Welcomed In, Sent to Serve

I was privileged to be invited to share some memories of my time as a student at the Wesley Foundation at Ohio State University recently. The occasion was Alumni Sunday at Summit United Methodist Church as we celebrated 60 years of ministry to students and the university community in the building at 82 E. 16th Ave. in Columbus. Summit church was created in the late 1970’s by a merger of the Wesley Foundation, Indianola UMC and University UMC. The Scripture for the day was the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15.

I identify with the prodigal son because my first memory of visiting this building when it was the Wesley Foundation was as a scared little kid lost on a huge campus. OK, I was 20 years old and a junior – but it was my first quarter on main campus after two safe years of living at home and attending the Lima Branch, as we then called it, of OSU. The year was 1966, and less you think I was a total wuss, you must know that my lecture classes that quarter in University Hall were bigger than my entire high school student body, and the number of students at OSU was about 6 times the population of my home town.

I was homesick for my mommy and without being able to name it also for a God I felt at home with. Having grown up in a loving United Methodist congregation, my parents had told me the Wesley Foundation was a place I would be welcome. Had my parents known what radical ideas and people I would encounter here they would probably have sent me to the Baptists – but thanks be to God, they didn’t know any better.

So, what was the first thing to greet me at the front door of this building? A warm smiling face? Not really. Instead there was a huge statue in the foyer of a 10 foot Abraham holding a big knife about to kill his son Isaac because God had told him to do so. Not exactly the kind of father figure one would rush home to. I realized later that that story of how God saves Isaac is a great metaphor for how God redeems us from very frightening situations in our troubled world, but at the time it was intimidating and too much like the wrathful God I had been taught to fear as a child.

My understanding of the nature of God began to change the next quarter when I got a phone call from Glenda Cail, a member of the Wesley Foundation staff. She invited me to a student gathering at her apartment on a cold January Friday night. It would be a gross understatement to say that no other women were inviting me to their apartments, and it sounded better than another night of bowling with my roommate. So I went to that gathering, and Glenda’s simple act of hospitality changed my life.
I met my future wife at that gathering, and I found at the Foundation a new home where I felt welcome and safe to explore the first serious theological challenges in my life. I remember in particular a book study led by Bill Trudeau on James Michener’s book The Source that introduced me to new and exciting ways of thinking about the nature of God, fellowship with guys in the Methodist service fraternity, STE, and my senior year living in Wesley House where everyone made a commitment to practice living as best we could according to Christian values.

Wesley House was exactly the kind of experience I needed. I grew up in a good Christian family, but one where the motto was, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It was quiet at our house a lot. Wesley House was a 180 degree turn where the philosophy was more like Ephesians 4:5 where we are encouraged to “speak the truth in love.” It was a place where it was not only ok to disagree and express our feelings, it was required. All 20 of us met every Sunday night up in the Hackler Lounge with “Whitie” (Lloyd White) and Jack Shepherd, a chaplain from Riverside Hospital who may have invented tough love. They facilitated open, honest discussions of whatever issues were going on at the house and how they could be resolved in a collaborative way that was fair to everyone involved.

Maybe the President and Congressional leaders should try living in that kind of covenantal arrangement? There must be room at the White House for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to move in. But seriously – the atmosphere of hospitality and honest safe communication we experienced here in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s wasn’t just good for personal faith development, it was critical for helping us become engaged and active citizens in a time of social transformation.

The Wesley Foundation was a safe place where we were nurtured, but also challenged to go out from this place to witness and practice our faith in ways that helped create a more just society and world for all of God’s children. Wilfred Cantwell Smith defines faith as “feeling at home in the universe.” The Foundation helped me feel at home in this big university, it introduced me to the social gospel, and prepared me to move on to the challenges waiting for me in seminary at MTSO and beyond.
I think what my years at the Foundation meant to me was best expressed by Jason Leighton, one of the MTSO students who helped plan this service. Jason said that without the theological challenges and growth he had through his campus ministry experience as an undergrad he thinks his head would have exploded when he got to seminary. Thanks Jason, I can’t sum it up any better than that.

I mentioned the Hackler Lounge earlier, and I want to pay a special tribute to Darold Hackler for whom that room is named. “Hack,” as we called him, was the founding director of the Wesley Foundation who served in that capacity for over 20 years. He was critical to the very existence of this place even though his name doesn’t get mentioned as often as others. That’s because “Hack” was a quiet, behind the scenes leader. He took care of the administrative details – kept the bills paid the Bishop happy so all ministry and programs could happen here.

So as we celebrate 60 years of student ministry in this building, I’m grateful for Darold Hackler and all the other leaders who have and continue to serve here. And I am thankful that after 60 years Summit is still a place where all of us prodigals are welcomed and nurtured and prepared for the challenges of being agents of transformation in the world.

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