Reflections on the Campus Ministry at Oklahoma State University
STILLWATER, Okla—A 6-year-old boy walks in the door at 8:30 on Monday morning. His name is Adam, and his grandmother is bringing him for another week of Camp Exploration. The moment they step inside, Adam runs away from his grandmother, cursing. James, a senior at Oklahoma State majoring in environmental science, takes off after Adam, trying to catch up.
In the kitchen, another student fixes breakfast for two young sisters whose mother forgot, again, to feed them before camp. Two Asian graduate students are practicing English in the library with a tutor. Nearby, Jessica, an English major, clears away exercise balls in preparation for the children’s yoga workout. Outside, people are gathering at the doors of The Storehouse, which provides food for the needy. The phone rings. Another troubled teenager wants to volunteer for courtordered community service.
The name on the front of the building is The Wesley Foundation: the United Methodist Student Center at Oklahoma State University. This is an unusual vision of campus ministry, and yet, it is perhaps a vision that was always meant to be, empowering students for the missional work of the church.
By the end of the week, these college students will have logged 40 hours each working with at-risk children. Twenty-five families will have received assistance with food at The Storehouse. Twenty families in need will have eaten together at the nightly LoveFeast. The homeless will have come in and out, the world will have come and gone, but the church will have remained.
For the past 10 years, the Rev. Michael R. Bartley D’94 has labored to transform campus ministry. “The heart of what we’re doing here is transformation: transformed students, transformed communities, transformed church. The Gospel transforms. It turns the world upside down. It’s bold, and it’s alive. It’s here.”
Like most campus ministries, the Wesley Foundation at Oklahoma State understands itself to be the church’s presence among college students. But this ministry is not simply in ministry to college students, but with college students.
It all began nearly a decade ago, when a woman came to Bartley’s office and asked for money. A student recognized the woman as a cafeteria worker on campus, and asked why she was there.
“She was asking for food,” Bartley explained. The student was shocked to hear that the woman who served him food every day could not afford to feed her family. “It was an epiphany moment when we started learning about the nature of higher education in America,” remembers Bartley. Research revealed that 45 percent of university employees at OSUStillwater lived at or below the poverty line. They found similar situations at major universities (public and private) in America. At the Wesley Foundation, students began asking, “Where is the church?”
As they learned of needs in their own community, students developed ministries. Among them is The Storehouse, a student-operated emergency food program for those in extreme need. This ministry, which distributed 180 tons of food last year, is a direct outgrowth of that original cafeteria worker’s plight.
A related program is the LoveFeast. This free meal is offered to all each Monday through Friday evening at Southern Heights United Methodist Church, a mission congregation partnered with the Wesley Foundation.
The New Foundations Project stems from a student’s research into the eating habits of children in poverty. What began as an after-school cooking class for a handful of middle-schoolers now serves 50 at-risk children.
Twenty college students mentor 2nd through 7th graders in an eight-week program that meets four days each week. The children study cooking and nutrition, relationships and dating, health and fitness, art and drama, and first aid. New Foundations expanded recently to a seven-week summer experience called Camp Exploration.
At Southern Heights UMC, students serve as youth workers and Sunday School teachers. They also lead worship, Bible studies, and accountability groups. They eat together, pray together, and in some cases, live together in intentional communities. The Wesley Center welcomes people of all ages and means: children, students, the elderly, the homeless, the poor. “We have insisted that this is not a homogeneous group,” says Bartley.
During the past year, 250 OSU students logged an impressive 125,000 hours. These experiences of practical ministry, says Bartley, are grounded not in the virtue of their labor, but in the ministry sacramentally understood. Students are formed to understand that the church’s action is an outgrowth of the Eucharist. On any given week during the academic year, Eucharist is offered no less than six times. In the main lobby, students and visitors pass a wall of icons depicting saints and scholars from throughout the church’s history. Mission, ministry, identity, justice, faith: all are sacramentally understood.
“College students are driven by many things, mostly cultural desires for success and wealth,” says Bartley. “The church calls them out of their individual lives to be a community of Christ-formed people. We see the Eucharist as the means of that formation.”
Bible study, worship, covenant-discipleship groups, community meals and celebrations, service to the world, and immersion in the lives of others form a small portrait of daily life. A guiding model is the Inward Journey/Outward Journey/Community Life triumvirate. “It’s a trinity of sorts,” says Bartley. “Our inward journey of Bible study, reflection, worship, and covenant-discipleship becomes an outward journey of love of neighbor, embodied in the community that serves. It becomes sacramental—an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
A common line of questioning to new students is: “Are you baptized?” followed quickly by “So what are you going to do about it?”
Baptism begins the journey, Eucharist sustains it. In a daily reflection with student workers at Camp Exploration, Bartley encourages, “Never forget that the church is a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s work of transforming the world.” Students learn to care for the world and for each other, to love God, and to love neighbor.
A sign on the front lawn reads “The Mission Training Station at the Wesley Foundation.” “Until I came here,” says Brooke Phillips, a junior majoring in Spanish, “I didn’t know the Church had a mission.”
Bartley is relentlessly on the move, taking calls, leading meetings, fundraising, and taking time to work with his students. “They are the leaders of the church. They have the gifts and the grace to go into the world and make disciples. We form them for that, to be disciple-makers.”
The Wesley Foundation’s motto—“Making Disciples, Creating Leaders, Transforming Lives”—keeps the mission clear: United Methodist students at Oklahoma State are laboring for the life of the world in the name of Jesus Christ.
Barry Bennett D’06, worked as an intern at the Wesley Foundation while an undergraduate at OSU. He graduated in 2003 with a B.A. in history. This article was written following his field education placement there during the summer of 2005.
‘De-Churched’ are Allies for Change
Within six months after his bishop sent him to the Wesley Foundation at Oklahoma State University’s Stillwater campus, Michael Bartley D’94 asked to leave. When his request was denied, he asked again. And again.
“There were 15 kids and an embarrassingly large budget,” remembers Bartley. “It was a campus ministry that functioned as a youth group.”
When he realized that Bishop Dan Solomon intended to leave him at OSU, Bartley told the bishop that he intended to change things—not minor things, but to orchestrate a wholesale transformation. Solomon was undeterred. “Maybe we put you there for that reason,” he replied.
During the decade since, the Wesley Foundation has undergone a radical shift from a “members-only group” to a space for worship — for the calling and empowerment of disciples — and for mission. The change reflects Bartley’s ordination vows of “Word, Sacrament, Order and Service.” He grew up in the Nazarene Church but became United Methodist at Duke Divinity School, where he credits Professors Frederick Herzog and Stanley Hauerwas as crucial to his formation.
“The reality is that the church is about making disciples and bearing witness to the Gospel’s Good News,” he says.
On campus, Bartley discovered allies for change among students he describes as “de-churched.”
“When they got baptized and confirmed, they thought it meant something,” says Bartley. “These are kids who look at the church and think it’s dead.
Much of his success has come from reaching out to these students, says Bartley. He and his wife, Ronda, have three daughters. The oldest attended Duke’s Youth Academy for Christian Formation last summer.
While the Wesley Ministry at OSU can’t be replicated on every campus, “every campus minister can abandon the idea that he or she is the ‘local counselor and youth minister,’” says Bartley.
“We started out asking, ‘Who are our neighbors?’ Theologically, this ministry is a combination of what Fred Herzog taught me about the poor and what Stan Hauerwas taught me about ecclesiology.”
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