Living Columns & Blogs

Community creates a sense of belonging

As a campus minister for 3rd Way Collective, I find myself in a lot of interesting spaces. Our organizational identity is rooted in faith-based peace and social justice, and striving for this means that our work ends up centering on what it means to belong.

So many of the local, national and global issues of peace and justice are about the marginalization of people or people groups, and solutions often are found when communities find way to include, support and lift up those who are cast aside.

My work also brings me to spaces like those being created by Learning to Live: What’s Your Story? Like 3rd Way Collective, this organization is in its infancy, yet it is creating spaces for people who feel marginalized to belong and heal from whatever pain they carry. It has been incredible to watch the power of simple actions that empower people to “learn to live” and to feel as if they belong to something larger than themselves.

I believe that a movement toward a deeper sense of belonging is important because of my own lived experience. The pain that I carry includes the loss of loved ones and friends, the tragedy of a stillborn daughter and the ups and downs of life transitions and my vocational path. My health and wellness is directly tied to the ways I feel supported by my community. Without it, I am vulnerable. Without it, I have less hope. It is only through the support of the people in my life who provide me with spaces to belong that I am able to be open and honest about what I am carrying. It is only through this support that I am able to be at peace and find healing in a tumultuous world.

In August, I participated in National Campus Ministry Association’s annual conference as part of its Bethany Initiative for newer campus ministers. One of our pre-conference days as Bethany Initiative participants was a contemplative retreat day spent in complete silence. Our goal was to spend the time reflecting and rejuvenating ourselves as we look forward to the new fall semester.

This is a vulnerable time for newer campus ministers. The landscape of our field is changing, with less financial and institutional support for our work than in previous generations. Often, younger campus ministers are expected to outperform their predecessor with a smaller budget and fewer compensated hours. Success is often measured in numbers — how many students show up to events, how many events were created, how many new people engaged, etc. There is a temptation to get caught up in numbers, forgetting that our work is about creating spaces for students to belong. Contemplative silence can bring out all the doubts and struggles that we carry in these roles.

At the end of our time of silence, one of our Bethany colleagues led us in an exercise in which we spoke aloud the names of everyone involved. Not just one time, but all 14 of us said all 14 names in a slow and deliberate guided process. We also paused periodically to pray for the entire group and for each of our respective contexts. It was a simple act — nothing terribly groundbreaking or outside of typical faith-based practices — but it was profoundly moving. Coming out of our time of vulnerable silence, each of us felt valued and appreciated simply because our presence was acknowledged and spoken aloud. We all inherently knew this to be true, but it was in giving voice where we felt it the most.

It dawned on me in that space that all of us would benefit from that if it happened more often — and I don’t just mean campus ministers. All of us — regardless of our context or vocation — deserve to be appreciated verbally and publicly. We each carry our own struggles and challenges, and we do it in different ways. Community is what allows us to be affirmed of what we (hopefully) already know deep down inside — that we are valuable and an important part of the human experience, and that we belong.

Ben Wideman is campus minister for 3rd Way Collective, a Penn State student organization centered on creating spaces for peace, justice and faith. He is a member of Learning to Live: What’s Your Story?

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