Radical Discipleship

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

 

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 (cisgendered, 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.  

Measure Up

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

 

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 thing we are being too overtly peace-focused, 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

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

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.

Why did we chose the name “3rd Way Collective”?

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

A question I get asked fairly frequently is why we chose the name 3rd Way Collective for this Anabaptist campus ministry at Penn State. On our student club page for Penn State we wrote this as we began…

“3rd Way Collective is an opportunity and challenge to create a new alternative. An alternative to extremism or disengagement, an alternative to the left or the right, an alternative to violence or passivity. A way that is bolder and more enriching. A place of belonging. A community engaged in building relationships, peacemaking, partnership, and reconciliation. A third way.”

This is a helpful introduction paragraph but doesn’t capture our journey to landing on this name.

One of the early conversations at University Mennonite Church included what to call this new campus ministry. Some folks were interested in a denominational branding… perhaps calling it Mennonite Student Fellowship, or something along those lines. The downside of this approach was that it would deter students from other faith backgrounds or traditions from connecting. We learned in the early years that few Mennonite students had a desire to connect with their faith tradition. In the first year of 3rd Way Collective we held a monthly Mennonite student gathering event specifically to bring together Penn State’s (approximately) 500 Mennonite students. The most students who ever showed up was two… both non-Mennonite students who were curious about who or what Mennonites were. Our assumption has been that Mennonite students often choose Penn State specifically to step away from their tradition while they are in college. Mennonite students who want to remain closely tied to their denominational background often choose Mennonite colleges. The small number of Mennonite students who attend Penn State and want to remain connected to their denominational tradition often chose to attend University Mennonite Church, and connect with 3rd Way Collective that way.

Another option was to widen the circle and call this group Anabaptist Campus Ministry, or something to that effect. This would broaden our denominational outreach to others from that same tradition beyond Mennonites, however some of the same hurdles would be in place. It still limited the circle of inclusion to those who identified as Anabaptist. The word Anabaptist can also be confusing to those who are unfamiliar with its definition. Sometimes the word is misunderstood as anti-Baptist. It is not a word that is commonly used across the Christian tradition, and using this word could have been both confusing and also misunderstood.

We knew from the earliest moments that this organization would be centered on peace and justice, and some thought was given to a Greek/Latin word to link our club’s identity with other campus organizations, especially those in Greek life. If our aim was to provide a space of belonging, perhaps borrowing from Greek life where many go to try and belong or fit in would make sense in our context. The most popular of those ideas was the word PAX, a latin word meaning peace, which also has connections to the Mennonite tradition as Mennonite peace workers in the wake of World War 2 were often referred to as “Pax Volunteers.” Pax was an interesting idea, however Greek life on Penn State’s campus can be problematic and starting an organization with ties to that world could have come with unwanted baggage – especially since we had no firm plans on creating a fraternity-like living community. We also were aware that while Pax was an interesting word, it was not commonly used enough for students to immediately get a sense of who we were.

At one point we thought about being very literal with our name, and toyed with calling this new group the Peace, Justice, and Faith Organization (or Collective or Cooperative). This path would have been far more clear about who we were and what we hoped to be and do, but it also felt a bit clunky and overly-specific.

At this point I have forgotten if it was mentioned by someone on the search committee, the first 3WC Advisory Team, or myself, but someone brought up the Mennonite use of the term Third Way. Mennonites have long used the phrase to explain that they are neither Protestant nor Catholic, but some kind of “third way”. The website url “thirdway.com” is a landing page for those curious about who the Mennonite are. Our team liked the idea that in addition to this tie to our denominational tradition, a third way was also needed at a moment in time in which so many different things were becoming polarized and divided. We liked that any path leading toward a third way required a conversation on how to get there, and we hoped that the third way could continue to provide us with a road map in how to move about campus and our community.

Once we had landed on Third Way, the next part to figure out was if we needed something after that to provide more clarity. We thought about calling it Third Way Campus Ministry, or Third Way Organization or Club. We thought about just leaving it as The Third Way, but that seemed a bit mysterious and elusive.

