The Wesley Foundation @ Washington State University
By Alissa Bertsch Johnson
When I started at WSU as a freshman in 1997, the Rev. Mark Randall was the Wesley Foundation campus minister. He had tracked me down before school started to invite me to come to their Monday night gatherings. Hard to believe it now, but back then, I was really shy and there was no way I was going to show up alone and be the “new” person. So despite his numerous attempts to get me to check out their programs or even come to Simpson UMC on a Sunday, I was reticent and provided a whole list of reasons why I couldn’t be there. After three months of trying without success, Mark gave it one last attempt.
He called me up out of the blue and asked if I might like to go on a mission trip to Mexico to help build homes for people living in the slums of Ciudad Juarez. It would only cost $300 and they had a spot open if I wanted to take it. I said “yes” without even thinking. Despite my painful shyness, I loved to travel and would never pass up an opportunity to go somewhere new. While I may have feared a sanctuary filled with strange faces, I fearlessly welcomed any opportunity to visit a foreign country!
And so I went and my life was changed forever. I made new friends, learned how to make a home out of cinder blocks, and saw first-hand the destructive nature of maquiadora’s on the citizens of Ciudad Juarez. I found a way of living out my faith that appealed to me and reignited my desire to be in relationship with God while seeking justice for others. When we got back to Pullman, I started showing up at Wesley Foundation gatherings where my mission trip friends were happy to welcome me.
Flash forward 15 years and I find myself as the Wesley Foundation campus minister at WSU facing the same challenge of trying every way possible to invite UM students and others into a relationship with God. I, of course, encourage students to enter into our ministry through the traditional entry points: Sunday worship, Bible Study, weekly gatherings, and retreats. But I’ve also taken Mark Randall’s idea of using the mission trips as a way to bring new people into a life of faith.
Now some campus ministers might balk at the idea of taking students unknown to them on a week-long mission trip and I can’t say that I haven’t had some moments of anxiety wondering if the teams will get along. But so far, taking new students has only turned out to be a blessing.
This past Spring Break, I took 12 students on a mission trip to the Portland, Ore. area. Of that 12, only three were from my group. We brought three from the Lutheran ministry at the University of Idaho, plus one University of Idaho student unaffiliated with a religious group, plus six more from Washington State University. We had team members from Cambodia, Honduras, South Korea and New Jersey. We even had a set of twins! Needless to say, they were a diverse group but once we made it to Vernonia, OR a game of “BUMP” was all they need to break the ice.
We once again partnered with Sierra Service Project, a UMC-affiliated service learning organization that defines its mission as: Repairing Homes, Strengthening Communities, Building Faith and Serving Others. We mission tripped with SSP last year so when I was looking for a PNW based trip for this year, I asked them to see what they could come up with! SSP had been approached by the rural town of Vernonia (45 minutes from Portland) about helping them develop a community garden to grow food for the local school (K-12) and the food bank. In 1996 and 2007, Vernonia faced two 500-year floods that damaged many homes and destroyed their school. They have since rebuilt the school but are still challenged by the high level of poverty and malnutrition in the area, particularly among school children. Our team spent 2.5 days learning how to use power tools to construct 15 planter boxes to be used to address this need.
We then moved on to Portland where we spent two days working at Dignity Village, a city sanctioned homeless community where residents can live in one of the 12×12 structures for up to two years at a time. Most of these simple structures are un-insulated so we split into teams and insulated three structures and hung some drywall in each.
While the students worked, they had the opportunity to meet and talk to the residents of Dignity Village. For several of them, it was the first time they had ever met a homeless person and it was an eye-opening experience. In the evenings during our reflection times, the students compared what they had assumed about the homeless with their personal interaction during the day. We discussed what our faith teaches us about caring for the homeless and what it means to be a Christian in an age where people have to sleep on the streets. By the end of the week, our eyes were opened to a need we had no idea existed and it was right in our backyard all along. The students came home with stories of new skills and new insights as well as a different perspective on what it means to have “enough”.
Now I know that most of the students that went on the trip aren’t likely to join the Wesley Foundation and start showing up to all our events. That’s honestly not my goal. Rather it’s my belief that inviting students to experience faith through mission might just be the entry point for their relationship with God. Planning mission trips take a lot of work, but seeing students working to help others while deepening their faith, makes it all worth it.
Alissa Bertsch Johnson serves as the Executive Director/Campus Pastor at the Wesley Foundation at Washington State University (Pullman, Wash.)
Briars in the Cotton Patch (D4307)
Building on Faith, Making Poverty Housing History (D4718)