members of the club and club officers. Next steps included finding someone to be a faculty advisory, write an official charter, apply for and obtain club status with Penn State, and then in order to be listed as a faith-based organization we had to apply to become an affiliate with the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on campus. Once all these things were accomplished we were able to reserve space for our first event which took place at 7:30 pm on Monday, November 3rd.
I was eagerly anticipating this moment. More than standing at a table at the Student Involvement Fair, or attending meetings with my advisory team or having coffee with students, a real event signified in my mind that 3rd Way Collective was real and active. It meant we could finally offer an answer to the question, “What exactly does your club do at Penn State?”
I was also expecting that this event would confirm that I was the right person for the job. I had a theological background that included peace and justice work, and classes on Christian ethics. I was a global traveler, and someone who had real life experience and many connections in faith-based activism. I spent a significant amount of time and energy in those first few months making sure we had the right organizational name, logo, status on campus, social media presence, advertising within the student body, word of mouth awareness, faculty connection, church support, and affirmation of my advisory team.
I had risen to the top of a national search for the right person for this unique campus ministry position, and I was hired because I was expected to be good at this kind of experimental work.
I reserved a modest space for our first event. A multipurpose room in the Spiritual Center that could comfortably hold 20 people around a table, and be expanded to fit even more if we were surprised by the turnout.
It turns out there was little need to be in a room that was even that large. Just one community member and two students showed up – one who wasn’t sure exactly what or who we were, but was intrigued by the faith-based peace and justice focus, the other student and community member were both long-term members of University Mennonite Church. My hope was that this first group would help define what 3rd Way Collective would become, but the small size meant that little discussion took place that evening. Most of the conversation was a response to questions they had about what my vision was for 3rd Way Collective. I spent a decent amount of time that night worrying that this new student would never return, and wondering how helpful it was to invite community members if they ended up equaling or out-numbering the students I had been asked to serve.
That first event taught me several important things.
First, I must never assume that a campus of 46,000 students meant that every and any event would automatically be well-attended. My assumption was that simply being present on campus would lead to a decent number of curious people. Second, it confirmed a fear that had been nagging – that Penn State’s significant Mennonite student population were either not aware or not interested in what we were doing. Third, I realized that having the right club name, and social media presence made little difference on a campus with more than 1000 clubs and organizations. Just being different was not enough to separate ourselves from the hundreds of other choices students had with how to spend their evening time.
I also learned that night that while I may be qualified to launch a peace-, justice-, and faith-based campus ministry, I could not rest on that fact alone. Building connections and creating meaningful spaces for students to belong was going to take far more time and energy than I had originally anticipated. It was also humbling to learn that my ideas about what students might want were not as important as figuring out what they actually needed or wanted.
That night was not a complete failure. The two students continued to attend and were attracted to something that we created in that space. Both went on to be student officers for our club in its earliest years, and helped me re-imagine what a club like that could be.
I would go on to learn many new things in those first few weeks and months trying to start something new with 3rd Way Collective, but perhaps no memory crystalized how much I still had to learn about this work than that first event, and how different it ended up being than my own expectations.