In conversations with other campus ministers and organizations we noticed that almost all of Penn State’s organizations struggled to get students to commit. They lamented that students like to participate in a variety of clubs and groups, and getting members to show up regularly was an increasingly difficult task. We came up with the term “collective” for this movement out of a hope we were creating something where anyone could find a home for any length of time. This wasn’t going to be a club that required regular attendance or membership dues. In fact, we were more interested in creating a network of connected individuals rather than an insular club that never moved beyond itself. We liked the idea that we could be a temporary home to students who were also part of another organization, club, or group – even if it was another faith-based organization.

One thing that we never considered was that the word “collective” has some socialist (or gulp… communist!) implications. Our intent was not to choose a politicized word, however in a politicized world this is almost impossible. In fact, there have been moments where we’ve wondered if we should have leaned in more intentionally to a politicized name. Most of the ~40 Christian organizations on Penn State’s main campus come from a conservative, traditional, or orthodox posture. Perhaps if we had called ourselves Progressive Christian Campus Ministry we would have created an organization for the progressive Christian students who did not see their kind of theology represented in the list of faith-based groups at Penn State.

When it came time to finally write down our new name on applications for club status, websites, and social media, we realized that we had another decision to make. Would we use the long-form “Third”, or the shorter “3rd”? I was somewhat indifferent to the two choices, however I liked the idea that our acronym could be 3WC instead of TWC (I’m not sure why, it just felt better to me). This seemingly-inconsequential decision turned out to be more lucrative than we could have imagined. Choosing “3rd” placed us pretty close to the top of the alphabetical list of the 1000 Penn State clubs and organizations (nudged out of the top spot only by the 3-D Printing Club).

When choosing a name, we did not consider that a faith-based peace and justice group had the potential to provide college students with a third way model for how to live life. As we moved about campus in those first few years we discovered that for many years students felt as if they had to choose between their faith and justice issues they cared about. This seemed especially true for students who had been brought up in more traditional or conservative Christianity. They assumed that they had to choose to hold on to their faith, or give it up completely to become more embracing of the LGBTQ community, active in environmental or racial justice, or gender equality. When they entered justice-minded advocacy groups, they were found many students who claimed no faith, or had rejected their faith. Likewise, they had ministry groups telling them that the issues they cared about were not important, or counter to what tradition taught. What they needed was an example of how to combine their faith tradition with a passion for justice. They needed a literal third way.

The other major discovery after settling on this name was that students from beyond the Christian tradition began showing up inquiring if they were welcome to be a part of the “collective”. We realized that it wasn’t just Christian students who wished their tradition was more interested in peace and social justice, and they were willing to check out this new movement (and tolerate that it was being led by a Christian minister) simply because it gave them a chance to hold their faith tradition while engaging the the issues that mattered most in their lives. Over our five years on campus our student leaders have included people from the Peace Church and Anabaptist Christian traditions, but also other flavors of Christianity – both Protestant and Catholic, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and even Atheist or Agnostic students.

In the five years since we chose the name 3rd Way Collective it has ended up being a great fit for this alternative kind of campus ministry, one that blurs the lines between faith and justice organizations, between campus and community organizations, and so much more. We did not realize how important it would be to create a network of connected people. Nor did we realize the power in creating a space where more could belong than simply those from a specific faith tradition or political posture. We’re glad we found a third way.

In The Beginning

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

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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.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 6

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Image may contain: one or more people, people riding bicycles, bicycle, outdoor and nature

Something is shifting in Washington DC.

Four years ago I rode in my first PA-IPL Bike Trip from State College to DC. At that time our Hill visits were almost guaranteed to go one of two ways. If it was a Democrat they would thank us for our time but admit that anything having to do with climate change was challenging due to partisan divide. Republicans would admire our efforts to ride our bikes so far, but almost always deny that the climate was changing.

Despite the ongoing (and on many issues increasing) polarization of the two parties, there is increasing awareness among elected officials of both parties that climate change is real and engaged.

