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Ben Wideman is the Campus Pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a ministry of University Mennonite Church at Penn State. He is also the newest blogger for TheMennonite.org.
When should we stay and work, and when it is time to move on? I find myself asking this question a lot.
A few weeks ago an opinion piece titled, ‘Dear high school seniors, Don’t go to Penn State’ was published, sending a strong reaction through my community. The title was a provocative one, boldly suggesting that Penn State University wasn’t worth attending.
It caught my attention in part because I know the student who wrote it. This is a student who I know to be a gifted artist and a person working to create a better campus community than when she arrived. Yet when she graduates, she will leave regretting her choice to attend.
It was painful to read her share that she doesn’t feel like she found a home at Penn State. Her passion and creativity mean she is exactly the kind of student I want showing up to my campus ministry, yet she is also someone who doesn’t want to be present here at this campus. Her experience is not unique—in my first year and a half on campus I’ve met many different students who thought they would find the perfect college experience here, yet express a daily frustration about feeling marginalized and wishing that they felt more included and less like an outsider. Some of these students choose to stay and work for change, while others decide they can find a healthier college experience in another place.
As a campus pastor who spends a significant amount of time trying to figure out how to make a difference on a massive campus like this one, I found myself resonating with much of the article. This student articulated that their institutional Penn State experience has left them feeling “more cynical, less trusting, and less creative now than ever before.”
I, too, feel like an outsider here. I went to a private Mennonite college and my work on campus is supported by my congregation, not by Penn State. I’m not an advocate for the massive state university experience, nor the binge-drinking and party culture, nor am I a big college football fan (even typing out those words makes me cautiously look over my shoulder).
As I consider my upcoming dreams for 3rd Way Collective it is easy for me to feel all of those emotions of cynicism, lack of trust and creativity in myself. I find myself wondering why certain parts of my role create meaningful connections and conversations, while other aspects fail to connect with students. I wrestle with a feeling that an Anabaptist campus ministry just doesn’t make sense here, and struggle with the difficulty in creating peace-centered community in this place. Often times I loath this massive institution, lamenting that there are systems in place here that inadvertently make my job more challenging and make students more distant.
I’m faced with the complicated decision of whether I stay here to try and follow Christ’s example to stand up for peace, justice, and marginalized students, or give up and move on to a more hospitable space for my pastoral presence. We all face decisions like these regardless of our context or vocation. Some of us feel called to stay wherever we are – even in the midst of very difficult situations—to try and create change—while others feel the need to move on.
All of this reminds me of where we find ourselves as a denomination. Why is it that in the midst of current theological tensions, some of us choose to stay and work at creating the spaces we desire, while others choose to move on?
It might be easy for us to point to the early church in Acts as offering us the blueprint—that is, trying to return to a time when all were of one spirit or mind—but the biblical narrative and human history reminds us how quickly disagreement and dispute led to people dividing and going their separate ways. Our own peace church tradition has a lengthy history of splitting and dividing.
I don’t know if 3rd Way Collective will ever create a monumental culture shift at Penn State University, yet each day I try to position myself to make a difference. Every day I’m faced with the challenge of trying to figure out how to create spaces for peace, justice, and faith to be explored within the Penn State campus community. My choice to connect with students beyond my religious tradition, to any students who feel marginalized, means that there will continue to be many moments when I feel like an outsider, both here at Penn State, but also within the Mennonite world.
But for now, I feel called to stay and work for change. Tomorrow, that might be different. I may reach a point in the future where I feel a nudge to move on from this place.
Perhaps for meaningful movement to occur, our efforts to usher in Christ’s Kingdom need both the people who are committed to staying and working wherever they find themselves, and those who feel called to challenge their context by moving on or disengaging for a time. For some it might mean re-committing ourselves to a specific context or congregation, while others may be drawn to move beyond the traditions and practices of those who came before us.
Early in his ministry, Jesus chose to send out 70 disciples. They were tasked with engaging the people around them and preparing the way. But they were also reminded to shake the dust off and move on if they were not welcomed. Perhaps this best illuminates the duality of being called to work for change, and also that there are moments when we must simply move on. Embodying Christ in the world requires us each to determine when we stay and work and when it is time to move on.
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