Blogger Ben Wideman is the NCMA CoCom Secretary, and campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a unique peace, justice, and faith ministry at Penn State University's main campus. He is ordained in Mennonite Church USA. This blog post explains some of his origin story, part 1 can be found right here.
So… my spouse Meredith wasn’t thrilled with the idea of moving to State College.
And frankly, I can’t really blame her. Our two-plus years of ministry had not been easy, nor had our transition to southeastern Pennsylvania. We left behind our community and a rich and vibrant southern California for rural suburbia. We had expected our transition to be a homecoming of sorts… we had both grown up in country close to the city, and assumed that it would feel familiar even if it wasn’t the exact area we grew up in. What we did not count on was how much Pasadena had changed us.
Before we left for Pasadena the largest town either of us had lived in was our college town of Harrisonburg, Virginia. We were still trying to make sense of what we believed, and also trying to make sense of living in a marriage commitment (we had only been married for one year). We left behind Virginia’s rolling green mountains for the arid and rugged San Gabriel Mountains beyond Pasadena. We arrived not knowing, or having never been clearly challenged by living in a diverse community, never thought much about the extent of our ecological impact on the earth, had rarely considered the politics of immigration, had little interaction with people from other faith traditions, and had yet to determine what we really felt about LGBTQ inclusion in the church.
We met many people during our four years in Pasadena that challenged us to think differently on these things, and many more. We experienced what it meant to be a Mennonite in an area where few people had ever heard of that tradition. We became friends with people with different religious ideas, ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and sexual or gender identity. We ate and fell in love with foods we never knew existed, explored cultures we’d never experienced, and met people from all over the world. We expected to be ready to leave Pasadena after a quick three year program, and ended up staying for four years, and left feeling like we were leaving part of ourselves behind.
It isn’t surprising then that southeastern Pennsylvania felt different and challenging. We went from having only one car that we used infrequently, to having to depend on two vehicles for pretty much every aspect of our new lives. We shifted from having almost every culinary food at our fingertips to limited restaurant offerings of pizza, hoagies, and meat-and-potato dishes. While we found many wonderful new friends, most people seemed similar to who we were – white, middle class people from a Mennonite or Swiss-German heritage.
Salford Mennonite Church was an incredible congregation with a great depth of resources, but those first few years of ministry were challenging in ways we did not expect. We didn’t anticipate feeling a cultural disconnect – both with the transition from Pasadena, as well as a new area that had a deep rootedness that was hard for an outsider to connect right away. We also had several circumstances that were unexpected. I lost a close friend from college due to cancer in my first year. We moved in to our first home, and then had to move again within months due to a complication in our living situation. We got pregnant with our second child and then experienced the pain and trauma of a stillborn daughter. I had some incredible experiences with the church and our youth group, but also some painful moments of tension and pushback to the way I fit with the broader community.
My reaction to all these complications was to start to think about what else we might do, and where else we might go. Meredith, on the other hand, was more inclined to stay put and wait for a calmer moment in our lives.
When University Mennonite Church posted the campus pastor position we talked with friends and mentors and tried hard to discern what was best for us. We decided to let the process help guide us… I decided to be fully transparent with the hiring team about my sense of call, but also some of my reservations with a transition like that, and if they still felt as if I was the right fit we would consider that to be a sign that we were meant to move in that way.
In the meantime, we started to see small signs that a pathway was unfolding in strange ways. Friends were forwarding the job description to me, asking if I knew about the position and wondering if I had applied. Folks at Salford seemed to have a decent number of connections to folks at University Mennonite Church, and were able to get a strong sense of what I might bring to the job. My visits and candidating went really smoothly, and before we knew it the position had been offered. After making the announcement that we were leaving for State College, there were many people who were sad to see me go, however many of those same people told us that they totally understood why I was being called in that direction. THere was almost a sense of lament that the congregation hadn’t been a better fit for me to lean in to my unique set of pastoral gifts. A few of my youth were curious about why I was leaving and assumed it was for more money. When I assured them that I was actually taking a pay cut to leave, they were really surprised. It gave me an opportunity to talk with them about a sense of call and purpose, and to get them to imagine that there may be more to life than wealth.
One of the most touching moments for me was that the lead pastor at Salford spoke at my ordination service at University Mennonite at the end of my first year. Pastor Joe explained that I had a unique calling to use my faith to stand up for peace and justice, and he commended UMC for being a congregation that was willing to hire me to be their prophetic voice in the community, speaking out when it was called for. People from Salford made the journey to my installation service, and then again to celebrate when I was ordained by the congregation and Allegheny Mennonite Conference.
I had a lot of ideas about what I was being called to, and some of those have turned out to be true. But many of the aspects of this unique campus pastor role have turned out to be far more surprising and unexpected than I could have imagined.