There is still major division on the path forward. There are still trigger words that some elected officials refuse to use. There is still a difference in the urgency of this problem, but few people are left who outright deny that the planet is warming.

Our ride included 7 riders who had journeyed from Philadelphia to DC, and 8 riders who had traveled from State College to DC. Together (with the assistance of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light’s incredible staff team of Cricket Hunter and Alison Cornish) we were able to visit the offices of all 18 Representatives and 2 Senators.

Several times during our hill visits we heard staffers share that Republicans are coming around and admitting that they made a mistake denying that humans have been a cause of the changing climate. There were times when younger staff members would admit that they were personally concerned about climate change, even if it wasn’t something that was as urgent for their boss. It feels like we’re watching a generational shift happen in a short moment in time.

On our ride we heard more community members from Pennsylvania’s “red” districts talk about the way they are experiencing a different climate – either from the difficulty farmers are having this spring to get the crops into the ground, or the increasing change in the animals, plants, or tree pollen. We rode our bikes beside fields flooded with too much water, and heard that a local fly fishing shop was shifting the flies they sold because insects are emerging at different times than they used to. People who live in rural America are more intimately tuned in to how the climate is shifting.

One of my fellow cyclists shared that it feels as though the people fighting against climate change have been slowly walking toward solutions for many years – still moving forward, but painfully slowly at times. Now it feels like we’re on roller skates… still not moving as quickly as we should, but much faster than before.

There are still so many challenges in politics. Many people are still marginalized, underrepresented, or underserved. Progress on climate change does not equate to progress in all areas, nor does a decrease in political division on one topic have a trickle down effect to others.

Still, there were some small signs of hope for me. Two years ago Pennsylvania had zero women among their 18 Congresspeople and 2 Senators. This year there are four. Two years ago there was so much gridlock that no one we visited felt any optimism at all that any policies could be implemented. There are still many challenges, but generally speaking optimism seemed higher than before. A Democratic majority in the House means that they have been able to keep a stronger hold on some environmental policy that the White House is trying to undermine.

Wednesday’s experience in Washington DC gives me more hope than I’ve had during the past few years of being present with my state’s elected officials. I know that change will come only when our communities raise their voices even louder, but it is exciting to see that some of those voices are shifting the culture of our national politics.

I will continue to ride my bicycle – for the planet, for future generations, for the moral imperative that we are facing. I hope you ride with me.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 5

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Machloket – a Hebrew word meaning sacred argument or debate. It’s at the core of a sentiment in Judaism that sees conversation between differing opinions as being foundational to any system of belief.

We were taught about this wonderful word during a stop at Adat Shalom, a synagogue in the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, during today’s bike ride into Washington DC. Rabbi Fred shared with us from their 200 year old Torah, pointing out that differing opinions are how we form our perspectives on what we believe. He referenced Jewish texts that intentionally include two contrasting opinions, holding both as sacred, side by side.

All of this is important as we approach Capitol Hill, knowing that this is also a place with many different opinions, ideas, and contrasting perspectives.

We arrived here in DC, enjoying our final day on the trail, with our heads filled with our experiences and the many stories we carry with us. Our hope is that we can be heard, and that the words we share will help shape how our representatives lead this country. We know we are not all of the exact same faith, mind, or heart, but we also know we share a desire that people of faith speak up and speak out for a better future for our planet.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 4

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Image may contain: bicycle and outdoor

Water. We can’t live without it, and too much is problematic.

Two days of rain makes a cyclist feel many different things. When rain begins it can be refreshing on a warm ride. A light mist can be cooling on a sunny day, and a passing shower can be a minor inconvenience. But two days starts to feel downright frustrating. Water in our shoes, water in our clothes, soaking wet gloves, and water trickling down our backs. Rain so soaking that it pushes its way through raincoats and rain pants. Rain that makes us shiver when we are standing still, and makes any decent both treacherous and also stinging in the way it pounds exposed skin.

