By Jessica Davenport
Good morning. It’s wonderful to be with you all. I am Jessica Davenport, the campus minister/associate director of the Illinois State University Wesley Foundation.
I didn’t really grow up in the church. My dad grew up Catholic and my mother was Methodist. When we moved to a small town in northern Illinois, we sought out The United Methodist Church. And while we were members and attended occasionally, we encountered this church at a point that wasn’t its healthiest. And my parents were hurt, our whole family was hurt and this wasn’t the first wound from a church. So we backed away and growing up, I learned from our mail that churches are places that notice you aren’t there … when you stop tithing.
Obviously, I am here today so that’s not the end of my story. I went to Illinois State University and came to the Wesley Foundation my freshman year because of a boy. I stayed at the Wesley Foundation though, for so many reasons. My pastor at the time – now boss, friend and pastor – valued theological thought and conversation.
She was more interested in hearing what students had to say than what she wanted to say and she gave us space to be leaders and hear God’s call in our lives. I learned what it meant to be welcomed with love, to lead a life following Christ and to have that be such a predominant part of my life I could not help but share it with people.
In that kind of space, we could all learn what it meant to be real, authentic people who were desperately seeking after Christ. And my pastor know me.
Throughout my time at the Wesley Foundation, I felt that I was called to work for the church. So I told my pastor, and then I told her to never talk to me about it again. At which point in this story people scoffed and thought “no, I would have a conversation right there,” but like I said, my pastor know me well enough to know that I am stubborn and independent if I can’t accept this call I’m sensing from God, I’m not going to accept it from anyone else.
So I remained active in the ministry, graduated, got a job teaching and then realized I was called to ministry. So right now I am up at Garrett-Evangelical, slowly chipping away at my Master’s of Divinity while working at the Wesley Foundation as a lay person.
God called me and I know that, but I am not sure I would have realized it or responded if it weren’t for ISU Wesley, and friends that cared enough to push me in the direction to which God had been pointing all along.
At ISU Wesley, our mission is that of The United Methodist Church – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and our tagline is Committed to Christ and Community. And as staff there, I understand my job to be supporting students in those commitments and getting out of their way so they can fully live into them.
As a result, we spend a lot of time talking about our call – together and individually. We know God has given us gifts and unconditional love and we can respond by living into our call. Some folks go into vocational ministry. In the past eight years, we have had nine, and hundreds of others serve their call by being a teacher, nurse, accountant, or having a job that supports them, so they can fulfill their call outside of work.
But we know we’re all called. God doesn’t stop calling people. So how are we helping to foster those calls?
My role is helping students hear and live out this call, and strangely I’ve learned a lot from goldfish.
If you give a goldfish a good-sized tank, clean water and food, its body can adapt and grow and honestly, it becomes quite the fish. If the tank is small, the goldfish not fed well or the water isn’t clean, the goldfish will stay small. Its growth depends on its environment. And while the goldfish isn’t the most elegant comparison for humans, our growth also depends upon our environment.
I need to make sure that I’m not limiting people from growing into their call by making sure our environment is one where people can hear God. God is all around us, so how can we limit the distractions and create an environment where people have the space, opportunity and support to respond to God and grow into their call?
All of our student leaders affirm and live into this as well. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what people need to be committed to Christ and Community; what people need to be and make disciples to transform the world.
This year, at our retreat, the students indicated the first thing is hospitality. There are many people who come through our doors like me – unchurched or de-churched. What can we do to make sure everyone who comes through our doors to seek Christ is welcomed like Christ would want?
We have determined it often involves cupcakes or snickerdoodles. Pinterest has made the food both welcoming and exciting. It takes a lot of courage to walk across campus at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday. And when they arrive, a student coming up and talking to them, asking about their major, thanking them for coming, asking them if they have someone to sit by can make a huge difference. The students know that worship isn’t just about catching up with their friends or finding their “assigned” seat; it’s about God.
And there are students who don’t click with our ministry. But we certainly don’t want our lack of hospitality to get in the way of someone who is seeking God. And from that kind of hospitality, we can work on building an authentic community.
The next thing students pointed to was discipleship, learning Christian practice. When you have a lot of unchurch or de-churched folk, they might have only heard Scripture from a bullhorn evangelist being yelled at them on the quad. So we have to start with the basics: