Community alumna and current seminarian at Wesley Theological Seminary, Melanie Ollett (’12) reflects on campus ministry and the meaning of “real church”.
I cannot pinpoint one particular worship service or bible study where I experienced “real church,” but I do believe I experienced real church on an almost every day basis for three years while involved in my campus ministry. I can’t think of a community that has demonstrated the love of Christ to me more than this one. I occasionally feel as though I shouldn’t talk about them so much because there is a stigma in the church that campus ministry isn’t “church,” but then I reflect and realize how the church at large needs to hear the story of this community.
The United Methodist Protestant Community has taken their mission to “love God, serve others, and welcome all” to heart in all that it does. Some of the ways that they ‘love God’ is through their regular bible studies and worship practices. They embrace questions and doubt as a part of faith, and for “emerging” adults, this is absolutely vital. Members of the community always welcomed challenges to their assumptions and to everything they thought they knew about God and the bible, and this models a vulnerability in faith that I haven’t seen many other places. Loving God in this community means having a relationship with God that asks the tough questions such as “why did this horrible thing happen to me/the world?” or “why can’t I feel your presence with me in my loneliness,” and “how can you care about the world when much of what I see in the world is hate, destruction, and violence?”
Another way that they love God in this church community is by looking for God in every day moments. A particular member of the community became very passionate about the “God Sightings” part of the worship service, and was always the first to share how she saw God acting in her life this week, and this opened the lines of thought for other members of the congregation so much to the point where they sometimes have to limit or cut off God sightings because so many people have spotted God working in their lives. It is one of the most powerful teaching moments of the service, as it equips the members of the congregation to view their everyday lives through a lens where they perceive how God is communicating with them in the ordinary moments.
Our mission: Love God. Serve Others. Welcome All.
Serving others is also at the very heart of this community. Members of the United Methodist Protestant Community know that we are all called to serve in whatever ways we can, and are actively involved in campus outreach. Being college students themselves, they understand their context and how to minister to their classmates. During finals in the winter, the chaplain hands out free chocolate to the entire campus community who is under stress. Every Thursday night, there is a healing service, and whenever tragedy strikes in this region, this nation, or around the world, the healing service is devoted to addressing the prayers of the campus community in regards to this tragedy. They volunteered in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, took collections for Haiti after the earthquake, had multiple prayer services and gatherings during the Arab Spring and are continuing to uplift the people of Syria in their meditations and prayers. They sponsor monthly movie nights for the campus community to come together and take a study break, and for a while I remember they had a weekly Friday night outing for freshmen in the community who did not want to join in the culture of binge drinking that surrounded their classmates. Members of the community also regularly offered their volunteer services to local food banks, city clean up efforts, and homeless shelters. They viewed serving others not only as an insular calling, but knew that serving others from a Christian perspective meant ministering to the surrounding campus community, the city, and throughout the world.
One of the most touching ministries of the United Methodist Protestant Community is their ministry of hospitality and their acceptance of everyone into their caring (but sometimes dysfunctional) group. They have won countless awards from the campus Queers and Allies resource center and the Reconciling Ministries Network for their work to end discrimination against LGBT persons in the church, and each year a member of the community “adopts” incoming freshmen and contacts them the summer before they come to campus to offer them any help they need getting acclimated with the city (helping with everyday concerns as ‘where’s the best pizza joint?’ and ‘how easy is it really to find a paid internship?’) In the beginning of each academic year, there are many activities designed to help freshmen transition into college and become parts of the community. When I was a freshmen in the first week of school, I was very upset at my roommate situation. I was in a triple with girls who were not compatible with me at all and we were not able to resolve our differences. A member of the campus Methodist group, having met me for maybe a day, said “come crash on my floor so you don’t have to deal with that.” That is not a welcome that we find everywhere! Their ministry of welcoming everyone is incredible, and is unlike any other I have seen in a church due to their unique campus environment. What’s more, they welcomed change and doing things differently. There was a respect for tradition, but there was a willingness to experiment within that tradition. This meant that I was more than welcome to explore my call to ministry by preaching, leading covenant discipleship groups, and planning and leading worship.
Beyond living out their community’s mission, the United Methodist Protestant Community of my undergraduate campus has been the “real church” for me because they live out what our conference has dubbed an “Acts 2” congregation. The community cares for one another in ways unseen in a larger church. Thanks to the wonder of social media, a member of the community who is in need posts “METHODISTS ASSEMBLE!” to the Facebook group, and gets responses for what they need. That is usually everything from soup when someone is sick, to a hug when someone is just having a rough day, to a few extra pairs of jeans when their laundry gets stolen out of the machine. There are prayer requests shared and answered, and usually no one even has to say why they need something. The community gathers around a beloved one in need and cares for them, and to me, this is the truest example of “real church.”
I told them at the end of the academic year when I went back to visit about some of the stories of church I hear in seminary. I told them of some of the frustration my classmates feel at the church, and how my professors often said something along the lines of, “imagine if the church was a safe place for questioning faith…. imagine if members of a congregation took care of one another… imagine if a church opened its doors and got more involved in serving the needs of their particular community…” I wept as I told my friends and fellow members of my campus ministry that I wish every single seminarian had been able to have a teaching congregation like them.
Melanie Ollett (’12)