Long days of riding in the rain also makes us grateful for the way it greens our lives. It makes us grateful for warmth at lunch stops and our final destination. It makes us appreciate the small things like wringing our socks and gloves, and the feeling of climbing off the bike at the end of the day.

I am always grateful for hospitality on a long trip like this, but the past two days have increased that ten-fold. Today’s lunch was an incredible meal at a local Middle Eastern restaurant in Brunswick, MD. Our hosts at Am Kolel Retreat Center, and Joyce and other local friends from the Poolesville area have provided us with incredible warmth and welcome (including a vegetarian meal provided from a local farm-to-table restaurant. Water has been present in these spaces too – from the food prep, to the warm showers, to the green and growing spaces, water has been involved.

All that to say we have experienced water… the best parts and the hardest parts. We are ready for less water, and we are grateful for water.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 3

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Joni Mitchell’s iconic Blue album has become an important piece of music for me for several reasons. I find her voice and songwriting skill to be incredible, and it doesn’t hurt that we share a homeland (Canada), but what I’m most drawn to is her ability to sing with a vulnerability and transparency that acknowledges the ups and downs of life.

Our ride today was mostly miserable due to chilly temperatures and a constant drizzle. This day of the trip is typically my favorite but the beautiful scenery was lost behind fog, and the thrilling downhill stretches were precarious due to the water on the road. The weather made us less conversational, and more insistent on getting to the destination rather than enjoying the journey.

But the day was wonderful despite all of those things because of the very real and raw reminder it provided for me that bike trips, just like life, have days like this. These are the days that challenge and stretch. These are the days that add fatigue to life, and challenge us in ways we don’t expect. These are the days that remind us that life is not all sunshine and wind at our backs.

The frustrations we felt today also had this unintended side effect, in that we ended up appreciating the small things even more. The moments where the rain would stop were to be savored, the food at lunch time and dinner was spectacular simply by the inclusion of simple warm drinks, and the warm showers at the end of our ride have never felt better.

Our group also finished the day with a much greater sense of accomplishment than we had felt previously. We named simple things as the highlights of our day – hand dryers in the public restrooms, towels, dry socks, and hot chocolate. We felt admiration for our fellow cyclists for completing the journey, and we felt stronger having survived our most difficult day together.

Tomorrow’s journey will include surprises, no doubt, but we continue on, feeling the full range of emotion that life brings. Just like Joni Mitchell’s incredible music, we ride not because every day is easy, but because life is about both the ups as well as the downs.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 2

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Our bike trip experience today grounded us to the earth in some special ways. After a pleasant night at Huntingdon Presbyterian Church we loaded up our bikes and rode just a short distance to a local park where we helped with invasive species removal and the planting of native trees and shrubs. We got to trade our bike gloves for work gloves, and got our hands connected to the earth and it’s plants. In the process of clearing away invasive species we uncovered some native species like Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Tulip Poplar, and Trout Lillies… plants that grow slowly and have been choked out by invasive species. The hope is that efforts like the small one we made are providing these plants with a better foothold to be more fully present again.

We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Standing Stone Coffee before climbing into the saddle again for a meandering ride down to Orbisonia. This stretch includes some beautiful scenery, but also some obnoxiously busy highway stretches with rumble strips. We also made the annual stop along this stretch at a Dairy Queen part way along the journey.

Orbisonia is a tiny town along a river that had its glory days during the late 1800s. It feels depressed, but the people we’ve met are full of a desire to be hospitable to our traveling group. We were fed well and after dinner crossed the river to visit an old rail yard, which still operates old trolley tours during the summer.

I found myself thinking today about what it means to be rooted – both in terms of the plant species we connected to, but also the people we interacted with. What does it mean to be connected to a region or place, and how do we find that connection when we are just passing through? Our conversations today also included an ongoing question about what humanity’s role is in solving some of the ecological issues – especially when humanity is the root problem of so many of these things.

Tomorrow’s journey will bring even more of the same, as we make our way down to Hagerstown, MD.